Dust had spread over the shanty like its children across the continent. A spurned bridal veil tossed to the altar, it settled in eddies over bone-colored cedar left to the weather. Boots without men, dry and cracked in their skin, nested mice in the corner. A sawdust palliasse huddled next to a wood stove with a wind-rattled stack looking like a shriveled kidney holstered to a rheumatoid spine. Leaves brown and brittle long fled from their makers left emaciated sentries too thin to stand against the snow that would soon slip unwanted through the threshold. Even now the chill pushed the fallen and departed laurels of autumn hobbling to the hot stove.
“You won’t come with me?”
“No, Hosea, I ain’t.”
“I’ll be back then, God willing.”
“They ain’t no God in the west.”
Not a full night later he rode out under a gray dawn on a young jack. Furious flakes blew in like bloated dog ticks. Their kin plucked from the lakes to the north followed in white bands that could have been the folds in the chiffon peignoir of a great strumpet sitting upon the waters. Hosea escaped her long embrace, but it covered his trail and wrapped the shanty of his brother in her arms.
The winter was soft and snowy when he saw the tall-lunged factories of Pittsburgh. They sketched in the sky like charcoal sticks in the hands of a maiden white in her wedding gown. He baptized an asthmatic breaker boy who shivered back to the banks blinking away coal dust washing down in dirty streams. He boarded a paddle wheeler where the Allegheny knew the Mon to beget the Ohio. He rode it to the Mississippi where he took the Muddy Belle to the Arkansas and a steamer captain named Diblaim carried him up into the west and tried to buy his jack when they docked in Indian Country out in Oklahoma.
Freezing drizzle clung in clear wrinkles to the trees and barns up in Winfield. The jack ate from the manger and Hosea lay in the hay listening to the ice amputate limbs like a cruel Kansas surgeon making eunuchs of the cottonwoods. He rode out to Dodge into a northwest wind that chapped his face like the icy breath of bellows feeding an undying fire. Another stranger’s stable kept him from the night and he brushed away the grainy dust from his hair and rode his jack into Dodge under a cold day’s dawn.
Golden strips of clouds hung over the sun like copper tubes over a flame-kissed whiskey still. Steam-trumpet cries railroaded the empty Sunday morning and a woman with a cigar in sweat-stained satin roared from the Dry Creek Saloon with her prey. Kodiak hands flung down naked bones by the hair, broke an opium pipe across her jaw, and kicked a hole in her head with a Colt.
The woman bent down and crushed out her cigar on the dead pubescent cheek. She looked up at the man on his jack and she had the grizzly shadow of a post-menopausal moustache. “A body’s gotta keep clean.”
“Your leg’s wet.”
Hosea found a stall for his jack at the livery and a room for himself next door. From his window he could see ten-thousand fallen prairie angels stacked to be shipped from the buffalo hide yard and he watched the train masters come to town passing through the night like priests of Aphrodite with their consecrated red caboose lanterns. One of the celebrants studied with Hosea after his wife left with his sons, but he never could quit dancing in the fairy ring of warts that had sprung up under his handlebars like little grassy hills on a lonely rainy plain.
Late one April evening when the Full Pink Moon had risen like a pale cherry pearl and the wildflowers had begun to wake in the pent-up loins of spring, a blooming girl in auburn curls brought Hosea his supper. She smiled like a child with the eyes of a lady, kind and soft like the gentle wash of a watercolor amid the heavy-brushed acrylics. She wore lace with a whisper of perfume and she blushed in the doorway of his room with her offering.
“Courtesy of the Madam.”
“I didn’t order of the Madam.”
“She wants to know if you think you’re too good for her.”
“I greet her every time I see her.”
“You never come to the Dry Creek.”
“That’s because she has big hands.”
She laughed. “My name’s Jenny.”
“You ever eat buffalo tongue?”
“Not on purpose.”
“The Madam never skins it, but if you peel it, you’ll like it. I promise.”
Not long after not finishing the peeled tongue, Hosea rode his jack out to the deep creek where he made his baptistery just off the sand bar. He sat alone on the rocks like an overseer outside of Potiphar’s by the Nile. He talked to his jack as the donkey drank in the face of the full rippling moon and he mused on what nymphs and sirens must have been perched amid the rocky beds of the Dry Creek.
