In 1901, in early fall, somewhere in the North Cascades, just a few feverish years after Washington became a state, a stranger rode up into the thickly timbered foothills wearing a huge bearskin coat, and a dude’s derby, and a Swedish pistol, clutching wet reins tethered to a second horse struggling behind him.
“It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is just reaching for the sky to surrender.”
John McCabe did not travel up from Bearpaw to the rough-hewn mining town of Presbyterian Church to dig for zinc, no, he came with a red flannel Indian blanket, to be used for a table cloth, and a deck of well-worn playing cards, and a pocketful of cheap stogies, to fleece the populous, to skin back those hundred lonely men and relieve them of their cash and their old dreams.
He came softly like a shadow, a dream master selling a new tomorrow, a golden time where most of those rugged ragged mortals could come to him with greenbacks extended, desiring drunkenness, women and a dry place to play poker and roll bone dice.
McCabe took their money, a lot of it, and bought wagonloads of lumber and three sad whores; a big woman with tits like water melons, a wild one with a scar, like a birthmark on her face, and a young girl that looked innocent but who would turn out to be as unstable as an unbroken filly.
He put them up in dirty canvas tents, and he hired half the town to erect McCabe’s Palace, Emporium, Restaurant, and Social Club. He made it known that whatever these men desired, they could scratch their itch, get pissed as an Irish monkey, get their cookies, and gamble all night at his place.
Sheehan could see that this McCabe had the right stuff, and he begged him to partner up.
“We could own this town together and make sure no one else opens up a saloon without our permission, and us getting a cut,” the saloonkeeper postulated.
“Partners is one of those things I came up here to get away from,” McCabe mumbled, adding, “If a frog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass so much.”
Sheehan smiled and nodded without comprehension.
Mrs. Constance Miller, 5’2” with piercing blue eyes, a tiny waist and dishwater blond hair all teased up into a thousand ringlets; riding proud on a machinery crate, pulled up from below by a huge belching steam engine that could roll along on trails without tracks.
“Mr. McCabe, I’m a whore, a damned good one,” she said directly, “And if you let me I will run your whorehouse for you, get some quality girls up from Seattle, take care of all their feminine particulars, keep the town from getting clapped out, and split the profit 50/50.”
McCabe was stunned, but not stupid. He shook her tiny hand, and built her a bath house as directed, and a two-story bordello, as requested, and became filthy rich as anticipated; becoming the town’s first citizen, like a mayor if they had one; so that when he smiled, flashing that gold tooth, he had damned good reason.
“Like any dealer he was watching for the card that’s so high and wild, he’ll never need to deal another.”
So much we never knew, we never found out, like if McCabe actually killed Bill Longtree over a card game, or what the hell was Mrs. Miller’s story – why she still clung to her married name, why a woman that looked like her decided to embrace the world’s oldest profession, how she was introduced to and became addicted to the Chinese yardstick, the opium pipe, and why she refused to be Eemotionally involved with anyone, even McCabe, especially McCabe.
But John the Dude became much too successful and his good fortune was heralded by mule train, lonesome travelers, lumberjacks, miners, and farmers; McCabe was the one-eyed jack, and he counted his gold at night like a cranky troll, tired of begging for love and demanding respect, standing alone in his room mumbling, “If just one time you could be sweet without money to it.”
He was but a simple man, swirled up in events and emotions bigger than he was. He would have loved her, if love was what she needed. She moved in mystery, and even her glee seemed put on; only her sadness held water. He could not tell her the things he felt.
“I got poetry in me. I do. I don’t have the education to put it into fancy words, but I sure as hell feel it.”
One rainy day two well-dressed strangers came to town, Mr. Sears and Mr. Hollander, and they offered to buy out McCabe’s holdings for five thousand dollars. They were well heeled lackeys for a monstrous mining conglomerate, Harrison & Shanaughnessy, fat capitalists who ground up men like ore.
McCabe tried to play them, to negotiate for a bigger pay off, even though Constance had warned him, because in her travels she had seen their kind before, and she knew those men were not playing; they were naturally lethal, rabid, and ruthless.
At first impervious, John would not listen, and by the time her wisdom sunk in and he chased after the buyers, it was too late for deals and apologies, too late for a little guy to hang onto his big plans.
With hat in hand, McCabe went to a lawyer, who seemed to listen to his plight, but who did not understand the gravity of his critical situation.
“I just don’t want to get killed,” McCabe said simply.
The lawyer pontificated, and raved on about justice and politics and a senator ship, and McCabe found no help, no buffer from the shit storm that was brewing just over the hill, too soon, too soon. Too soon came the day at twilight when the three ruffians rode into town; one was a giant in a white buffalo coat carrying a Sharps, wearing a flat black hat with small silver Conchos in the leather brim, calling himself Dog Butler; one was an Indian, at least part, who never smiled, carrying Death in his dark eyes; one was a disturbed cherub, blond locks chopped square under his European Dutch Boy hat, with a large Navy Colt strapped low on his young hip, and madness oozing from every pore.
