BEYOND THE CHINESE BONES

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She had the man and she had the plan. But what about luck?

 

                                                                      (i)

 

Image result for 19th century rural farmhouse and stormy sky

 

 

 

Why did Maggie accept this stranger? She was a handsome young woman, alone on a south Texas farm, a widow since a Yankee bullet killed her husband in some pointless skirmish in the last days of the War Between the States. Why should she let a total stranger – a bedraggled, desperate looking stranger – into her home? Simple Christian charity, she told herself. It’s wrong to refuse a kindness.

She examined the man at her door. Not yet thirty, brown haired, well built. He held himself well, with none of the shiftiness you expect in a miscreant. She liked that in a man. Her late husband could look any man in the eye too. But the stranger was grimy and sweaty, with the haggard, haunted look of a man fleeing something bad.

So why beat around the bush? “You running from the law, mister?” she asked as she gestured for him to sit at the table.

The stranger hesitated and collected himself.

Finally he said, “Well, ma’am, the gospel truth is that I’m innocent. But I am a wanted man. There’s nothing for me in Tennessee now and I was headed out to make a new life in New Mexico. But I shot a colored boy in Arkansas. The low son of a…pardon me, ma’am…tried to steal this gold watch.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and unwrapped the watch. The sunlight through the window made it gleam. “That’s why I’m so far south right now, on account of that…incident. I aim to lay low in Mexico until all this blows over.”

Maggie poured coffee. “All that running from the law because of that? Hah! What is the world coming to?”

“How right you are, ma’am. Everything’s upside down since we lost the war and those damn Carpetbaggers moved in like a plague of locusts. Why, I could tell you some stories…”

Maggie sipped her coffee and shook her head. She had no wish to hear “some stories”. Her own story was sad enough. As they sat in silence an idea took shape in her mind.

“That there watch is worth something, is it?”

The stranger’s pride in his valued possession was plain to see. “It surely is, ma’am. My dear mother kept it safe even after the Yankees took Nashville back in ’62. Not a scratch on it. Solid gold, too.”

Maggie looked at it as intensely as she’d looked at this stranger when he first approached her door. It was a thing of great beauty.

“By the way, ma’am, I should introduce myself. My name is…”

“No, do not tell me your name.  If you’re a fugitive from the law the less I know about you the better. You can just be plain ‘Mr. Smith’ while you’re under my roof.”

‘Mr. Smith’ bowed his head slightly. “As you wish, ma’am. And so I will not ask you yours.”

The stranger smelled of sweat and too many days on a horse. And now the idea in Maggie’s mind took shape.

“That watch is not engraved,” she observed.

“Engraved? No, ma’am. Why?”

Maggie said, “Maybe we can help each other out. You look more in need of a hot meal and a bath and clean clothes than any man I’ve seen since the war. You can sleep here tonight too. And I’ll trade your tired horse for a fresh one. I’ll even give you my poor husband’s shirt and britches and some other things of his. He was about your size, may the Almighty keep his soul. But you’ll have to do something for me.”

‘Mr. Smith’ bowed again and said, “That’s extremely kind of you, ma’am. And if there’s anything I can do for you that won’t land me in a bigger fix than I’m already in, then I shall willingly oblige.     

 

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                                                                                  (ii)

 

Maggie continued: “Well, you’re obliged to me for the food and clothes and the bath. If you do what I say and keep a cool head you will have no trouble and your debt will be cleared.” She explained her plan:

On the first day of every month a San Antonio banker rode to Maggie’s house to collect a regular payment on Maggie’s loan. Why the banker rode there and back himself every month was simply because he always made it clear to Maggie that he’d be willing to “forget about” that month’s $8-payment if she would just extend to him the ultimate female hospitality.

‘Mr. Smith’ felt a slight stirring in his loins. He knew just how the banker felt. Any full-blooded man would.

