Authors: Jason Manning
Copyright © 2015, Jason Manning
ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW
Young Delgado McKinn had barely made it into Turley's Mill through the ring of death around it. "How many are in here?" he asked, trying to ignore the pain of his twisted ankle.
"Well, let's see," Simon Turley said. "There's Tom Tobin, Ike Claymore, Billy Russell and that breed partner of his, Stump Willis and Amos Marsh. Then there's me and Falconer. You're the ninth man, Del."
"Nine men," said Delgado. "Against a hundred."
"I wish you hadn't come, Del," Falconer said. "We have no chance, do we?" Delgado said.
"Anything can happen," said Falconer.
"No. You're lying," Delgado said. "You know we're finished. There is no hope. Aren't you afraid, Hugh? Afraid to die?"
"We all die," Falconer said. "Guess that's the price we pay for getting to live."
Delgado looked around him. Maybe they would die, but not like rats in a trap. They would die like men—mountain men. . . .
When people first become aware that I have devoted my professional life to the study of the history of the United States between the creation of the Constitution and the outbreak of the Civil War, many of them give me a blank or bewildered stare, sometimes seasoned with pity. How could someone waste so much time on such a dull subject? What, they might ask, transpired in that three-quarters of a century that could be of much relevance to people today?
As to the second question—what happened?—I take great pleasure in telling them.
The War of 1812 happened. The Mexican War, too. The Aroostook War and the war with the Barbary Pirates. Let's not forget the "Quasi-War" with France. The Black Hawk War. The Alamo and the Battle of San Jacinto. The First and Second Seminole Wars.
Great men strode the American stage, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Thomas Hart Benton, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie, Lewis and Clark, Madison and Monroe, Hamilton and Burr, Martin Van Buren, Sam Houston, Tecumseh, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Washington Irving. James Fenimore Cooper wrote
The Leatherstocking Tales
. Hawthorne wrote
The Scarlet Letter
. Thoreau retired from the human rat race to Walden Pond and penned
. Great women also strode that stage. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote
Uncle Tom's Cabin
. There was Ann Lee of the Shakers, the abolitionist Grimke sisters, Margaret Fuller, Dorothea Dix, and Harriet Tubman of Underground Railroad fame.
What happened, you ask? The Louisiana Purchase happened. The Monroe Doctrine. The Missouri Compromise, the Tariff of Abominations, the ill-advised Embargo Act, the Nullification Crisis, the Gadsden Purchase, the Second Great Awakening, the Oregon Trail and the Trail of Tears, the Panic of 1837, the yellow fever epidemic of 1832 in New Orleans (in which one-sixth of the city's population fell victim in twelve days.) The Lincoln-Douglas Debates happened, and Bleeding Kansas, and the Bank War, and Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, Colt's revolver and Winchester's rifle, and inventions by McCormick and Goodyear and Singer.
Mountain men and the fabulous fur trade happened. Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey and slave rebellions, the great Webster-Hayne Debate, the notorious Burr-Hamilton duel, the Erie Canal and Robert Fulton's steamboat, the Santa Fe Trail and Pikes Peak and the Bear Flag Republic, "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight," "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," the Spanish Conspiracy and the Corrupt Bargain, the Fugitive Slave Law and the Dred Scott Decision,
, William Lloyd Garrison and the
, Transcendentalists and Millerites and Utopians, Brigham Young and the Mormons, Manifest Destiny and States' Rights, War Hawks and Whigs and Anti-
masons and Locofocos, Jean Lafitte and the Reverend Devil, Tammany Hall and the Know-Nothings.
In short, what happened between 1787 and 1861 was the growth of our nation, the seed of a great democratic experiment, unlike anything the world had seen before, sprouting into a sapling buffeted by the storms of political and cultural change in a vibrant and exciting age. It was a time when a polyethnic people defined what it meant to be an American—a definition of principles based on ideals which, though even now buffeted by winds of change, yet holds true.
This novel is the story of one man's struggle to come to terms with what it meant to be an American in those tumultuous times.
"These are the facts which insult you
. . . "
elgado McKinn was awakened by the shrill keening of the riverboat's steam whistle. Sitting up too quickly, he winced at the stabbing pain in his head. It felt as though a stiletto of white hot steel had been thrust through his temples. Too much cognac. He smiled ruefully. Ten dollars a bottle, imported from France. How much had he consumed? He could not remember—but obviously more than he should have.
