(CH. 2, PART 1)-The Boy Stranger: A free novel (can you spot the allegory…er, metaphor…er, both?)

Bullet One

As the Credence family began their new life in South Dakota, the boy tried hard to believe everything his family told him.  He believed Lucy’s flashing answers.  He believed mother’s somber mutterings.

He believed father when he told the boy that they had been in South Dakota for two months and he had not sold one hat.

Of all the things he heard and believed, he liked Lucy’s words the best.  The answers to his questions were always less bright and less hopeful coming from father or mother than from Lucy.

            It was mid-December now, and the boy began to notice that the fires mother built to keep the house warm were becoming smaller and more infrequent.  She would stoke the coals more often and try to keep them burning longer.  There weren’t many trees around the ranch house, and they had to buy most of their firewood in town, which was not cheap.

            Each day father would go out to his shop in Shadow and put more hats in the window, rotating styles and sizes often.  But no one came.  So he put more and more items in the window, along with the hats: gloves, scarves, time-pieces, anything he could think of to order from back east to sell in South Dakota.  The shop and the window became fuller with more and more things that father put out to try and catch the eye of South Dakota.  The shop grew fuller with products to sell, and the ranch house grew emptier of things on which to live.

            The boy was forced to find a job in town to help with the money.  In Shadow he acquired a position known as a “telegraph” because it was the only job he could manage to find.  He couldn’t work at father’s shop because he simply wasn’t any good at selling, and father did not want him around, anyway.  This did not bother the boy.  He tried working at father’s shop once in Richmond, but after that, father never ask him to work at the shop again, and the boy never offered.  It was understood that he would have no part in the business.

            So, at his mother and father’s behest, he decided to look for some work.  He wandered into Shadow and walked around to a few places of business.  The proprietors just looked at him and shook their heads.  They saw what he looked like:  poor, with an honest face.  This was a good face to have for most any kind of job, and they knew this.  But they had no jobs to offer him.  Shadow wasn’t a poor town, and it was not particularly depressed, but it was hard for a young new face to find a job.  The boy did not understand why because the reason was hard to see, and mostly came out at night, or in was disguise.

The reason:  An organization known as Dakota Inc.

The shop owners in town were forbidden from doing anything that they did not first discuss with Dakota Inc., and most of the time it just wasn’t worth the trouble.  For the trouble was always huge and expensive, and occasionally, life threatening.

            The boy met another boy in town named Timothy, who was a year or two his younger. He had wild red hair and the smile of a mad man, which was the kind of smile that never went away, no matter what.

            Timothy told Jason to go see Van Carlo.  He said to find the small casino, the only casino in town, and look near the corner in the dark room.  The gambler, Van Carlo, would be the one sitting closest to the curtains.  He explained that Van Carlo needed a new telegraph, and the boy did not know what this meant, but he thanked Timothy anyway and went to find the gambler.  Work was work, he decided.  He’d figure out the vocabulary later.

When Van Carlo first saw him, he liked the boy instantly and hired him on the spot.

            “Telegraph” was a name that gamblers in Shadow gave to the boys who ran errands for them, and did chores so the gamblers could play cards uninterrupted. The gamblers in the casino were known as the “tappers”, and Van Carlo was the most successful of all of them. He gambled continuously, all day and all night.

            The casino was a dim place, with heavy, velvet red curtains which smelled of tobacco and whiskey and completely covered the windows.  Also inside were dark, thick cherry wood chairs and tables.  Van Carlo had many telegraphs working for him, but after a few weeks decided that the boy from Richmond was his favorite.  The boy worked hard and stayed late; all night, sometimes.  And he could always be counted on to fill in for the other telegraphs if necessary.  Van Carlo grew to trust the boy so much that he even allowed him to go and stand in for him as a proxy during some of his most important personal meetings and appointments.