“I always refuse him,” Maggie continued. “Eight dollars a month wasn’t such a burden in the past. Even while my husband was away fighting for the Glorious Cause I could somehow make ends meet. But it is now an intolerable burden for a woman alone in these wretched times. Yet I will not defile my dear husband’s memory, with him only dead coming on to a year now. No, not even if I have to scrimp and scrape for every single dollar.”

The stranger said, “Your devotion does you proud, ma’am.”

Maggie wiped away a tear with the heel of her hand, collected herself and sat upright in her chair. “How much do you reckon that watch is worth?” she asked.

“How much? Most likely thirty dollars these days, easy. But, ma’am, I could never…”

“Listen,” said Maggie with a sudden force that surprised ‘Mr. Smith’. “Tomorrow’s the first day of March. The good Lord must have sent you here for a purpose, so it would be sinful to waste this chance. When Strick England comes here tomorrow morning I’ll pretend to pay him with this watch. I’ll say it’s my husband’s family heirloom. But my desperate plight means I cannot afford to keep it any longer. If it’s worth thirty dollars then I can bargain real hard and stretch it to thirty-two dollars. That’s a four-month-payment.”

‘Mr. Smith’ could smell a ruse as well as anybody could. “But he won’t get to keep the watch, is that what you intend?”

 

Maggie pointed east. “He’ll be coming in from San Antone like he always does, with his stove pipe hat like Abe Lincoln himself. And riding a fine white horse. Always about nine o’clock. And he heads back the same way, too, and always in a foul mood because I will not…But this here gold watch will make him happy. And if he’s happy he’ll get careless.”

“I see. So where do this England and I…?”

Maggie said, “You just ride east about half a mile. You’ll see a big old tree with a skeleton on it. That’s where they strung up that Chinaman last fall, and the crows picked his flesh clean. You go a ways beyond that and there’s an old Mexican shrine among some elm trees. That’s where you can hide. When England rides by you catch him from behind and take back that watch. But do not shoot him, you hear me? Don’t draw attention. Just take the watch and kick him on his way back to town. Understand?”

“Mercy, ma’am, your plan is as clear as creation.”

“Good,” said Maggie. “And then you skedaddle on to Mexico. But come nowhere near this house, you hear?”

‘Mr. Smith’ plucked at his thick brown beard and thought for a moment. “You know, ma’am,” he said, “if I take only the watch he might see he’s been the victim of a conspiracy. Then he’ll come right back to this house in righteous anger. So I’d better take whatever else he has that’s worth taking. That way he’ll think it was just a simple robbery by happenstance, nothing to do with you. By the way, was this banker in the war?”

Strick England?! He just carried on the whole four years like the war was nothing but a chance for him to make more money.”

“So, then,” said the stranger, “strictly speaking this is not a crime, is it? Robbing a profiteer is no crime. But anyway I must deny myself the pleasure of doing him violence if I’m to ‘skedaddle on to Mexico’ with all possible speed. I’ll just knock him cold or something to prevent him getting a good look at me.”

“Well, if you do or you don’t, that’s not my concern. Just make sure he does not suspect you and I are…are…”

“In cahoots? Yes, ma’am, you can trust me. By the way, you always get a receipt from him, don’t you? I mean a proper receipt from the bank, official and all?”

“Sure, I always do.”

“Without fail?”

“Without fail,” Maggie said. “Especially tomorrow.”

 

 

 

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                                                                                (iii)

 

With ‘Mr. Smith’ and Maggie now officially in cahoots, he wondered if this might afford him special privileges.

After his bath and change of clothes he felt like a new man. Over supper their conversation became more personal, and he mentioned in passing that he “went to school” in the north. This surprised her. She’d never met anyone who had lived among the hated Yankees. But he was vague about the details, and they went on to talk about the war. He had been a cavalry officer, he said, and was wounded twice, the last time at the Battle of Franklin in ’64

The bond they’d established during supper gave him reason for cautious optimism. He was further encouraged to see that she was not a teetotaller. As the supper progressed she started to display signs of near-gaiety. ‘Mr. Smith’ attributed this to her being in male company for the first time in ages.

