“..the American continents, by the free and independent position which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any powers.We should consider any attempt as dangerous to our peace and safety as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United Slates.”
Declaration by President Monroe to Congress, 2nd December 1823: “The Monroe Doctrine”.
‘This much we know,’ Allan Pinkerton said. ‘Paul Nemo came through West Virginia, on the National Road, and caught a steam ship from Wheeling, up the Ohio river; running from the sleepless eye. He’d decided to have no more to do with the ‘pinks’ not since they took to heaving dynamite at women and children.’
He hushed his outraged subordinates, ‘His words not mine, gentlemen. We have to understand the man’s motives, wrongheaded as they may seem. I was anxious to talk further with him, and to retain if possible his unique services - men with photographic memories are had to find and useful in our line of work - and I confess I deputised men to bring him back, peacible like. A mistake, as it happens.’
The head of the Pinkerton Agency, unfolded a tattered manuscript. ‘I’ll let him fill in the rest in his own words, gentlemen. This letter to his father, came into my posession two days ago. His father having passed away in the latter part of last year, there was no one else to deliver it to, and the author’s vituperations concerning myself in the letter’s opening paragraphs drew the attention of a particularly venal and untrustworthy postal worker. I regard the fee for its retrieval as money well spent. The letter was written four months ago, and seemingly passed through divers hands in its route back east. As you will hear, this is worrying for several reasons, not least that it implies we are in no position to offer an immediate response to its import. If we’re lucky, matters have resolved themselves. If not,’ he shrugged, and shook the letter roughly, as if to fling the spidery hand writing off of it.
I reckon that old slaver Pinkerton wasn’t keen to see me free so easily, the men at my heels were his. I’d been a boon to his work with my freak memory. One time I’d known every desperado’s face as well as I knew every popular song. I’ve got that kink in my memory, that lets stuff run in and then goes hard and yella as amber. You know that Dad, but then neither of us could ever forget an old score, musical or otherwise.
There were three men at least, dressed all in black. Allan Pinkerton must have had the sixth sense, that the papers credit him with, working hard, for they harried me close. Perhaps he was worried I’d go to the Herald or the Courier with tales from the Monroe file. Tales of the things the Pinkerton’s hired-bulls had done to keep the US safe from various European powers.
I’d worked for the old shamus, on the Federal Government’s toughest cases, the ones that had grown men weeping in the corner, at the inhumanity of man; of man, and of other things - and I’m guessing that he felt that some of those cases might reflect badly on the agency. Not that I had anyone to tell them to, or any intent to tell them. I couldn’t see the newspapers publishing half of it, and besides I wasn’t proud of most of it - although it had always been necessary work. So I opted to loose myself instead, to go, finally, as I had always intended, West. You always said it would come to that.
I reckon I lost the ‘All-seeing’ agents on the river. I thought I’d seen one of them - a famous man himself - fresh from his failure to bring in the James Gang, throw his cigar in the wharf-water in disgust as the boat pulled out. His rat-like face with its bushy side whiskers, was built for sneering. He’d have shaken his fist after me if he’d dared - I guessed - but was fearful that I might have plugged him then and there. I was always a prize shot, and though up ’til then I’d never shot a living man, a claim I guess I can still make just barely, he’d no notion - I’d guess - that a man might be a deadshot and keep his bullets really, solely, for the dead.
He had a price on his head from Jesse for his part in the death of Zerelda James, so I’d heard it (I’d heard too that Jesse had vowed the death of Allan Pinkerton himself in retaliation, but knowing Allan I judged nothing would come of that). I’d been almost been tempted to my hand at claiming bounty then and there - but for the obvious difficulties in collecting from Jesse James, and the necessity of dragging the ‘pinks’ corpse over to Missouri. Besides I was enjoying the steamship ride too much to kill, and it would have alarmed the ladies aboard. Turning West then, like so many men in search of a dream, I lost myself - perhaps a trifle more deliberately than most.
Now, I am lost in more ways than that. Not physically, the map I enclose will tell you where these events took place exactly: you’ll see why later, maybe, if this reaches you in time. But for all it matters to the telling of it, it was simply further West, where the West was still a livin’ breathin’ emptiness to be grasped like wrestling with clouds. I write not because there is any hope for me, still less in hope of any forgiveness or reconciliation between us, but because I know that it will be you smug stay at homes in the east, who will be called upon to face the things I have seen, and to go into the great beyond, alive, as I did.
I had joined a wagon-train, goin’ on to a settlement name of “Judgement” - a staging post on a dusty, homesteading trail. Maybe someday, a road will roll on that far, or trains drive across the continent, or maybe not. I guess, just now I doubt it. From there I’d intended to strike out alone, but not long after my arrival it transpired that this would be difficult if not impossible.