            The telegraphs made their wages by skimming from the money their tappers gave them for shopping and other errands, or by skimming a portion of the commodities they bought for the tappers. Skimming was well known to the tappers who employed telegraphs, and was an accepted practice, almost like tipping, except it was the sole way the telegraphs were paid.  The trick was for the telegraph to know just how much he was allowed by his tapper to skim.  Each tapper was different, and each had a limit to what he allowed his telegraphs to take.  And sometimes certain telegraphs employed by a tapper were allowed by that same tapper to take more than another telegraph who worked for him.  But if a telegraph was wrong and took too much, he could be fired, or worse. Some had been brutally beaten.  More than one had even disappeared completely.  But Jason Credence, the boy from Richmond, was not greedy at all, and Van Carlo never had any trouble with him taking too much.

When the boy first took the job as a telegraph at the casino, he worked for several gamblers, not only Van Carlo.  But this soon changed when Van Carlo made it known that the boy was his favorite.  The other gamblers fired him, and he went to work for Van Carlo exclusively.  There was something about him that Van Carlo liked very much.  The old gambler could tell that the boy was a fool and a dullard, but this didn’t annoy him nearly as much as it did with the other fools he had met in his day.  Van Carlo wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps it was because, though the boy was a fool, he was a quiet fool.  He never talked much, and Van Carlo felt that though the boy was a fool, his ability to keep silent at all the right times seemed to show that he was at least not a complete fool.

Van Carlo noticed that the boy’s face was very smooth, like the plains of South Dakota, and the outlines of his eyes and mouth were very fine.  In the dim of the casino when the boy sometimes put his lips together and close his eyes, his face would almost blend perfectly into the background.  This made the boy pleasantly unobtrusive, and Van Carlo allowed him to stand right behind him, near the curtains by the table, when he wasn’t having the boy run errands.

The boy’s face blended into the background so well that it was very hard to read, which meant that Van Carlo never had to worry about him giving anything away by any kind of facial expression, or any kind of look or flash of the eyes.  This wasn’t true for all the telegraphs.  Most of the time the gamblers had their telegraphs wait outside, even during the extreme frigid cold of winter, out of the fear that their faces would give something away. Van Carlo sent his other boys outside, but Jason he kept behind him near the curtains.

Van Carlo enjoyed having a telegraph that could keep him company.  The poker table was usually a very lonely place, and Van Carlo found the boy’s presence soothing.  He enjoyed the gentle sound of the small movements the boy would occasionally make with his hands and arms, and his soft, clear breathing.  It was a welcome change from the raspy breathing of the other gamblers, and the ghostly, howling South Dakota wind outside.

Van Carlo also liked that the boy wasn’t from South Dakota.  He had such a refreshingly different aura.  Many of the other boys were nice enough, but they were from South Dakota.  They always had something of the cold and wild about them, even when they were just standing around.  There was always something mercilessly expectant about them; something noisy and intrusive about their simply waiting around.  It was not this way with the new boy from Richmond.

***

One of the first things the boy noticed about Van Carlo was that there was no emotion in the gambler’s face; only a few deep lines and creases that didn’t spell out much of anything in particular.  But the boy sensed that the gambler liked him because he nodded at him a few times when he first explained the job to him, and used his name a lot.

Van Carlo asked the boy if Timothy sent him.  The boy said he did.  Van Carlo then explained that Timothy did not smile all the time; Timothy was just born with upturned lips and very amber eyes that reflected a lot of light.  Timothy was a happy, pleasant boy, but Van Carlo warned the boy not to assume that Timothy was happy all the time just because his lips were upturned.  Timothy was from South Dakota.  Faces meant nothing in this place, Van Carlo said.

“Was your mother or your father ever a gambler?” Van Carlo asked.

The boy said no, he did not think so.  Then Van Carlo shook his head and told the boy that it was a shame that he didn’t even understand his own family.  Then he told him to stand behind him and to watch the table.  He told the boy to look at the cards.  Not at him, and not at the other men.