He was careful to remain courteous and amiable, always gentlemanly yet clearly not indifferent to her considerable charms. She knew he carried the scars of battle. Would all that be enough to draw this handsome widow into his arms?

It was not. Before they retired she told him her room had a strong lock and she slept with a loaded pistol. She then bade him good night, locking her door with a bang.

 

 

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It rained heavily just before dawn. They ate breakfast, speaking little. Then ‘Mr. Smith’ saddled up the fresh horse Maggie had exchanged for his tired gelding. They shook hands as he departed, and he wondered whether he should kiss her hand as a token of respect. But he decided against it – she might not take it well. She was nothing like those northern ladies he had met and waltzed with as a cadet at West Point – that “school in the north” – before the war.

West Point! That time in his life felt like a century ago. He shook his head and tried to rid himself of the memory. He’d known too many good men – good men on both sides – cut down mercilessly in their prime.

He rode out under clearing skies and spotted the tree with the dead Chinaman’s skeleton. It suddenly occurred to him that he should have asked Maggie about the story behind all that. What was this oriental doing around San Antonio? And why put his corpse up a tree? These Texans are strange, he concluded. Wild, strange people. The ones he’d met in the war were apt to – what was that expression his colonel used? – stray into dangerous excesses.

The war was our ruination, he thought to himself as he approached the Mexican shrine. We live in darkness.

He wondered how it would be to have a woman like Maggie. Have her as a wife. The war was a disaster. It robbed him of his youth. And since he’d chosen to serve in the army that tasted defeat it had robbed him of a future military career.

What did he have to show for the war but aching scars and some worthless medals and a broken spirit and the memory of enough death and desperation to last ten lifetimes? When he slept he could never be sure if the blood-soaked nightmares and silent screams would return. The only thing connecting him to his life before the war was that watch, and right soon it would be sitting in some cowardly profiteer’s pocket. But not for long, he thought, if there’s any justice in this vale of tears.

I was destined for better things, he thought to himself as he passed the skeleton tree and hid among the elms. Now look at me: a penniless vagrant on the run for killing a thieving black. And waiting to hoodwink a profiteer.

How will I fare in Mexico? Will I ever breathe the sweet air of Tennessee again?

 

                                                                                  (iv)

 

 

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By ten o’clock Maggie was sure her plan had worked.

Strickland P. England had arrived as usual. His refusal even to consider accepting anything other than cash was to no avail. Maggie knew his vanity and greed, and she slowly, artfully brought him around. He departed in triumph, the gold watch in the pocket of his silk vest. He took it out every minute, caressed it and listened to its soft, regular ticking. Even before he accepted the watch all thoughts of carnal embrace with the beautiful widow had departed his mind.

For the first time in years Maggie felt joyous. She put the receipt in a safe place and hugged herself with pleasure. Now she could avoid England’s loathsome presence for another four months.

But she was wrong. Around noon she took a break from her chores and sat down at the table, thinking about ‘Mr. Smith’. That stranger was a fine looking man once he scrubbed himself clean. Polite, too. Always stood up whenever I left the table. Fellers around here don’t do that. And he was well-spoken. Maybe he…

But the sound of approaching horsemen broke her reverie. The banker had arrived with two men, the old sheriff and his even older deputy.

 

Mrs. Jordan,” said England, “I have been robbed in broad daylight in the vicinity of this very house! These two gentlemen are here from San Antonio to investigate this outrage.”

“Ma’am,” said the sheriff, tipping his hat. “We’re sorry if we get any mud on your floor, but we’re curious if you seen a stranger around here recent. A man who don’t sound like he’s from around these parts. Somebody suspicious.”