It was noon on the 14th April, that by my reckonin’ the West died. At least the bit I’d reached. The bit I lied to myself that I knew, and understood.
Beyond Judgement, in the badlands a ghost town had sprung up, overnight. Across the salt flats, the lights and sounds of the undead saloon flashed and tinkled like a music box on a dead whore’s dressing table.
Honest men - living men - the few ranchers and cattle-boys untainted by the devil’s spore, by the ghost-lights that lit through flesh and bone, were packing their saddlebags daily and lacing their boots for the trek back east. Somehow the deaths spent to gain the West didn’t seem like a needful sacrifice when the unlucky dead were rolling bones for cold cash and fire-water a dozen miles away. Squalling children and women-folk were planning a retreat. Me I only wondered what horrors might lie back east. We’d heard nothing for months, and the aurora lights on the horizon burned eastward as well as to the West. Did Allan’s sixth sense make him sleep uneasily, at the thought of thieves stealing the very world from under his gaze? Did you set aside the railroad and banking profits that so shield your heart, I wonder? Where there any signs and wonders where you were? Or where they only found West, beyond Judgement?
The preacher, Thomas Kirkbright by name, had blamed the Indians. A curse, he’d said: a curse that had ripped the dead out of the ground, and back out of the throats and bellies of the buzzards. He said they’d torn down their tribal totems and made allegiance with Satan Himself direct, to burn the white men out of their lands.
Me, I couldn’t see it. Not so cleanly, or dirty neither, as that. Oh, Sam Woo - the chinese cook from the single hotel in Judgement, empty now since the few travellers staying there had caught sight and sounds of the gamblin’ dead - said he’d seen Indian’s in fancy clothes, high feathered, and bearing rattle-sticks. Priests like, casting a green powder on the hills, and calling out. Not that his heathen tongue had made any sense of the sounds though I’d worked them out best as I could, coaxing each syllable from him with whiskey. It was on the hills that the dead had walked first, but by all accounts - and not just those of a chink cook - they had been Injun dead : braves and squaws, born back from the earth in green-fire and a smell like rottin’ molasses.
That might have made sense. War-parties of the dead, sweeping East, driving the white man into the sea. I’d have seen some gain in that for the red man. But, rousing the spooks of the dead invaders to whoop and splutter their souls away, in the jerry-rigged shacks of an abandoned town, that was just plain wrong. Not, needful no how, Ma would have said, and being ‘not needful’ was the worse crime to her. You know that. I took some more soundings of the folk around, afore I girded my gun-belt to what I saw coming.
Tom Kirkbright, folks called him Preacher, on account as he wouldn’t shut up about the good book - though I’ve always guessed that the truth’s to be found in more books than one - waved his bone-thin hands, and beat his black clad chest and wailed me out lines from Revelation. He was at a guess a kind of Quaker, though the others in these parts had turned their backs on him, for what reasons I could never quite define. Miss Rebecca, whose school house was now deserted - well never mind what she said. Nothing can come of it now, and you’d never have welcomed a school teacher to the family anyway. Let it go at this, what she said made me clear in my own mind that if nothing was done - if that stain on the earth was left to grow and spread and draw in the dead of all the Indian wars, and of the Wars of Independence, then there would be no West in time, and no east neither, but only a seething mass of putrefaction from sea to shining sea.
You insulted me once, father. Naturally I never forgot your words: you said my longing for the West and the life of a cowboy, was the weak romantic strain coming out. That it took more iron in the soul to work day in and day out in a refinery or at an office stool, than it did riding on mule back - two donkeys together, you said - with no man to face under an open sky. Maybe so. I put off going West for so long, I took other work. I even hunted outlaws for the Pinkertons. That is I kept their wanted posters in my mind. There was no iron in me, not at first. I put it there gradual like, day by day, under the open sky. But, I think riding beyond Judgement, into that dead township, took more gall than asking you for a raise ever did.
What lies beyond Judgement? Well rock at first and dust, and a trail half overgrown with neglect as if even the Western urge had faltered there against some unseen ban. But, I reckon’ that beyond Judgement, is what we all deserve, father. Deserve rather than desire, for I hope still for a more merciful God. But beyond Judgement is only Hell, and I rode for it hard, across the burning dust. Dust-devils and sparks struck by my horse’s hooves, rose up around me like a sea-mist.
I rode into Hell at noon. What can I say, there was the whole tradition of the noon shoot out as its told in the dime-novels back East - although its most likely as the shootin’ out West gets done as much by night, by ambush, or when all parties are drunk - and there was the hope, faint though it was, that the noon sun would have laid the ghost and goblins low. I’d tied a buryin’ spade to my saddle bow in case I’d find a town of bones. I did, at that, but not still ones. Never still. The town was a-clatter with skeletons: six guns hanging low from bone white hips banged like gongs against thigh bones. Bone matrons pushed bone babies in permabulators of sooty black, around the white bleached wooden sidewalks: in the saloon the gamblers of the night had drilled holes in their own knuckle bones and set them spinning. It took me a second or two to see the holes made numbers, and the knuckle bones made dice.