McCabe marched over to Sheehan’s, cigars in hand, gold tooth sparkling, this time ready to negotiate, to accommodate; but Dog Butler was rude and had a mouth full of white teeth big as a horse’s beneath his shaggy moustache, and he looked McCabe right in the eye and said,
“I don’t make deals.”
McCabe gathering up his cigars, stammered and mumbled, and beat a hasty retreat. Butler turned to Sheehan saying,
“That man never killed anyone.”
These men were manhunters and guys like McCabe were always their prey, three on one, like a wolf pack. Later that night, bored and drunken the feral Dutch Boy practiced his quick draw 0n shadow figures, until a toothpick of a cowboy in a ten gallon hat, with big holes in his wool socks from shuffling all day over new boards in McCabe’s cathouse, found himself on that bridge over to Sheehan’s, facing the crazy-eyed punk.
“Show me your gun, or I’ll shoot it off your hip,” the pink-cheeked gunslinger whined.
Reluctantly, the cowboy reached for his tired old pistol, that he never could hit the side of a barn with, and suddenly saw two puffs of white smoke as the kid’s Colt bucked two burning bullets into his bony chest. Over the knee-high ropes he went, crashing hard down onto the ice over the creek beneath, staying alive just long enough to wonder why no one did anything, or said anything to help.
They all had stood mute, watching with only a casual interest, like the kid had only shot a varmint or a coyote. The cowboy sunk slowly into the icy water with big chunks of ice breaking up all around his lanky frame. Who knows who finally dragged him out? Maybe no one did, but for sure someone claimed his horse and kit. Life seemed cheap here and monumental sadness formed deep lines on every face.
McCabe went to Constance, who was giddy on poppy smoke, and he looked for the love that would never appear Aas he peeled off the bucks that assured him space alongside her beautiful face, and the momentary illusion of sanctuary within the warmth of her bed.
Morning came dark and overcast, and he woke up alone as snow blanketed the urban landscape and filled the chilled air like frozen dandelion fleece, falling without sound, yet carrying the weight of behemoths as it piled upon itself in deep drifts, beautiful and dangerous in its whiteness.
She had already found a pipe to suck, and her fear for his safety if it had ever really existed, were now only will-o-the-wisps, blowing lightly into the dark timber, no longer carried in her glassed over eyes as she found her safe inner room again.
McCabe darted like a woodchuck from cabin to shed, wearing his black canvas slicker a damp derby and his Swedish pistol, and carrying a shotgun. He made it to the church and ducked inside, only to be confronted by the crazy preacher, denying him shelter, picking up Pudgy’s shotgun and pointing it at him, pushing him back outside, knee deep in fresh wet snow, alone, with only a handgun.
Butler tracked him to the church, kicked in the front door and blasted the first thing that moved, which happened to be the preacher, who broke a lantern Aas he spun broken to the puncheon floor; Aand now the church was ablaze, the shepherd was slain and God was not amused.
Pudgy dodged in and around the tar and tin, naked lumber, and zinc ore hillocks, and stopped breathlessly cowering in the bath house; just as the kid entered with Colt drawn. McCabe slammed two slugs into his young back, ut the Dutch Boy was snake-quick and he snapped off a shot that nailed John in the gut; the first nail of what would become the lid on the rest of his life.
“He was just a Joseph looking for a manger.”
He found his way to a tool shed, and the Breed passed by a window Aas McCabe’s missles found asylum in his leather-fringed back. Hell, back-shooting was not disgraceful or unmanly— it was necessary.
But the Dog leveled his Sharps Aand brought McCabe down at 150 yards. Butler trudged his way through the powder to finish off the fool.
McCabe lay prostrate on his back, and as the Dog bent over him, he shot Butler in the face with the lethal derringer that had killed Bill Longtree, or so it was said.
And then our rambling tale produced three endings, although death only kissed one on the mouth.
The miners put out the church fire, and in an odd way, produced a new beginning, a sense of community; saving a church that no one had ever attended, now just a building full of char, sans minister, sans hosannas.
Constance lies prone on a slab in Chinatown, puffing on her opium pipe and staring serenely at a small ceramic pot shaped like a golden egg—her tiny smile revealed that she knew the way of things, Aand still shed no tears.
McCabe was mortally wounded, after dispatching the killers three, and he did not have the stamina left to propel himself to safety inside a building, to a fire and freedom. No, he went to his knees and the merciless snow buried him up to his shoulders and then his neck, as the wind piled ice crystals onto his blue lips and closed clenched eyes.
He was so cold that he couldn’t stop shivering, until he wasn’t cold anymore, and he thought he could see a dark figure coming for him, calling his name.
Glenn A. Buttkus 2006