***

One evening the boy was walking into town to the casino. He was thankful the wind wasn’t blowing too hard.  On many days, it swept down from the mountains in a rush, but today it was in no hurry. Still, it was cold outside, and the air smelled like frozen metal.  It was painful on the boy’s naked hands, and it reminded him of the snapping fish with the dead eyes he used to pull out of the ponds outside of Richmond in the winter.

The boy had been working for the old gambler for several weeks now. He was very thankful for the job, and thankful to have learned so much from watching the poker tables.  He told himself that if the work ran out, he could always gamble.  He hoped it did not come to that, of course.  He hoped he never had to gamble for a living.  He liked Van Carlo, but he did not envy him.  The boy vowed to always find work before he’d gamble.

Surely there would always be something.  He thought about the boys back in Richmond, who made money on the streets of the city by giving directions to the wandering blue soldiers.  Some considered these boys traitors, but they were just trying to avoid having to live outside on the same streets where they worked.  The boy would do that, he told himself.  He had no love for the blue soldiers, of course, but once they were there they were there, and he didn’t see the sense in harboring any bitterness over it.   He’d rather work than gamble, and if that meant working with the blue soldiers, then that’s what it meant.

As the boy turned onto the street where the casino was located, he saw the brilliance of the dusky sky.  There were flat clouds over Shadow that ended towards the West in a very straight line on the horizon.  The edge of the clouds was lit up in yellow and in pink by the sun, and the scene reminded him of a sheet of paper that was burning at one end.  The boy hoped the sun would eventually burn the clouds up all the way so that Shadow could see the sky again.  It had been a long time, and a long winter, with a lot more winter to go.  But the sky in the distance was beautiful to the boy, very beautiful.  And though he may not have understood fancy, like he did not understand his father’s fancy hats, he understood beauty.

Van Carlo was sitting at the table in his usual spot.  He did not look at the boy as he approached.  He did not look up from the cards, but the boy knew that he never did this; he never looked up.  He never was distracted from the game. He could not afford to.  He could not afford to change his face for even a moment.  He would tell the boy that when the face changed, that’s when the money went.  So the gambler’s face was still and somber.  It might as well have been made of wood.  His body might as well have been a tree.  Swing from it, or fall out of it, or be hung from a noose on it.  Van Carlo would not have noticed.

The boy took his place behind Van Carlo near the heavy velvet curtain over the amber window.  The curtain was pulled slightly open.  The boy was a dark silhouette against the rectangle of gray light that tumbled into the casino.  It made the boy impossible to see; just a black outline against the window.

The game was soon over, and the other men went to find their telegraphs or to relieve themselves, or to smoke or drink.  Van Carlo stayed at the table, which was his custom.  He rarely left the table.  That was why he hired a telegraph, he said.  So he didn’t have to move.  No, he’d say with a little smile, he was glued in place.  Best to stay put, otherwise he might drag the whole casino around South Dakota with him, wherever he went.

The boy noticed that for a man who stayed in one place all the time, Van Carlo knew a lot of things, especially about South Dakota. Van Carlo did not mind discussing the things he knew with the boy.  He liked that the boy was not anxious to run off and do this or that when he was not needed.  Though, the gambler did admit to himself that there were times when he felt the boy needed to get out more.   He would sometimes make up an errand just to get the boy to go out.

“Van Carlo,” the boy said.

“What?”

“I was thinking about war.”

“Of course you were,” Van Carlo said, nodding and looking down at his chips and sorting them.  “You are from Richmond.”

“And what about South Dakota?” the boy asked.

“What about it?  We are the West.”

“Have you ever seen a war?”

“Jason,” Van Carlo said.  “The West is a war itself.  It must be. It’s where the present crashes upon the past like waves on rocks.  It cannot be any other way on the frontier.  It is not like your war back in Richmond, though.”

“What’s it like, then?”

“Well, it’s not like your war, that’s for sure.  The roofs aren’t torn off houses and the walls aren’t smashed through or anything.”

The boy looked confused.

“It’s just different,” Van Carlo said.  “I guess I would say that we are men at war trying to pretend that we are not.  Hoping we are not, but knowing we are.”