The sound of music had drifted out as I strode into the bar; and at the piano a skeleton, ivory on ivories, was playing, a song I remembered from my childhood.
‘While we seek mirth and beauty
And music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent,
Their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.’
The skeleton behind the bar, cocked his bone-white head on one side and the vertibra in his neck bulged and contorted.
‘Drink, Stranger?’ He demanded; his voice like a vetriloquist’s doll, no soft palate, and no tongue, remaining. One of the gamblers yawned elaborately and something darted out from his non-existant lips. Not a tongue though, only a lizard sitting in the dead man’s mouth, and catching flies. One, escaping, buzzed past me, and I swatted at it, catching it a glancing blow with my gun-hand. It was dry and dead as dust. This was Beelzebub’s Town, were even the flies were dead.
I decided to see it through.
‘What have you got?’
He tipped up a bottle, and a pale white sand shot through with flecks of colors I can’t rightly name, spilled into a glass scoured by the constant drinking of the dead. Flecks red as blood, flecks lurid with green sickness, swirled in sand pale as leprosy. ‘I can’t drink, that.’ I said, stating the simple fact, keeping one hand on my gun, ready to slip the fastening of the hoster. More than one cowboy’s been killed refusing a drink, even among the living. ‘Not yet,’ he said. ‘You haven’t felt that thirst, yet.’
‘Maybe the boy’d like some other entertainment.’ That was one of the painted skeletons on the stairs, drapes loose over the bone framework of lost pleasures. All hips and emptinesses, yawning. A shiver crawled up my spine, slow as anguish. I remembered biting down on leather once when a bullet from a misfired gun was cut from my thigh. They say the body does not remember pain. I do. I remember it as I remember everything else: perfectly, repeatedly, at night.
The bar-tender whipped his head around and something rattled inside his skull, like dice. I thought of two shrunken and ossified eyes a rolling, and felt my breakfast rise in my throat.
‘He ain’t felt that thirst yet, either ladies,’ the bar-keep said, ’still he can sit a spell if he keeps himself presentable, and does no damage. Ain’t no law gainst that.’
‘When he rouses himself,’ the bone whore said, ’see that he’s mine.’
I wondered then if I ought to keep a bullet for myself.
A tall skeleton in grey that had been watching the fall of the knuckle bones, stretched itself upright from its observer’s crouch. I could have sworn it were nigh eight feet tall. It had two crossed gun belts over a fancy gamber’s waist-coat that was all worms and gold-braid, and a black hat like the devil’s own halo, above its empty bleached face.
Something about the skull beneath that hat, looked less human than the rest. Not the sub-human skull of a brute, not less capacious, but other, grown to house a brain not whole that of normal men. His voice was like sand-paper on iron. I can hear it now. ‘I don’t take to his kind, riding in here like they own it. This is our town, our deaths built it, our souls raised it, it’s ours.’
‘I thought the indians did that,’ I said off-handed like, and I knew from the way the rattling and the rolling of the dice fell silent with a sudden lock-down snap of the manacles fixin’ on a malfactor’s hands, that I’d said the wrong thing, or the right one since I’d not come that way beyond Judgement to socialise or to bed down with bones.
‘The Indians!’ he said it like a cuss word, like many a man does who’s never seen a prairie. ‘What do they know of the old lore. It’s not a thing of the new world, but of the old, older than their forefather’s, old since the first men crouched in caves and wrote the words in red ochre on the walls for those who came after to fathom if they had a mind. When their ancestors fled West in fear of the dark, it was the dark that told its secrets to my kin. We did not flee.’
‘Leave it,’ the gambler with the lizard for a tongue offered, ‘he’s been here too long already. He’ll be et up before he can ride a mile back. He’s a dead man walking, Johnny, like they all will be. We’ll be the kings of the dead Johnny like you promised, when the dust blows West and east. No skinny runt of a boy in faded chaps can bring down the men death couldn’t keep down, no matter how high they hung.’
A grey sleeve cut a diagonal in the air and a gun, black with grave soil and red with rust, still coughed its old grave-yard cough. The gambler’s bone head shattered before its fury, and the bloody body of the lizard fell across the card tables.
The bar-tender reached below the bar, and a wicked little derringer, polished like the eye of a cat, peered from the folds of his polishin’ cloth. There was a murmer of tongueless voices, and while I couldn’t tell which of the restless dead first gave vent to the sentiment, I could tell it was in all their minds. ‘We thought we couldn’t die, again. He didn’t tell us we could die again. Not again.’