Maggie steeled herself. What had gone wrong? “No, sheriff, I have not,” she said. “And if I did I would’ve made him skedaddle soon enough. I’m all alone, but I can shoot a bean off a barrel at thirty paces.”

“I’m sure you could, ma’am,” he said with a chuckle. “Well, anyway, mind if we poke around and see for ourselves? He might have been around without you knew it.”

What went wrong? she asked herself as they spread out and poked around the house and the stable. She forced herself to look busy. What went wrong? Do they suspect I was behind this? Did the stranger make a mess of things?

She looked out the doorway and noticed the hoof prints of their three horses in the soft ground outside. And then she realized the stranger had left a trail of hoof-prints when he rode out on Maggie’s brown colt after the rain. England and the lawmen must have seen that as they rode in. They couldn’t miss it.

She heard them whispering outside. England led them back inside.  The sheriff said, “Did you go out riding this morning, ma’am? Them tracks leading up to the road are yours, are they?”

Maggie felt her legs weaken, but she strained to control herself. “No sir, I did not. Those tracks are from yesterday. Just before supper time. I don’t know how it was in town, but it started raining over here just before sundown. I led a horse out to the road to stretch its legs for a while. That’s all.”

“Which horse was that, Mrs. Jordan,” England asked. “That brown colt you got last year from old Joe Myers? I didn’t see it anywhere. Did you exchange it for that worn out gelding we just saw?”

Suddenly the lawmen and England moved in closer. No apology this time for more mud on the floor. England and the sheriff exchanged glances.

 

Mrs. Jordan,” the sheriff said, “it grieves me beyond measure to say this, but you were in league with that thief who robbed Mr. England. Them tracks are from this morning. They’re too fresh to be from last night. And they’re deep, from the weight of a man riding a horse, not from a horse being led out like you said.”

Maggie said, “No, sheriff, you don’t understand. I…”

“And them tracks don’t lead back to your stable, but go all the way beyond that tree where we strung up that heathen’s body as a warning to every other heathen. That’s where Mr. England was robbed, ain’t that so, Mr. England? That horse and rider came from your property, Mrs. Jordan. It’s as plain as glory.”

Maggie’s heart froze. “That makes you an assessory,” the sheriff continued. “But if you tell us who this thief is and where he’s headed then it’ll go better for you, ain’t that so, Mr. England? And give us a description so we can get word to other towns.”

Maggie stated to sob.

“If you give us that information, ma’am, then Mr. England here may see fit to not press criminal charges on you. Ain’t that right, Mr. England, sir?”

 

 

                                                                                 (v)

 

Image result for cigar smoke

 

 

Maggie knew she was lost. But she could at least save ‘Mr. Smith’.

“All right, sheriff,” she said. “I will tell you all I know.”

She sat at the table and drew a deep breath, wiping her tears as she stalled for time and thought of something plausible.

“The man you seek is a youth. Maybe eighteen years of age or so. Long blond hair. No beard. Barely old enough to shave. He said he was from Georgia.”

“Headed for Mexico, is he?” asked the sheriff.

“Why, no, I believe he said he was headed for somewhere here in Texas. Yes, Corpus Christi I think. Yes, now I remember clearly. Yes, Corpus Christi. That is what he said.”

“Well,” said England, “that is rather odd. Who in his right mind would voluntarily go to Corpus Christi? And he’s certainly chosen a long and winding route, hasn’t he, if he’s coming from Georgia? Are you absolutely sure he said Corpus Christi?”

“Oh, yes, I’m sure. Now I recall he said he had a hankering to see the sea.”

“You have not told us this scoundrel’s name, Mrs Jordan,” growled the banker.

“He said his name was Davis.” It was the first name she could think of.

With that the lawmen rode back to San Antonio to form a posse and send word to every lawman’s office between there and Corpus Christi. They left England alone with Maggie. He sat down uninvited and lit a cigar.

“Well, now, Mrs. Jordan, it seems you and I have further business to transact. You now owe me four payments. How do you propose to make good those payments? Have you sufficient cash at your disposal?”

