Authors: Pete Dexter
PRAISE FOR PETE DEXTER
"What deepens and darkens [Dexter's] writing, so that art is the precise word to describe it, is a powerful understanding that character rules, that we live with our weaknesses and die of our strengths." —
"Dexter is a master of colloquial poetry, of moods revealed through gestures and settings." —
"One of the greatest American writers.... A storyteller who cuts straight to the nerve." —
Scott L. Turow
"Dexter's strongest suit is his exquisite understandingof the finely meshed engines of greed, appetite, andinterest." —
The New York Times Book Review
"Great, eccentric characters. . . . Dexter's writing is aliving thing." —
"Dexter is an irresistibly fluid and engaging writer."
"It's easy to get lost in Dexter's beautifully constructed sentences . . . their attention to detail, their careful rhythms and brutal observations."
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Pete Dexter is the author of the National Book Award winner
. He was born in Michigan and raised in Georgia, Illinois, and eastern
South Dakota. He lives on Puget Sound, Washington.
BOOKS BY PETE DEXTER
A Division of Random House, Inc.
FIRST VINTAGE CONTEMPORARIES EDITION, JULY 2005
1986 by Pete Dexter
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published
in hardcover in the United States by Random House, Inc.,
New York, in 1986.
Vintage and colophon are registered trademarks and
Vintage Contemporaries is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Random House edition
Dexter, Pete, 1943-
PS3554.E95D4 1986 813'.54 85-19635
Vintage ISBN: 1 -4000-7971 -3
Printed in the United States of America
Dorothy and William Selz,
of Vermillion, South Dakota
I would like to take a moment here to thank Mrs. Marjorie Pontius,
who runs the Carnegie Library in Deadwood. The town of Deadwood
and I are both lucky she is there.
he large events and the settings of this novel—the fire that destroyed Deadwood, the assassinations of Bill Hickok and the China Doll, the weather, the life and travels of Charley Utter—are all real.
The characters, with the exception of Malcolm Nash, are also real, and were in Deadwood at the time these events occurred.
PART ONE: Bill, 1876
PART TWO: The China Doll, 1876
PART THREE: Agnes, 1876
PART FOUR: Jane, 1878
PART FIVE: Charley, The Isthmus of Panama, 1912
he boy shot Wild Bill's horse at dusk, while Bill was off in the bushes to relieve himself. It was lucky for everybody but the horse that it happened when it did, but not so lucky it had to be God's hand in it. It always took Bill a while in the bushes—it wasn't dusk when he'd gone in there—and things have to happen sometime.
The boy's name was Malcolm Nash. He was the younger brother of Charley Utter's wife, and had ridden with Charley and thirty-six mules up from their home in Empire, Colorado, first to Cheyenne, where they met Bill, and then east and north toward the Black Hills.
Charley always had a hard time saying no to his wife.
The boy tried to be helpful, but anything he couldn't break, he lost. The more Charley studied his awkward deportment, the more he wondered at the unreliable nature of human jizzom. The boy and Charley's wife didn't look like each other, even the coloring, and the boy hardly spoke. It was something Charley wouldn't have minded studying, the contrary results of spilled seed. The boy was a strong back, though, and he was polite. He addressed Bill as Mr. Hickok and called everybody else by the same names that Bill did, and he carried a broken-handled old Smith & Wesson in a sash around his waist, butt-first, the way Bill carried his Colts.
Charley had been against bringing the boy from the first suggestion. In his wife's eyes, that amounted to a confession of all the unsafe and unfaithful behavior he and Bill got into when he was away from home. It was peculiar, the way her feelings about Bill had changed. She'd spoken well of him before they were married, and once told Charley he was half famous just for being his friend. Of course, Bill had seen her compromised since.
The boy had no such reservations. Bill had made four visits to Colorado in the last ten years, to hunt bear or watch Charley get married or just get drunk, and Bill was always good to him, keeping the whores and whiskey out of his gunfight stories so he'd grow up right. Bill did not recognize the boy when they all met in Cheyenne, but said it was because Malcolm had become a man.
The boy would have worn carrots in his hat if Bill did.
They'd left Colorado late in the spring, Charley and Malcolm and the mules, and met Bill in Cheyenne, where he was organizing a wagon train. They got to his rooming house at seven o'clock in the morning, June 22. The lady superintendent reported Bill had already combed his hair and walked up the street to the Republican Hotel for cocktails, which she implied was his morning habit. "I expect he'll be back in half an hour, walk through the door carrying a full glass of whiskey, and finish his toilet," she said.
Charley wasn't surprised. It was the history of things that Bill would wear out his welcome.
Charley saw the lady was not going to invite them in to wait, and so he and the boy walked down the street too, and found Bill standing at the far end of the Republican Hotel bar, squinting into the light from the doorway as they came in, trying to decide if it was trouble.