I thought of a renegade I’d heard of while I was with the Pinkertons. A man who’d cheated death across Europe only to come at last to a land larger, rawer, and more fatal than the salons of the mighty, and yet a man who’d still claimed he could never die. ‘Not while the wind stirs the old dust, not while the dust whispers to the magic men, and the damned alike.’
His name had been Johnny Carcosa, and he had been hung two years before, a hundred miles or more from here, and his body burned and the ashes scattered. No one would give it Christian burial, not after the things they’d found in his two black leather saddle bags.
Had his dust blown West, stirring the dreams of shamans and of outlaws? Teaching strange words that might raise up the dead, bringing a death that was staining the earth its evil and unearthly colors? I didn’t know then, and I hope not to know now, although I fear I may before too long.
In the end though - pray God it was the end - it was resolved by violence. I went for my six-irons and so did he. He shot me in the left shoulder. The bullet I later discovered was a piece of bone, and in a way I owe my life (such as it remains) to that fact, for the bullet was already disintegrating as it reached me, like wooden bullets from a trick shooter’s gun will before they reach the target. My first bullet, of good melted lead, dum-dummed with a cross, shattered his jaw and stilled his dreadful voice.
Maybe if he hadn’t killed the gambler, the others would have risen up and pinned me down, held me while he glared hatred from eyes poised above ruin, and throttled me.
But as it was, they parted like Moses’ sea, and left me a clear second shot. It stove in his rib-cage, and I swear, that in the boney prison of his chest, a red and wizened thing beat on, pumping invisible blood to invisible and intangible flesh. He raised his gun again, and his bone fingers tightened at the trigger. Mindful that the minor wound I’d taken might be easily worsened, I raised my own piece, and muttered not the benedictions of my childhood, but what I hoped was the descending version of the charm Sam Woo had heard the Indians make upon the hillsides. The charm that had come to them out of the old, old, east.
Saying it in reverse, forcing the words backwards, was like chewing on glass. Like doing something wrong, something against nature. I lost a tooth mid way through, it just dropped from my jaw, and I started to bleed at the nostrils. The metal scent of blood goaded me, but I spoke on. Later, back in Judgement, I’d see in Miss Rebecca’s mirror that my eyes were bloodshot with crazy, red trails. Still I hung on. If the West is anything, anything good, it’s the chance not to take the old evils Westward. What evil from the old world deserves to stain the new? I guess Monroe was right at that.
Ripped apart by winds that sprung from no source, a dust cloud in the shape of a man, Johnny Carcosa died finally, too easily. Too easily for me to think this thing over.
When he died, the ghost town faded and vanished like a mirage. But, even though the town of Judgement stands, most having stayed - even though I will entrust this letter to one of those too cowardly to remain - I can not yet conclude that all is safe. I can not let the nursing of Rebecca, turn me from the final necessity.
I know the chant. So too does Sam Woo. I’m sorry for old Sam - who may indeed no longer remember the words he told me. I don’t think I can take that risk. I can make that look like a drunken accident; hell maybe he’ll even have one before I’m well enough to arrange it. I hope so. I’d hate to have to start killing living men with him.
Then the Indians. It won’t take much to stir the folk here to hunt them down: most still reckon this was their doin’ - and after a fashion it was - although what whispered to them in the night spoke I have no doubt of bringing back their own loved dead, not of raising a grave- worm township under an evil prince. Then the last. I know the chant too, and I can’t kid myself I’ll ever forget it. It’s made of words that live in the old memories in the blood out of the ancient past, and I who remember everything, every song and every peace of doggeral and every pain, can not be brought to forgetfulness short of the blackness of eternity.
Carcosa was right about that at least, and hard as it was to say it in the descending mode, it would be easy to mutter it in my sleep the other way. The way it wants to be said.
If I say it, the gateway to beyond will be opened again, the dust that should lie still til God’s own Judgement day will stir, and the bone face of Johnny Carcosa will leer across a West which will be stained forever by crimes out of prehistory. I don’t think he’d have stayed a skeleton, you see. I think his evil heart would have built him a new body in time, a new lean body, spare and strong, built from the ground and the men poisoned with the evil colors of that strange dust.
So when I’ve killed Sam, and when I’ve killed the Indians. When I’ve stained my hands red with blood more innocent than mine, it will be my turn to die, assuming that the whispering isn’t too strong for me by then.
That’s where you come in father. You and that bastard Pinkerton. You need to raise a gang of men and ride to Judgement, and if you find anything of me but Rebecca weeping at my grave, you need to destroy it root and branch. For if I greet you with fond words and open hands, the country will have those hands at its throat hereafter, for his voice like sandpaper on iron is always in my ears, and I do not know how long it will be before I speak the words.
Simon BJ [18th May 2009 post. Story originally intended for "Tales of The Outre West" anthology that was never published.]