Maggie had started sobbing again. “You know damn well I don’t!”

“That is what I thought,” he said, dropping ash from his cigar on the table. “However, I wish to discuss…how can I put it?…an alternative arrangement.”

Maggie could hardly breathe. She knew what kind of “alternative arrangement” England had in mind. What she could not know was how his banker’s mind dealt with the details.

 

 

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You see, Mrs. Jordan – or may I call you Maggie? You see, Maggie, I happen to enjoy the game of poker. It’s one of my few recreations. And I have a…an acquaintance with whom I sometimes play. For money. And unfortunately, I am currently in arrears to this gentleman.”  He blew a smoke ring. “Just as you are in arrears to me.”

“What is that to do with me?” Maggie demanded through her tears.

“Don’t you know, Maggie? Can’t you see? You surprise me, an intelligent woman like yourself.”

“What are you driving at?”

England puffed slowly on his cigar and looked at the ceiling, as if contemplating how much to ante up in a poker game. Maggie’s sobs annoyed him, but he decided to ignore them. Why let her tears bother him when he held such good cards?

“Let me see, now. You owe me four payments, for which I could take possession of this property right now as my legal right. Plus I could have you arrested and charged as an accessory to that bandit’s theft of my new watch, a sum of cash and an unloaded pistol. That would make you penniless, Maggie. Penniless, but not homeless, since you would be in a prison cell, wouldn’t you?”

“Damn you to hell!”

“Now, now, Maggie, there is no need to talk like a common whore. Although whatever you and that Georgian bandit did in your bed last night was no doubt…But never mind. No, as I said, I have an alternative arrangement in mind.”

Maggie tried to speak, but the words would not form.

“What’s that, Maggie?” he asked. “What arrangement do I have in mind? I’m glad you asked.”

England stood without warning and grabbed both her arms, shaking her violently. “Listen, you harlot! Stop your damned whimpering! Listen!”

He sat down again and waited till she composed herself. He idly watched the smoke from his cigar. Then he continued calmly and deliberately, like his outburst had never happened.

“You owe me four payments. Plus I have decided you owe me four more payments for the outrage of aiding and abetting that scoundrel Georgian. That is fair compensation. Plus you owe me four more payments for not having you arrested and imprisoned. That makes twelve payments in all. But I do not expect you to pay me, or my acquaintance, in cash.”

Maggie wept. She knew where this was leading.

“Quiet now and listen to me! Each payment is equal to two nights in your bed. I could of course demand more, but I am not a vindictive man. Nor am I unreasonable. So that makes twenty four nights of free and unlimited access to your body. We will make it eighteen nights for me and six for my acquaintance, who will be informed of this arrangement upon my return to town this afternoon.”

Maggie remained mute. She could say nothing that England didn’t already know or couldn’t anticipate.

“Have I made myself clear? You understand your debt, don’t you? You are in no doubt about what this entails?”

She nodded weakly.

“Let me hear you say it, Maggie. Tell me you understand.”

She choked on the words, but somehow she uttered, “I understand.”

“Very well, then. I’m glad you’ve decided to be sensible about this.”

England stood up and brushed cigar ash from his jacket. It mixed with the mud on the floor.

“Oh, and Maggie, our arrangement starts tomorrow evening. With me. Ensure the sheets are freshly laundered.”

On his way out he stopped at the doorway and said, “Oh yes, I almost forgot. My acquaintance will…meet you soon. Good day. Until tomorrow evening, then.”

England rode off and Maggie buried her head in her hands and sobbed uncontrollably. Thoughts flooded her mind. What about ‘Mr. Smith’? Is he safe? She thought of her husband looking down from heaven. She thought about the shotgun in her bedroom. Do I have the courage to end it all?

Maggie knew what she must become. If she wanted to survive she had no choice. A woman alone must suffer to live.

 

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