(CH. 2, PART 2)-The Boy Stranger: A free novel

The boy arrived home early the next morning, just as the sun was rising.  Van Carlo had sent him on several long errands after their conversation the night before, and he was tired.

He didn’t skim for himself any of the money Van Carlo sent with him to buy things.  He still didn’t feel entirely comfortable with taking money from the gambler. He didn’t fully understand Van Carlo and it didn’t seem right to take money until he really knew who he was taking it from.  For the time being, he was content to listen to Van Carlo and to take the little money he gave him outright at the end of the night.

When the boy arrived back at the ranch house, he was eager to talk to someone about all of the things Van Carlo had told him. But he did not want to talk with father just yet.  He preferred mother, or even better, Lucy.  He wanted to see what Lucy thought, but he could not find her.  He could not find mother, either.  A note on the stove told him that they had left early that morning for Shadow and would not be back until later in the afternoon.

There was a smoldering fire in the fireplace in the living room, and the boy put a tin cup of water on some of the burning coals.  It was just a small, useless fire, not dangerous. It was barely hot enough to heat his water.

He put a little tea in the water after a while and sat in a chair near the window and began to drink it in unhurried sips.  He heard a shuffling in the bedroom and what sounded like the whisper of two men talking to each other. One of the voices sounded like father’s.  Then, after a moment, he realized the other voice was father’s, too.  Father was talking to himself in whispers.

The boy went to the back of the ranch house to his parents’ bedroom.  He found father standing with his ear against one of the thin walls.  There were cracks in the wall, especially around the windows, and the boy could feel a little of the cold wind of South Dakota on his cheeks as he entered the room.

“What are you doing, father?” the boy asked.

“Oh.  Jason.  You’re back from work.”  His father turned to him.  “How’s work going?”

“Fine.”  The boy sat down on the bed.  “Are you okay?”

Father smiled.  “Oh, yes.  I’m just listening to the wind.  South Dakota is really screaming out there today.”

The boy nodded.  “Yes, it is.  It screams down from the mountain.  I hear it on my way into Shadow, screaming in my ears.  It’s like that a lot around here.”

Father sat on the bed next to him.  “Yes, well.  We’ll get used to it.”

“We got used to the muskets.”

Father nodded.  “And the soldiers out in our streets, playing like children away from their parents.”

“Which ones?”

Father shrugged.  “Ah.  Who can remember anymore?  Blue ones, gray ones; I don’t know.  I think it was the blue ones.”

“You think so?”

“I remember thinking they looked fat in their uniforms,” father said. “Or maybe that was just my own refection in the window.”  He smiled thinly.

The boy smiled thinly, too.  Then he got up and went to the window and looked at the mountain in the distance.  He sipped his tea, but it was already cold, so he put it down on the window sill and left it alone.

“Maybe you should be listening to South Dakota through the walls of your shop, father.  Instead of the bedroom,” the boy said meekly.

Father’s smile faded quickly.

“I don’t like the shop, Jason.  It’s more comfortable here.”  He looked up.  “Though, it seems like this ceiling gets an inch or two lower every time I lie down on the bed and stare up at it.”

The boy looked up.  “It looks all right to me.”

“Yes, well…it isn’t.  And the ceiling in the shop is even lower.”  He shook his head.  “I have to duck to walk in there.  And I can’t hear the wind through the walls there; too many hats lining them.  It looks the same as the shop in Richmond.  I like it better here in the bedroom.”

“I don’t understand.  What’s wrong, father?”

Father shook his head.  “I just think that people are comfortable in their own hats.  They only see a stranger in a new one, when they look at themselves in my mirrors.”

The boy pressed his ear to the wall next to the window.

“Is South Dakota speaking to you?” father asked.

The boy listened for a moment longer.  “No,” he finally said.  “I just hear the wind, and feel it, too.”

Father nodded.  “Sometimes it speaks to me.”

“What does it say?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

The boy pressed his ear again.  There was only wind.  But there was a lot of it.

“Are you sure you are hearing the wind, father?  Or is it something else.”

“No, it’s the wind speaking.  And I’m listening closely.  I’ve got some thinking to do, it seems.”  He tapped his temple and winked.

“The wind told you that?”

“South Dakota told me that.”

The boy removed his ear from the wall. “I thought you said the wind spoke to you.”

