As I dig deeper and deeper into my files for lost fragments, the more I find the awkward and the amateur. I have hundred of thousands of words– complete books and short stories– that I am not inflicting on my readers, either here or on Amazon, because they are just not fit for public consumption. Some people have urged writers to pull out their trunk novels and publish them online. I will not go there– not only would these stories be an affront to the English language, they would quite possibly ruin what little reputation I have with readers.
This fragment comes from an abortive historical novel I started, long ago, around the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900. It died very quickly because I realized that I did not have nearly a good enough handle on the Chinese perspective to make a decent job of it. This opening is not bad (I think) but it illustrates how awkward I was in that period when I was not writing sci-fi or fantasy.
Copyright 2013 Douglas Daniel.
Jason stepped into the barroom, closing the heavy doors behind him against the chill of the October night. Out-of-tune piano music washed over him, along with the stink of cigar smoke, spilled beer, and man-sweat. Only a low murmur of talk carried to him under the music. It was mid-week, and most of the miners in Moose Crossing were two days away from having enough money to afford the Borealis Club. The Club seemed almost untenanted; there were several empty tables dotted like desert islands around the saw-dusted floor. A couple of whores drifted about like sad galleons with tattered rigging, but none of the poker players or the serious drinkers who did occupy the tables paid them any attention. Jason appreciated the quiet.
The bouncer, a beefy little man with a bowler hat and eyes like the dots left by a sharp pencil point, flicked Jason one look, and decided to let him live. “Evening, Mr. Welch,” the man said from the high stool on which he perched. It constantly amazed Jason how the fellow remembered his name; he didn’t come in here that often. Still, Jason reflected, Moose Crossing was a small town, rail-head or no. “How have you been, sir?”
“Fair to middlin’,” Jason answered, not really interested in talking to the man. The bouncer’s name was Rudd, and his chief interest in life was the maintenance of peace and order in the bar while he was on the job. Everything, including casual conversation, served that end. As long as he stood and talked to Rudd, Jason knew he was in some sense merely a target.
“Glad to hear it, sir.” The bouncer’s eyes swung off Jason as the door opened again, and Jason stepped forward, out of the locus of danger.
Jason crossed the floor to the bar. The nearest bartender– there were two, neither looking overworked at the moment– eyed him as if he were a dirty snowball someone had rolled up against the clean wood of his bar. “Beer,” Jason said shortly, feeling about as conversational with the bartender as he had with Rudd. He took his spectacles off, wiped off the slight dew of condensation that had formed on the lenses with his shirtsleeve.
“Pabst?” the bartender asked, just as short.
“Yeah.” Jason reflected that it was a bad sign when Rudd was the most talkative man in the house.
The bartender drew the beer down into a smudged glass, plopped it down in front of Jason. Jason dropped a nickel on the bar and it disappeared with a sweep of the barkeeper’s fat hand. Jason sipped the foam and let his thoughts roam as he stared without seeing at the bar.
One of the whores wandered over—Jessie. Her yellow air was unhappily curled; Jason reckoned that it was naturally as straight as straw when it wasn’t messed with. She leaned against the bar beside him.
“You lonely tonight, Jason?” she asked languidly. She was trying to look sultry. In her case it was like a turnip trying to look like a porterhouse steak.
“Not especially,” Jason said. He sipped.
Jessie pouted. “You say that every time I talk to you. What’s the matter, don’t you like girls?”
“I like girls fine,” Jason said back. Brown skin as smooth as silk. He forced the image out of his head.
“Well, you never show any sign of it. Jesus, in the six months you’ve been working for the mine I haven’t seen you go upstairs once with any of the girls. You must have a powerful head of steam built up.”
If you only knew, he thought. “Might be dangerous for you to be on the receiving end.”
Jessie smiled. For a moment she was almost pretty. “I could take my chances.” She laid a hand on his arm. “Oh, come on. I’m bored. I might even sweet-talk Mrs. McCarthy into giving you a discount.”
“Oh, as if that’s likely,” the bartender interjected, from where he was wiping a glass.
“You dry up, Mr. Davis. You got your cut out of him; I’m just trying to get mine.” She returned her attention to Jason. “What do you say?”
“You’re very persuasive, Jessie.” Jason looked at her over the rims of his spectacles. “But, no. Sorry.”