The boy nodded.  “Yes, I can see that you all carry guns here.  Even you, Van Carlo, at the table, but you never really move.  All you do is play cards, and yet there it is, your gun clearly showing in your holster.”

“So what is strange about that, besides all of it?” Van Carlo said with a little grin.

“I guess that the men look so peaceful, all of them with their guns.  There were a lot of guns in Richmond, but that city was shaking with soldiers and horses.  Here, you’re just playing cards. And even Timothy carries a gun, and he’s simply running out to get powders and candy for Mr. Fields.”

“That’s just how it is here, Jason,” Van Carlo said.  “It’s a war, all of it.  Guns are just part of the outfit.  Just like a cufflink, or one of those hats your father sells.”

The boy nodded and then looked thoughtful for a moment.

“But as far as playing cards goes,” Van Carlo said. “Having a gun on your side makes it harder to read your face, if you can believe that.”

The boy shrugged. “I guess I can.”

“You can?”

The boy shrugged.

Van Carlo shook his head.  “The gun,” he said, “belies a man’s true intent.”  He tapped the butt of the gun in his holster. “What’s it there for?” He tapped his forehead. “What’s he thinking?  Why does a man who is selling me groceries carry a gun?  What’s a man haying my field got a pistol for?”

“So it’s a way to hide yourself?”

Van Carlo nodded.  “Best mask ever invented; great for a gambler. I’ll never take my gun off.  Never.  It’s more useful to me here at this table then it ever would be fighting your blue soldiers.”  He snorted.  “Or your gray ones, or the Indians, or the Mexicans for that matter.”

“The women don’t wear guns,” the boy said.  “At least none that I can see; and I’m glad.  I don’t want a gun to hide their faces.  I like their faces.  Pretty.” He smiled at Van Carlo and blushed. “Prettier than ours, that’s for sure.”

Van Carlo scoffed. “They don’t need guns to hide their faces.  They’re women.  We can’t read them.  And you, you’re just eighteen.  For you to describe the face of a woman is like describing a dark cabin from a hundred yards away in the middle of the night.  You couldn’t read the face of your own mother. I’m starting to think you’ve never truly seen a woman’s face.  If you had, you’d realize what a fool you sound like.”

Van Carlo then suddenly laughed and smacked the table with the palm of his hand, scattering his chips.  “Boy, I think you must have stayed too long at the breast!” he howled.

“Van Carlo,” the boy said when the gambler was finished laughing.  “Do you suppose the women don’t carry guns because they have their men with them most of the time.”

“What, you mean like for protection?  You mean they don’t need their own guns because they have men to protect them?”

“Yes…maybe,” the boy said.

“No,” Van Carlo said shaking his head. “That’s not the reason.  South Dakota has enough trouble.  That’s the reason.  And like I said their faces are hard enough to read without guns, anyway.”

The boy waited for a minute and thought about this.

“So, would you play poker with a woman?” the boy asked.

Van Carlo turned in his chair and leaned in towards the boy.

“I have a lot of respect for women,” he said.  “And don’t ever say that I don’t, because I do.  But I wouldn’t gamble with a woman in South Dakota even if my choices were that or settle with the house for two pennies on my eyelids and a box to lie down in.”

The boy smiled for a moment.  Then his smile faded and he looked down at his hands.

“Van Carlo?”

“Yes?”

“Do you know anything about fancy hats?”

Van Carlo’s face became serious.

“Do you test me, boy?” he said.

The boy said, “No, Van Carlo, of course not.  I mean only to ask because I don’t know myself.”

“Then let me ask you first,” Van Carlo said.  “Can you read my face?”

“No, Van Carlo.”

“No, you can’t.  You can’t understand much of anything around here.  Not the women, not the guns, not the hats your father sells, not a fancy hat or any other hat.  That’s just the way it is in South Dakota. But that’s no excuse for not skimming the proper amount from the money I give you, like the other telegraphs do, and like you should.”