Father shrugged.  “Same thing.”

There was a long pause between them.

“I think you should go to the shop today, father,” the boy said, finally.

Father stood up and went back to the wall, and pressed his ear against it.

“Not now, Jason,” he said.  Father listened to the wind for a very long time, and whispered to himself.

Jason watched him for a few minutes, then left.  But every so often he would go back to the bedroom and check on him.  One time as he stood in the doorway watching father, the wind blew so hard it rattled the window.  The boy felt the draft on his cheek from across the room.  Father seemed to enjoy the feel of the wind in the room.  He stood there caressing the glass of the window and smiling a smile that reminded the boy of his dead aunt in her coffin.

The boy started to say something about the cold, but then he didn’t.  It didn’t matter.  He turned to go, but then father spoke to him, and he stopped.

“I think I’m going to sell the shop, Jason,” he said, still caressing the window, his ear still against the wall.

The boy nodded, but his eyes were wary.

“To whom?”

“They call themselves Dakota Inc.  They have their business in Shadow.”

“What kind of business?”

Father turned away from the wall and looked at the boy.

“The helping kind.”

“Who do they help, father?”

“People.  People like us.”

“You mean people from the East.  People from Richmond, not their own kind,” the boy said with suspicion.

“People from away, yes, Jason.”  Father went to sit on the bed with his back to the boy.

“They are, um…sympathetic to our situation.”

The boy walked over and stood in front of father. His boots made a hard, cold sound on the floor, and for the first time that morning the boy realized that except for the wind, he had noticed no other sounds in the house.

“Sympathetic?”

“That’s right.”

“About our situation?”

“Yes.”

“When did you talk about our situation with these men?”

Father shrugged. “I didn’t.  They knew much about us, though.  Our names, how much I had spent on the business, how much stock I had invested, our lack of savings, where we lived, how in debt we are…all down to the number.”

The boy did not speak for a moment.  He turned and looked out the window, then back to father.

“Do you want me to make you some coffee?” the boy asked.

“No.  I’m not thirsty.”

“Are you cold.”
“No.”

“I will go have some coffee, if that’s okay.”

“Fine,” Father said.  “I’m going to lie down for a while.”

            The boy went to make some coffee in the dying fire in the fireplace.  When he returned to the bedroom, he found father under the covers and rolled to one side.  His unpolished boots were on the floor pushed neatly together at the end of the bed.

            “I have heard of these men, Dakota Inc.,” the boy said, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. “I have heard about them.  I have seen them, too.  They are always out, whether it’s early in the morning or late at night, or if it’s clear or raining.  They are always on the streets. They have eyes like fish that never blink.  They always carry a lot of guns.  Three apiece, I think.  Seems a strange way to run a business, being out in the street all the time.  More like the soldiers in Richmond than businessmen.”

            Father sat up in bed and rubbed his face.  Then he looked at Jason.

            “We put our guns away in Richmond because our cause was lost.  Maybe theirs isn’t.  I don’t know.  But I do know that I have made up my mind.”

            “Father, I don’t think they understand Richmond, or us.  I’m not even sure they understand South Dakota.  Maybe we should talk to someone who does.”

            “Like who?”

            “Like Van…” he stopped, remembering Van Carlo’s admonition to not tell his father he had said anything about Dakota Inc.  But it was too late.  His father knew.

            “Van Carlo.  The gambler?”  Father did not look pleased.

            “Why not?  He’s lived here for many years.  He knows this place, and he knows Dakota Inc.  He says to stay away from them.”

            “He knows how to take a fool’s money, is all,” Father said.  “And maybe I am a fool.  But I’d rather give my shop to Dakota Inc.”

            “But Van Carlo says…”

            “Your friend Van Carlo speaks a lot of words for a gambler,” Father said, waggling a finger angrily at the boy. “Stray words cost a gambler money, I know that much.  And either he doesn’t know this and is a fool or he does and is an imbecile.”

            The boy stood up.  “That’s not true, father!  Van Carlo…”

            “You are a dullard, boy, with an imagination like a jar of grease.  You believe in the perspective of a man who has been sitting in one place so long that he can’t tell his body from his own chair?”

            “He’s not like that, father,” the boy said.  He sat back in the chair and hung his head.