Jessie huffed. “Are all you Yankees so stubborn?”
Jason clenched his teeth. “Never call somebody from Texas a Yankee, Jessie—you could get hurt.”
“All of you look alike to me,” she said back. She pushed away from the bar. “Suit yourself. Just don’t sprain a wrist relieving yourself later.” She moved away.
“That one’s got a mouth on her that’ll land her in trouble someday, eh?” the barkeeper said.
“Most likely.” There were all kinds of ways of getting in trouble, Jason reflected.
He drank his beer slowly, warming up in the close air of the bar. The piano player finished whatever song he had been hammering at and wandered off for a moment. One of the card games got noisy for a few moments, until a misunderstanding was straightened out about whether deuces were wild. No fists flew– by Borealis Club standards it wasn’t even an argument. Even Rudd spared it only a passing glance.
The doors swung open. It was Mr. Grieg. The manager of the mine workshop and telegraph office exchanged nods with Rudd, came toward the bar. Jason regretted not having finished his beer more quickly with each step the man took, because he was coming straight toward him.
“Welch, good,” Grieg said. He had a slight accent, but spoke better English than a lot of the Norwegians who worked the mine. He leaned against the bar, hunched over beside Jason. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Jason put the glass down, wiped a bit of foam off his lip. “Yes, sir?”
“We got a message down at the telegraph from Winnipeg,” Grieg said. He waved the barkeep away when the man came near, looking expectant; Davis shrugged and ambled off. “It was for the Mounted Police Station.”
Chill winds shot through Jason’s guts. “Yes, sir?” was the only thing he trusted himself to say.
“I’ve sent Randolph down to check the line,” Grieg said. “The message seemed garbled somehow. I may need you to check the electrical connections on our end.”
“All right, Mr. Grieg,” Jason said, “right now?”
Grieg waved him back down as he started to rise. “No rush, no rush. Randolph will be an hour or so checking the line. I actually think it was the operator on the other end that caused the error. I just want to make sure of the message before we pass it on to the Mounties.”
Jason swallowed, trying to maintain a facade of calm. “What was wrong with it?”
Grieg shrugged. “It seemed strange– they were sending a message to the station saying they should detain a man named Walker. Supposedly an American who works for the mine. But I personally know there are no Americans named Walker here. Once we’ve checked the line and equipment I’m going to have the message resent.”
“I see, sir,” Jason said. He was sweating now, a thin trickle down the center of his back.
“So finish your beer,” Grieg said. “Then do a thorough check. Once you’re done– oh, say in two hours– we’ll request the Winnipeg operator to resend. All right?”
“Very well, Mr. Grieg.”
The manager nodded, pushed himself away from the bar. Jason hesitated, then said, “Mr. Grieg?” He couldn’t let it go at just that.
Grieg stopped. “Yes?”
“Thank you,” Jason said.
Grieg paused, then nodded again. He didn’t say another word; he turned and left.
Jason forced himself to finish the beer. The piano player resumed his assault on the keys; some of poker players cashed out and were replaced by new players. After about fifteen minutes the beer was finally a residue of suds in the bottom of the glass. “Good night, Mr. Davis,” Jason said as he stood.
“Not another?” the barkeeper asked.
Jason shook his head. “You heard Mr. Grieg– I got work to do.”
Davis shook his head. “And I think I have a hard job. Good night, Mr. Welch.”
Jason went back out into the night. He pulled his coat close around himself as he struck off down the street toward the telegraph office. The mud in the ruts of the road was frozen, forcing him to watch where he was putting his feet. The moon was out, so it wasn’t hard, and there was light from the other establishments he passed– the Hoopla, the Bear’s Den, Mother Yancey’s. Tinny music echoed from most, but the street was almost deserted. The sky was clear, though the air smelled of snow.
Jason made himself walk. He wanted to run. But he had to go right past the Mountie station to get to the telegraph office, and the last thing he wanted to do was attract the attention of the trooper on duty. Grieg had given him a frame of time in which to act. The first thing to do was play the role of the dutiful employee going about a dull task.
He reached the telegraph office. The place was dark– there was no sign of Grieg or Randolph, the lineman. Jason regretted the fact that he would never see the manager again. He was a decent man to work for.