When the rains came the men laid boards in the streets between the saloons. Their feet felt cold in the wet leather wearing mud and they warmed themselves with fast prancing pianos and laughing young girls worn like buffalo bladders dried into whiskey jugs. King Charles of the hearts scaled a bluff of notes and coins to slay young Lancelot, that knave of clubs and thief of kingdoms, then men stood accused before quick-trigger judgments and Hosea almost always started from his pillow when their ivory-grip gavels fell. Yet he woke and walked every morning and the Madam was awake then too.
“Back to town already?”
“I got an early start today.”
“I keep thinkin’ I’m gonna see you with Jenny some mornin’.”
“She’s joined me before. There’s a dole of doves we like to watch down by the creek.”
“But not lately.”
“Soiled doves don’t get up that early do they.”
The midsummer song of cicadas called forth their mates and descended dancing on the town like Dionysian maenads glistening wet in the light of the moon. Jenny and Hosea and his jack walked in the lush pastures at dusk and talked of David the King and Samson the Judge and Balaam that scourge of jennies and sower of harlots. In the cool October afternoons they sat under a Jonathan tree and watched the jack graze on grass and apples like a peaceful pack animal retired to his rest.
It was late one cold November night while Jenny bemoaned beneath the blankets and Hosea dreamt within his fleece that between them in the street a well-liquored Winchester cut up its meat no better than a butcher’s knife gone dull. Jenny played enraptured with her work and Hosea hurried out to the aching braying bleeding in the dirt. His donkey was staggering – shot in the gut and the neck and a man whipped the jack in the head with his gun before Hosea tackled him and threw away the Winchester.
“That’s my donkey!”
“It ain’t – ain’t no more.”
“Oh no… Oh no no no.” The donkey slumped to his forelegs and Hosea saw in the street the man he had seen over Scripture. “Wh– why? Why’d you do this – why?”
“‘Cause he was cheatin’. Ain’t no way he coulda had another six – ain’t no way.” The donkey was braying, trying to get to his feet. “An’ ain’t no way he was gettin’ that jack either – ain’t no way.”
Hosea was crying.
The Madam came and shot the jack in the head. “Let’s go back inside. Better luck next hand.”
“But I ain’t – I ain’t got no more left to bet.”
“You bet the jack, didn’t you? Now come on. There’s always somethin’ left to bet.”
“But he’s cheatin’. He’s cheatin’ me.”
“I ain’t gonna let him cheat you into leavin’.”
“Come on. Jus’ stay with me an’ you’ll be alright. Come on now. That’s it. Let’s go have ourselves another hand.”
That night a hard freeze sculpted countless ice sarcophagi over every blade of grass. Jenny crunched the dead under boot as she carried a shovel outside of town and met Hosea in the dawn. Neither had slept. A procession of ice pellets passed on the north wind and they dug the cold ground like forgotten miners in a broken shaft. The ice turned to rain and then to freezing rain in the afternoon and evening and they walked back to Hosea’s room and he carried Jenny’s shovel and held her hand.
“I’m leaving on the morning train.”
“You can’t give up.”
“I’ve planted and watered. Now God must give the increase.” He reached for her hand. “I want you to come with me.”
She nodded, tearing up.
“We’ll look for your father. We’ll see if he’s still a captain.”
“He’ll die a paddle wheeler.”
“We’ll find him.”
“I want to bring my sister.”
“The Madam tells them we’re sisters.”
“She’ll try to stop you.”
“There’s always a way of escape.”
“I’ll help you.”
“We’ll meet you at the station.” She wiped her eyes and kissed him and stood to leave. “I may be alone or late, but I’ll be there.”
Hosea waited alone in the dark near the platform. Men loaded smoked buffalo tongues into train cars and red caboose lanterns bobbed out of Dodge like hungover fireflies swaying out of season. The stoker stood ready near his great coal mountain like a bargeman in the headwaters to a blistering hot lake and still Hosea turned not to the train. Out of sight below the horizon the dawn began to overthrow the night. The hour waxed late and the steam trumpet sounded in a twinkling – but it called like the herald of a distant shadow with what could have been blood and baggage making its approach for the morning train.