An Excerpt From Killstraight
They hanged Jimmy Comes Last forty minutes after Daniel Killstraight arrived in Fort Smith.
He came in from St. Louis on the old St. Louis & San Francisco line - The Frisco, folks called it - getting off at the depot on Garrison Avenue with nothing but a gaudy carpetbag, practically empty, and a stomach, equally barren. Daniel couldn’t believe how big the city had grown in, what had it been, seven years? Not that it compared to the cities he had seen back east, nor had he ever spent much time in Arkansas before leaving for Pennsylvania. Maybe he had thought Fort Smith would have reminded him of home, but smoke from the steamboats and factories along the big river stung his eyes, and the noise ... his head split from all the shouts.
Adjusting his ill-fitting bowler, he suddenly staggered back in shock, confusion, even a touch of fear, when a stranger spit in his face.
“Take money from my chil’ren, you damned greaser!” a red-mustached man wearing a sweat-stained bandana roared in an Irish brogue. Daniel stepped back as the man lifted a baseball bat and started to swing. Luckily, the man never finished. Appearing out of nowhere, a city policeman struck Red Mustache from behind with a night stick, and the bat rattled on the cobblestones as the man dropped to his hands and knees. Passersby hurried on. Few even stopped to glance at the ruction.
“Seamus O’Donnell, you bloody fool,” the policeman said, his brogue equally thick. “Striking’s bad enough, now you want to be hanged by Judge Parker, too!” The officer shoved the club in his belt and pulled groggy Red Mustache to his feet, then snapped at Daniel. “Away with you, lad. Frisco Depot’s no place to be.”
When Daniel hesitated, the policeman roared, “Scat! I have no damned use for a scab, either!”
Scab? Daniel wanted to tell them both he had been a passenger. Strike? No wonder he had the rocking, dirty Frisco car to himself. He said nothing, though, merely pulled on his bowler and hurried down Garrison Avenue, away from the depot, weaving in and out of the throng, still hungry, but at least Red Mustache had scared away his headache.
He wandered the crowded streets, up and down the hills, over the cobblestone and boardwalks, until his feet hurt, walking aimlessly, hopelessly, still amazed at the number of people. Vendors hawked their wares. Men lounged outside grog shops and mercantiles, smoking cigars, cigarettes, pipes. Hansom cabs drawn by big draft horses clopped and clanked over stones and gravel. Ladies in fashionable dresses walked past him, never daring make eye contact. What was it the conductor had told him? Well, not really told him, but Daniel had heard it in passing. Fort Smith had better than 17,000 souls now. Seemed like twice that many.
He had considered spending the night in town - he could never sleep well on trains, and he had been riding the rails since Pittsburgh. Not that he could afford a decent hotel. Or any hotel. Likely, he would wind up spending the night in some wagon yard, if they’d have him. Buy a horse - although the idea of stealing one made him smile - and rig and head west, cross the Arkansas by ferry into Indian Territory. Go home.
If he could call it home.
If he had ever had a home.
The smell of fresh-baked bread and sizzling ham stopped him, and he looked into the window, stepped back, read the sign over the door.
Well, he certainly couldn’t afford a room here, and doubted if he could buy a meal as he’d need all the money he had just to get that horse and rig. The ferry wasn’t free, either, and he couldn’t swim. Besides, the look he got from one diner staring out the window told him they wouldn’t serve him in a place like the Hotel Main.
He kept walking, managing only a few steps before a man in a sack suit staggered out of the hotel’s saloon and clapped a huge hand on his shoulder.
“Howdy,” he said in a Texas drawl. “Come for the hangin’?”
Daniel turned timidly. Timid? Had those seven years made him a coward? He frowned.
“Don’t let folks in no more,” the man said. He had brilliant blue eyes, beard stubble of two or three days, plaid trousers legs stuck inside tall brown boots with a green Cross of Lorraine inlaid in the tops, and large-rowel spurs. A battered hat, maybe gray, perhaps dust-caked white, topped his head, an outfit of contradictions. Part businessman with his suit, part drover with those boots and hat. His breath stank of whiskey.
“Folks here got citified,” the man said, slurring his words. “Used to let anyone come see a body get his neck stretched, but not since -” He jerked his thumb toward the saloon. “Well, the gents in yonder told me since ’Seventy-eight? Or was it ’Seventy-nine? No matter. It’s your lucky day.” He winked. “I got us a pass. Don’t mind sharin’. I’d enjoy the comp’ny.”
Daniel started to decline the invitation, but glanced across the street to find Red Mustache glaring at him. Daniel’s drunken newfound friend had three inches over The Frisco striker, even without his boots, and a half foot over Daniel, so he let himself be steered down Garrison Avenue, leaving Red Mustache glowering, and rubbing the back of his head.
“Name’s Henry,” the stranger said a block later. “Cotton Henry. But if one of ’em marshals ask you at the gate, I’m Wooten with the Arkansas City Republican, and you’s Palazzo with the Globe-Democrat up in Saint Lewey. Figgered you could pass for some Eye-talian.” Cotton Henry snorted. “My maw would have a regular hissy fit if she knowed I was consortin’ with a bean-eater, but you’s all right ... uh?”
“Daniel. Daniel Killstraight.” He smiled, thinking, My mother would have slit your throat and kicked me out of the lodge had she known you, and everyone else in this city, kept mistaking me for a Mexican.
He couldn’t blame Cotton Henry, though. His raven-black hair was close-cropped, and he wore Oxford ties - a going-away present, ordered from Bloomingdale’s - that pinched his feet, and that scratchy suit of black broadcloth. Better than the uniform he had worn in Pennsylvania, or the muslin shirts and duck trousers on that hard-scrabble farm in Franklin County and in those stinking, damp coal mines.
“Where is ... where are Mister Wooten and Mister Palazzo?” Daniel asked as they turned down Third Street.
“In their cups at the Main,” Henry said with a laugh. “Some ink-slinger with the Times said he’d fill ’em in on the particulars. I paid five dollars for these.” He patted his coat pocket. “Come on, I ain’t never seen no real hangin’ before.”
Copyright 2008 by Johnny D. Boggs