He went upstairs to his room. He grabbed a blanket and worked quickly to make a bedroll. Spare spectacles in their case, a Bible, shaving gear, clothes, a box of ammunition, socks– he’d have to leave his second-best boots, no room. He rolled it all together and tied the ends. He grabbed a canteen, stuffed a box of crackers into a bag with an apple he had on the nightstand. From inside the mattress he pulled his money– almost fifty pounds sterling in those big British notes with Victoria on them, twenty dollars in American silver eagles, and a tiny bag of gold dust he won the one time he’d been tempted into a poker game. Jason smiled at that memory. That was his father’s fault, the same man who had taught him how to make up a bedroll. The best Baptist preacher in Bejar County, Texas, as well as a first-class card sharp.
The money went into a wallet, which Jason hung by a chain around his neck, next to his skin. Back on with the coat; he’d need it tonight. He slipped the bedroll over his shoulder, settled it into place. He didn’t strap on the gun-belt, nor the shoulder-holster– that would be too conspicuous, too likely to raise a shout if he were seen. Instead he made sure both pistols were loaded and that there were bullets in all the loops. He didn’t want to have to shoot his way out of town, most especially and critically he didn’t want to shoot any Mounties, but the possibility existed. He slung the gun-belt and harness with the pistols over his shoulder, picked up the bag.
He stopped, wondering if he had forgotten anything he needed. Looking around the room he had a moment of regret. He had begun to think he was going to be able to settle here, to stop running. He should have known better.
He left. There was still no sign of anyone downstairs. Jason cut quickly out the back and into the trees behind the office. There was a path that led down into and out of the ravine that separated the main street from the rail yard. Jason took it, picking his way carefully– a broken leg right now would be a major inconvenience. He reached the bottom of the gully, which was almost as pitch-black as the middle of a coal-heap, and started up the other side.
He paused under the lip of the ravine on the far side, peered over. The rail yard was a flat expanse of about five or so acres, five tracks feeding from the loading area at the north end, where the coal was brought down and dumped from the mine trolley. There were, as usual, several large fires burning around the area, to give light and some warmth to the workers. The mine kept the loading going day and night– this seam was huge, he heard, equal to anything in Kentucky or the Pennsylvania hills, and the owners were determined to extract everything they could, as quickly as they could. Once it was played out, Jason reckoned, the mine would be abandoned, and quite probably Moose Crossing would be given back to the forest, but meanwhile it was two shifts around the clock.
As he watched a trolley rumbled in, shuddered to a stop with groaning brakes, and began to dump its load. By the loading platform was a train with coal cars waiting to receive the ore. Workers on the platform, so be-smudged with coal dust they were hardly more than shadows in the flickering light, shoveled the ore into the cars.
It was the other train in the yard that interested Jason, however. It was a freight, its boxcars unloaded, ready to deadhead back to Vancouver. It stood halfway across the yard, the engine at its head puffing steam as it took on water. That was his ride out of Moose Crossing. The problem lay in getting to it.
There was no one between him and the train in a direct line, but there were workers scattered around the yard, either going about on errands or pausing to warm themselves at one or another of the bonfires. If he dashed for the train he would surely draw attention to himself. Amble out, and avoid the fires. That was it.
Jason, wrapping himself with casual like a cloak, climbed up out of the ravine and strode into the yard. Cinders and bit of coal crunched beneath his boots; the place smelled of wood smoke, coal smoke, and steam. He forced himself to go slowly, to take his time as if he were a worker tired from eight hours in the cold and still facing another four. He moved in a careful arc that stayed well out of the circle of light cast by one of the bonfires. A few men stood around it, but none of them seemed to notice him. He stepped carefully; it would be very bad to trip over a rail right now.
He was within a few yards of the train when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. Two men were walking down along the train, looking in the cars, talking. Jason recognized one as a yard worker, an Englishman; the other one was Franklin, a Mountie corporal. The two of them were maybe fifty yards away. Jason held the urge to run away at arm’s length. There were some crates stacked close by, covered by a tarpaulin. He angled his walk into their lee, for lack of anything better.
On that side Jason saw that there were actually two stacks of crates under the canvas, with a narrow gap between. He quickly wedged himself into it, shoving back as far as he could to squat on his heels. He was sure he could not be seen by any casual observer– to find him someone would have to come right up to the gap and shine a light into the space. He waited.