Van Carlo shook his head and turned back to the table and started stacking his chips and shuffling his cards. “Don’t ever ask me to pass judgment on your father or his business again,” he said.

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

“Maybe someday someone will tell you about those fancy hats.  You think we don’t understand hats like that in South Dakota?  We understand.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

“And those hats don’t match these guns, and that’s the problem.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

“And they didn’t match all those guns in Richmond, either.  And that was the problem there, too, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

Van Carlo turned to the boy again.  He looked up at him.  The sun had set, and he could see the boy’s smooth, sad face in the dim of the casino’s candlelight.

“It isn’t really that you don’t get those hats, is it?” Van Carlo said.

The boy stammered.

“It’s your father you don’t get.”

The boy looked at his hands again.  His face looked very uncomfortable.

Van Carlo sighed and turned back to the table. This boy was truly a dullard, and a fool, with an imagination like the underside of a boot.

“Go buy your father a gun,” he said.  “It’ll make more sense when he puts it on.”

“But you said that a gun…” he stopped.  He didn’t want to say anything else.  He felt like he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

“Your father’s a stranger, son, is what I’m saying,” Van Carlo said, shaking his head.  “He doesn’t get those hats any more than you do.”

There was an awkward silence between them.  The other gamblers started to shuffle back through the casino towards the table.  It was almost time to play again.

“Boy?” Van Carlo said.

“Yes?”

“Your father is on the hard floor, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” the boy replied.  “Hard.  And dirty, he says.”

Van Carlo nodded.  “He’s on the hard floor.  And he’s hoping to find a coin that he might have dropped.”

The boy looked out the window.  “Yes,” he said, after a moment.

Van Carlo nodded again.  “Look, I have to be honest.  I don’t think your father’s shop has a chance here.  He’ll need to find something different, like you did.”

The boy looked very sad.  “Yes, Van Carlo,” he said.

“And there’s something else you need to understand.  There are a lot of things down on that hard floor.  There’s no coin, but there are men in this town who will tell him that they can help him.  But you must tell him not to believe them.  You think I hide my face behind my gun?  These men have long since forgotten that there’s any difference.  You must tell your father to stay away from them.  And you must tell him that you did not hear this from me.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.  I believe you.  I think you must be very wise.  You’re the only one around here who tells me the way things really are.”

“No,” Van Carlo said.  “I am a fool.” He lowered his hat over his eyes and sunk down a little in his chair.  The other gamblers were sitting down at the table.

“I think my family is doomed,” the boy said quietly.  “My father will not like your idea of finding something else to do after all his trouble. He won’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Maybe,” Van Carlo said.

“What can my father do?” the boy asked.

Van Carlo shook his head.  “Your father is like a horse with no rider and no wagon, running in circles.  You’ve seen them sometimes, on the plains here in South Dakota.  Like them, it is only a matter of time before someone puts a saddle on his back.”

Van Carlo began to shuffle his cards.  “He needs to do something.  I don’t know.  Anything. Tell him to try harder to sell his hats.  Maybe that will work, but I doubt it.  Tell him to drink.  Even that would be better.  It may be too late to go back to Richmond, but if it isn’t, then go.”

The boy said, “What men will come to him, Van Carlo?”

“The men you first saw when your train pulled in.  You know who I mean.”

The boy nodded.  “Yes, they looked like trains, puffing on great cigars in their dark suits, and the women gliding behind them.”

“Yes.  Dakota Inc.  That’s who they are.  You saw them, but I promise you, they saw you first.”

The boy nodded.  He certainly remembered the men.  They looked strong and ambitious.  “I will tell father tonight.”

“Good. Now, I can’t say anything more about it.  Words are currency in South Dakota, and I need everything I’ve got right now.”

The boy nodded again.  After a moment, he looked out the window. “Look, Van Carlo.  The moon is out tonight.  All the clouds must be gone.”

“I hate the moon.  Close the curtains,” Van Carlo said.  Then his face turned to wood again and the game began.

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