Charley had been to Cheyenne in March, when Bill had married the famous circus performer Agnes Lake, and even getting married, Bill had been in a brighter mood than he was now.
"Did you know they held elections last week?" he said when he saw who it was.
Charley said, "Where?"
"Right here. Cheyenne." Bill was a good-American but he never liked elections. It was like the railroads, an unrefutable sign that things were going to hell. "The new city officers have published a list of fifty men they charged with vagrancy," he said. "Put it up all over town, issued warrants for the arrests."
Charley waited. Bill pulled a piece of paper out of his sash and unfolded it on the bar. Charley bent over and looked. The boy stood still, watching everything they did. The list was alphabetical, and most of the names on it Charley recognized for thieves or killers of one sort or another. The twenty-seventh name was James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok.
"Well," Charley said, "it's the price of fame."
"Look down there at the bottom," Bill said.
Charley's finger went to the bottom of the list and started up. The fifth name he touched was his own, only they'd misspelled it. Charles "Colorado Charley" Udder. Charley hated it when they spelled him like that.
"What kind of slander is this?" he said. "I am a respectable businessman from Empire, Colorado."
Bill picked the paper up off the bar, folded it, and put it back in his sash. "Nobody from the police department has been by to arrest me," he said. "I gave them a few days to make up their mind if they were going to."
That night at the hotel bar, Bill laid down the rules of his wagon train. He would take only seventy wagons to Dead wood, nobody who was sick, no firebugs, no whores. Seventy wagons was enough to be safe from any party of Indians, but more than that and you couldn't be safe from yourself. Bill didn't want any bad apples. The trip would take two weeks, and each man, woman, and child had to carry a firearm, and pay him fifty dollars.
None of this discouraged the assembly at the Republican bar, which applauded him. The Black Hills was the wildest and the richest place on earth, and no man into his cups would admit things were wild enough for him right there in the hotel. Wagons on the way to the Hills had already come through from California, where the gold had begun to peter out, and pilgrims were headed there from the other direction too. Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa—for three years the grasshoppers in the States had come in over the crops like black clouds, and when they left, they'd taken it all with them. Bill had seen that with his own eyes in Iowa after he'd taken Agnes Lake home to St. Louis to wait for him until he got back on his feet.
It wasn't the way Bill would have put it to Agnes Lake, but some time had passed since he'd had a pot to piss in. Charley couldn't see him telling her about that at all. There was a respect between Bill and Agnes that did not invite inspection of the parties.
Bill and Charley and Malcolm and the mules waited four days, until Bill was satisfied nobody was coming to arrest them, and then he set a time to leave. Daybreak, June 27.
By nine o'clock Bill saw none of the boys from the Republican were going to show up. What had shown up was a Jew that wanted to set up a hardware store, and two peddlers. Four wagons, if you counted Bill and Charley's. Bill collected fifty dollars from each of them, and they started east, Charley driving the wagon, Bill sitting on his horse, a handsome old gelding he'd named Peerless, drinking cocktails.
The boy rode one of the mules.
Anyone but Bill would have rethought it right there. He had it in his head there was something waiting for him in the Hills, though. Charley couldn't get him to say exactly what; he thought Bill might not know either.
They met another wagon train at Fort Laramie, five days out of Cheyenne. Twenty-eight wagons, most of them full of whores. Some Chinese, some American. The filthiest whores Charley had seen up to then, here is what the Americans had for names: Dirty Emma, Tit Bit, Smooth Bones, and Sizzling Kate. The Chinese had little feet. They couldn't walk more than a few steps and stayed close to their whore man.
Bill joined wagons. He didn't like it, but the Indians were a fact. Once the whores heard who it was, they came after Bill's person night and day. Bill never gave them a look, and in the end he went to one of their wagons and talked to a whore man named Al Swearingen, who was importing a fresh load of girls for his place in Dead-wood, and they didn't come by again.
The boy went to the wagon with him, carrying that old Smith & Wesson in his sash, and came back with a new purpose in life. Charley didn't see what it hurt, and didn't stop the boy when he went back to the wagon later, after sunset. He went that night and the night after, and the night after that. That's where he was before he shot Bill's horse.
They'd stopped early in the afternoon, in sight of the Hills. On that day, in that light, the Hills were as black as the Devil's dreams. It looked to Charley like once you got inside you might lose the sun's light forever. Charley put it out of his head.
The boy tethered and fed the mules, washed his face, and headed over into the whores' wagons. Al Swearingen, the man that Bill had spoken to about his whores, came over a little later carrying a bottle and three glasses, and offered up a drink of whiskey to celebrate finding the Hills. He was pale-eyed and bearded, the kind that was planning ten days ahead every day of his life. Bill took the drink, Charley didn't. The whore man's fingers had been all over the insides of the glasses.
Bill drank half of what the whore man poured him and waited to see what it would do. The man said, "This is a historic day, pards," and threw his down. Bill looked at him. The man said, "I mean, finding the Hills."