            “How dare he judge men in the saddle when all he does is sit around all day.  Tell me, Jason, does Van Carlo’s chair take feed?  Is it in need of a grooming now and then, or a soft stable and a fresh drink of water?” He lay back down in the bed.  “Van Carlo is a fool and his employer is sloth.”

            The boy shook his head.  “Van Carlo’s job is to read faces.  And he knows the faces of Dakota Inc., and you should have nothing to do with them.”

            Father sighed, and the boy could see the condensation from his breath rise from his mouth and then quickly dissipate into the draft in the room.

            “If you weren’t practically a grown man, I’d strike your bottom, boy, like I used to,” he said. “But you are a man. Though no less a dullard, that is obvious.”

            “I’m sorry, father.  I didn’t mean to make you angry.”  The boy pulled his hat low over his eyes.

            “You used to be such quiet boy, but South Dakota has given you a big mouth.  Go spend some time against the wall over there, and leave me alone.”

            “Yes, father.”

            There was quiet between them for a long time.  Father’s breathing became regular and the boy realized he was asleep.  The boy put his empty tin cup of coffee on the floor and stood.  He put his ear to the wall and his hand on the window and listened to the wind outside, and felt the cold wind on his cheek, and his fingers became numb against the window.

After a moment, he heard the thrumming of horses in the distance.  Father sat up in bed slowly and slung his legs over the side.  He rubbed his face and looked at the boy.

            “They are here,” he said.  “Hand me my boots.”

            The boy’s face went white and he pulled his ear quickly from the wall and took his hand off the window as though the window had been a hot stove.  He looked at father for a moment, then went over and picked up his father’s boots and handed them to him.

            “Who’s here?” the boy asked.

            “Dakota Inc.”

            Father stood up and brushed his wispy gray hair back.  He bent over and pulled his boots on, and then he pulled up his suspenders over his shoulders with his thumbs.

            “What do you want me to do?” the boy asked.

            “You might as well come to the door with me,” father said.  “They know you are here.”

            Jason followed father out of the bedroom.

“Just make sure you stand behind me,” father said, opening the front door.  The men were approaching, just three black dots beyond the fence in the distance, getting larger.

They came up the road, which blended in so well with the rough and patchy land around it that you could hardly tell there was a road there at all. Or maybe all of it was a road, and there was no land.

They looked like very hard men, the boy thought to himself, when the men finally arrived at the ranch house.  No sense of humor to them.  No smiles.  Lots of teeth, yes; but no smiles.  They looked like black statues on their horses, and they stayed on their horses the entire time. The boy and father stood in the doorway, the men and their horses stood in front of them.

            Father spoke and the boy stood behind him in the doorway and said nothing.  He just stood there and kept his face very still, just like he did when he was working for Van Carlo at the casino.

            The icy sun was behind the men from Dakota Inc. and their shadows fell forward.  One of the men moved his head and the shadow of his very wide hat fell upon the boy’s hand in the doorway.  The boy pulled it away quickly, instinctively, as if pulling it away from a flame.  He drew back a little into the house.

            The men stood in a line, their horses only inches apart from each other.  They were wearing black suits of fine cloth, which had many extra shining things hanging from them.  They all had guns, three apiece.  Two pistols which they wore high at their sides in shoulder holsters, almost heart-level, and a rifle, which was in a long, leather holster and stuck out of the back of their saddles, making the horses look like they had a horn coming out of their backs.

            Both the men and the horses seemed unhurried and calm to an unnatural degree. They looked like men who had utterly no concerns.  Other people had problems, but not these men.  Their problems had become other people’s problems a long time ago.  They were men who were able to look out at a crazy world and realize that none of the craziness had anything to do with them.  They were not even themselves.  Everything about them, from their shoes, to their faces, to the guns at their waists, all belonged to other men. They could never be wrong. They could never be right.  They could never be anything that wasn’t passed off to the world with a shrug.

            When the three men spoke, they spoke together, so that the words came out in one heavy, layered voice.  Their words were not meant to be disputed.  They asked for no advice.  They invited no questions.

            It was very simple, the men said.  They would loan father a certain amount of money to keep the shop going.  In return, he would pay them a monthly amount and interest, as well as a percentage of the profits.  Payment had to be made at the end of every month, except for the first month, which the men said he did not have to pay.  It was a grace period.  After that, under no circumstances could the payment be deferred.