The voices of the two men gradually drifted to his ear as they came closer. “…you say this Yank has been working here for five months?” It was the yard worker, a man Jason did not know.
“Six,” said Franklin. “At least, if it’s the man we’re thinking it is. Worked in the telegraph office and the machine shop. Wanted for murder down south.”
Jason closed his mouth on a curse. Grieg’s attempt to withhold the contents of the telegram had failed somewhere.
“I think I’ve seen the fellow you’re talking about. Weedy sort, with spectacles?”
“The very one.”
“Well, who’d have thought? He didn’t look like a killer.”
You’d be surprised.
“You never can tell– had a Indian last year who looked like to be too young to piss by himself, and he went and cut up two men over a game of cards.” Jason smiled at Franklin’s tone of mature knowledge; the man was a year younger than he was. “This Walker fellow killed four men, they say.”
They were directly opposite the crates, now, and Jason tried to still his breathing. The yard worker was saying, “S’truth? Should we be looking for him alone, then?” The man’s Cockney accent was suddenly a good deal stronger.
“You’re not alone– I’m here.”
The two men now emerged into the narrow field of vision afforded by the gap in front of Jason. Their backs to him, they were lifting the lantern and peering into boxcars. Jason watched as they reached the end of the train. A figure, one of the train crew, emerged from the caboose and spoke with them for a moment. A wave of hands and the two came back the way they had come.
Jason held himself absolutely still– except for the hand that slipped one pistol from a holster. Surely he wouldn’t have to use it; neither of them would be able to see him unless they came right up and shined their light into the space. Still, sweat pooled in the small of his back as he crouched.
And then, as if out of some nightmare, he heard Franklin say, “What about those crates?” and saw him turn toward the stack. Jason gripped the pistol tighter, but resisted the urge to lift it and fire now. Surely this wasn’t going to happen. Jason wondered if he could kill Franklin. He teetered between the thought of stark murder and the certainty of hanging if he surrendered.
“We just stacked those this afternoon,” the yard worker said.
“So Walker couldn’t have wedged himself in here?” Franklin replied.
No, he didn’t, I’m not here, Jason thought at the Mountie.
Franklin closed in and brought the lantern up. Jason raised his pistol. In this position the recoil would bid fair to break his wrist. Franklin would have to bend down to shine the light in; that would be the moment to fire. The Mountie was three paces away.
A shrill, piercing whistle sounded from the other side of the yard, three urgent bursts. Franklin jerked upright as if stabbed from behind. Jason recognized the signal– the Mounties’ own call for assistance.
“They must have caught him!” Franklin exclaimed. “Come on.” He was gone.
Jason lowered his pistol, trying to hear the fading footsteps of the two men over his own thudding heart. Then another whistle sounded– the freight’s whistle, two good blasts. Jason heard the train start forward and the slack go out of the string of cars with a crash that went down the train like a string of firecrackers going off.
“Damn it,” Jason snapped. He plunged out of the gap into the night air, and saw that the train was already moving. He dashed for the nearest car. By the time he reached it the train was already rolling at better than walking speed; Jason had to trot alongside the car, praying that he didn’t trip on a tie or turn an ankle on the roadside gravel. Thankfully the car’s doors were open; he tossed in his bedroll, had to leap a switch, then his guns and the extra bag. Now the train was moving as fast as he could run. It was now or never. He leapt up, just as he and his brothers had done many a day when they were younger, jumping on and off the Texas and Mobile freights that lumbered through town. He jumped up and grabbed the door-handle, lifted his feet clear of the ground, and swung himself inside. He was thankful he was on the wiry side; some of his beefier cousins were never able to do that.
Jason quickly gathered his possessions and dragged it all into the forward end of the car. There he found a good-sized pile of straw, more welcome than a set of satin sheets. He piled the sweet-smelling stuff around him as he hunkered down in a corner. The train, going a good clip now, left the yard and passed into the forest beyond.
I would like to revisit this story in one way or another in the future, especially as it involves a period of history (the turn of the Twentieth Century) and a region (the Far East) that fascinate me. In my original idea these stories would have run right through the Boxer Rebellion and the Russo-Japanese War to World War I. But, as with most of these abandoned stories, their priority is far to the rear of more current projects. And I have only so much time left in this life.
Maybe if I stopped playing Halo….