Bill studied his glass. He put his finger in the whiskey and came out with a speck of a gnat and rolled it off his fingers. Charley said, "Did you think we were going to miss the Black Hills?" North to south, they ran a hundred miles.
"No," he said, "I certainly didn't mean nothin' like that." And Bill laid his eyes on him again, calm and cold, until he went away. That was the way Bill handled annoyances when he could. He never threatened a soul unless he meant it.
The whore man went back to his own wagon. It was bigger than the others and brand new. The boy had been inside it, and said it looked like the finest hotel. The boy had never been in a hotel room in his life. Charley saw them then, the boy and the whore man, climbing into the back with two of the girls.
"Malcolm's back with the whores," he said. Bill smiled and shook his head. He couldn't see that far himself.
"It's a sign of health, knowing what you want," Bill said.
"He's young," Charley said.
"That's another sign," Bill said. He was thirty-nine years old. One of the whores shrieked and came halfway out of the back of the wagon, and then something grabbed her from behind and pulled her back in. "What are we, a day out of the Hills?" Bill said.
"More," Charley said. The Hills had been in view since early that morning. It wasn't like coming into the Rockies, that seemed to grow out of the earth in front of your eyes. Until you were close, the Hills just seemed to get darker.
"What do they look like?" Bill said.
"Shit, Bill, you seen the Black Hills." Bill shook his head, stubborn. Charley said, "They look black."
Another whore went into the wagon, and then a couple others followed her. The wagon shook and rocked and somebody in there started to sing. A weak, whining voice that strangled itself on the up notes.
"Could you tell them I once killed a woman for singing like that?" Bill said.
Charley thought it over. "I can't tell something like that," he said.
"I won't make you a woman-killer." As he said that, the voice stopped cold, right in the middle of "Beautiful Dreamer." "Maybe the boy killed her for you," he said.
"He's been with us what, ten days, and we already made him an opera critic," Bill said.
Charley said, "Of course, maybe he stuck his peeder in her mouth."
Bill shrugged. "Then we made his peeder an opera critic." Bill stood up, still holding the whore man's glass. "You see that dog?" he said. The dog belonged to the whore man too. It was resentful and short-haired and never looked you in the eye, and it had a head the size of a cow's. It was walking through the wagon horses now, worrying them, about thirty steps away.
"I see it," Charley said, surprised that Bill did. Thirty steps was farther out than Bill's eyes usually went.
"A gentleman's wager?" Bill said.
They bet five dollars, and Bill turned his back to the animal, dropping the arm holding the glass, and then he spun, his arm half a second behind the rest of him, and when he let go of the glass it carried the distance like a line of piss, sparkling in the light, and hit that monster square in the head. The dog screamed. "Sounds like he saw a snake," Bill said.
Charley had never seen anybody throw like Bill. It was magic, the way things connected for him. Bill climbed into the wagon and came out with a bottle. He pulled the cork with his teeth and spit it onto the ground, signaling his intentions. It was a bottle without a future. He took a drink and handed it to Charley. Charley wiped off the lip and joined him. The whores were shrieking again.
They passed the bottle back and forth two or three times and then Bill stood up to go into the bushes. He walked around the wagon horses and up a little hill. There were some weeds there and trees, thick enough to afford privacy.
Whatever kind of blood disease Bill had, it had gotten worse since March. The morning Charley found him in the hotel bar, he'd asked how it was, and Bill told him he thought his piss had to cut a new bed through there every time he went. Charley didn't ask him about it again, there was such a thing as leaving some distance. He knew, though, that Bill was afraid he'd given a case of it to Agnes, and thinking he'd done that made him love her the more.
He'd been in the bushes half an hour when the whore man came scrambling out of the front end of the wagon. The boy came out the back end, half dressed and trailing whores, carrying that old Smith & Wesson in his right hand. One of the whores had a bottle, there wasn't a trace of color to what was inside. She was holding on to that with one hand and trying to hold on to him with the other. "It don't mean nothin'," she said to him. "Come back in the wagon, 'fore you get injured."
The boy got himself loose and headed toward the front of the wagon, with intentions to use the gun. Charley saw right away that he meant it. The whore man had run from his wagon and climbed into the back of another. It belonged to one of the paper-collars that had signed up in Cheyenne. There was a needle gun back there— the peddler had shown it to Bill at the first camp—and if the whore man found that, the boy was as good as dead.
Charley moved to slow things down. "Here now, Malcolm," he said, "get hold of yourself." And the boy turned, shooting before he could see who it was. Old Peerless was tied to Charley's wagon, and he never even flinched. He was like Bill in a fight. The ball went in right behind the shoulder. Peerless stood still for half a minute; the boy froze at the size of the mistake. Then the old horse turned his head back, like he was trying to see what it was changing things so fast, and then he dropped onto his knees and a tremor took over his hindquarters, and he wasn't looking back anymore, because he knew what it was by then.