            There was no better deal to be found anywhere east of Richmond, the men told father.  If father didn’t believe them, they invited him to go to Shadow and ask around.  He would see that many other proprietors had made the same deal with Dakota Inc., and they were all doing quite well.

            “Will you send people to come buy my hats,” father asked.

            “We will try to send them,” one of the men said. “But this is not Richmond, and it is certainly not Richmond before the war, as you were accustomed to it.  We, unlike your old country, cannot force men to do things they do not wish to do.”

            “Well, I hope they come then,” father said with a sigh.

            “You do indeed hope, and you will have plenty of that in time, slave owner,” one of the men said.  “You refugees from the east are rich in hope.  But money works better in South Dakota.”

            “I did not own slaves,” father said.

            “No?  Sold them, perhaps?” the man in the middle said, tightening the black gloves on his fingers by pulling at them at his wrists and looking disinterested.

            “So, do we have an agreement, Mr. Credence?” another man asked.

            Father nodded.  He reached out his hand, but the men from Dakota Inc. did not return the gesture.

            “That will do,” one of the men said, turning to the boy hiding in the doorway.  “Don’t you think so, boy?”

            The boy was looking at the ground, and pulling slowly back into the house like turtle into its shell.  At the mention of his name, he looked up, and then nodded slowly.

            “Obliged,” the men said, tipping their hats.  Then they turned and rode off.

            “What do you think it would be like to fight them, father?” the boy asked, watching the men ride past the fence.

            His father sighed and turned to go back into the house.

            “Like they said, this is not Richmond.  But if that’s what you want, then you do it.”

Father disappeared into the dimness of the house, but the boy kept on staring out the front door until the men from Dakota Inc. disappeared beneath the horizon.

Father went to lie down in his bed.  Two days later, he still hadn’t gotten out of bed, and the boy and Lucy and mother realized he never would.

***

The weeks went by and the cold of December became even colder in January.  Christmas was a ghost, and noiselessly slipped by.

During the winter, Lucy developed a cough.  There was no money to pay for her to go see the doctor in town, and the doctor wouldn’t have seen her anyway because father was late on his payments to Dakota Inc.  The doctor did not see patients who were late on their payments to the Company.

No longer just a clearing of her throat several times a day, the cough soon became something of an inseparable part of Lucy’s personality; like a second language to her.  It frightened the family, especially mother, who knew the sound of that particular cough.  She had heard it from some of the gray soldiers during the winters in Richmond, before the blue general put an end to the war once and for all.  It was a cough that went beyond life and body.

***

One night, the boy was in his drafty bedroom, lying on his bed.  He stared up at the gray moon through the hole in the ceiling.  The moon looked ill.  Sick moon, he thought.  Sick like Lucy.  The wispy clouds galloped around it like ghoulish horses on a haunted merry-go-round.

The boy found himself missing Richmond.  He turned and looked at the candle on the table next to his bed and he remembered something Lucy said.  She said that Richmond, when looked at from South Dakota, or from any great distance during the war must have flickered gently and gracefully like the flame of a candle.  It was pretty, even endearing somehow from that distance.  But up close it was a nightmare:  cannon balls falling on houses; houses falling on houses; horses with shiny, bristling soldiers trampling houses.  But still, they boy missed it.

Father’s shop in Shadow was now gone, taken by the Company men who called themselves Dakota Inc., and father, for all practical purposes was gone, too.  He just stayed in his bed all day, not eating, and taking only a little water.  Mumbling something about a play he was hoping to write.  Richmond, he’d say.  He’d only ever wanted to write about Richmond.  And one day while sitting by his father’s side, the boy shoved a pencil and paper under his father’s nose as the old man lay covered in the bed.  “Write!” the boy screamed.  “If you want to write something of Richmond, write it then,” he screamed.

But father refused.  “Richmond doesn’t sell anymore,” he said, and rolled over.

As the boy lay on his bed staring at the moon through the hole in the ceiling, the clouds drifted away from it, the ghoulish horses galloping off in single file.  And then there was only the moon.

If this moon, this South Dakota moon could talk, what would it say to him, the boy wondered.  And would he be able to understand it?  After all, he was just a dullard, with an imagination like a musket spiked into the ground.

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