Guilt promptly insinuated itself, made him feel worse still. His father would have sternly disapproved of his actions last night. Angus McKinn was descended from Scottish Covenanters who made Quakers look like libertines. He viewed any form of recreation as a sign of moral weakness, indicative of a shameful proclivity toward self-indulgence. Ceaseless work was the only justification for man's presence on earth. Delgado admired his father, and the last thing he ever wanted to do was disappoint him. And Angus McKinn would most certainly have been disappointed had he known of his son's promiscuity. Getting drunk and gambling at cards! The Devil's work!
Delgado swung long legs off the bed and groaned as the well-appointed stateroom began to spin. He closed his eyes and ran long fingers through tousled
hair as black as a crow's wing, kneading his scalp. If a man took his pleasure, he had to endure the pain. There was always a price to be paid. At least, mused Delgado, I did not lose at cards.
Fortunately, from his standpoint, the game had been whist. He would not have fared so well, perhaps, at poker or keno. Three gentlemen had been looking for a fourth, and Delgado had just happened to be passing by their table in the grand saloon. They were Messrs. Horan, Wheeler, and Sterling. Horan, the planter's son. Pale, angular features. A full, selfish mouth. Pale blue eyes. Pale hair that curled down over his forehead in stubborn resistance to a generous application of pomatum. Wheeler, stocky, with a pleasant kind of bluff pugnacity, a jowly face framed by prodigious muttonchop whiskers, a loud, braying voice, a St. Louis merchant with an expert's grasp of the Mississippi River commerce down to its most intimate and obscure details, and a wealthy man as a consequence of this expertise. Sterling, thin as a rapier's blade, and with a wit as sharp as the tip of a duelist's sword, cool and collected at all times, impeccable in dress and manners, although early on Delgado had detected in him a streak of misanthropy. A newspaper editor. Delgado could not recall the name of the newspaper.
He had been fortunate, too, in being paired with Sterling, a polished and utterly ruthless player. Wheeler proved too predictably straightforward in his play—whist was a game best played with guile. Horan was a daring player and had fared well enough in the early going, but he hated to lose, which he had begun to do as the night wore on. The more he lost, the more reckless and erratic became his game.
One thing Delgado could remember with crystal clarity was the final round. A true masterpiece. Wheeler had dealt, turning up a heart as trump. Delgado had led with the king of hearts, a thoughtless opening on the face of it, and he had seen the dismay flash fleetingly across Sterling's features. But the king of diamonds followed, taking the trick, and then the ace of hearts, and the seven, and Sterling took the next trick with the queen, returning a diamond, as eleven hearts had by that time been expelled. Delgado passed the queen of diamonds. It was followed by the ace. Their opponents lost small spades to a seemingly endless onslaught of diamonds, and when the time was right, Delgado played his ace of spades, followed by the four. Sterling knew now that his partner had played a good hand with great skill. He finessed his knave, played the king of spades, upon which Delgado disposed of his singleton. The last two tricks were then Delgado's for the taking. Wheeler and Horan had held every trick in spades, and yet Delgado and his partner had made a slam.
Of course, gentlemen usually indulged in a friendly wager over cards. During his leisurely jaunt across the United States, Delgado had come to the conclusion that Americans had an insatiable appetite for gambling. Risk taking was deeply ingrained in the national character. Games of chance, horse races, cock fights, wrestling matches—Delgado had even seen two men bet heavily on which of a pair of raindrops would reach the bottom of a windowpane first.
Wheeler and Horan lost a hundred dollars on the final round, Sterling had been the one to raise the ante all night, to and even beyond the point where Delgado began to feel butterflies in his
stomach. After all, this was his father's money, and Angus McKinn had not given it to his son to lose in a card game. Then, too, Delgado had the distinct impression that Sterling, for whatever reason, derived immense satisfaction from taking Brent Horan's money. It was more than a friendly wager for the newspaperman. He had used his wit, like sharp steel wrapped in silk, to cunningly and mercilessly prod Horan into ever higher bets. A dangerous game, since Horan was a Southern aristocrat, and Delgado knew such men were quick to take offense at even the most innocuous slight. Yet Sterling played his needling barbs with as much finesse as he did the pasteboards, enticing Horan into further costly flirtation with Lady Luck, pricking his pride and vanity, goading him to renewed recklessness. His senses dulled by strong spirits, Horan had been led like a lamb to slaughter, and by the end of it all had lost several hundred dollars.
"I was at first concerned," Sterling admitted to Delgado as they split their winnings over one last drink, after Wheeler and Horan had departed the grand saloon. "I thought you might be an amateur when it came to whist. But you have a masterful command of the game, sir. You play a good hand well and, even more important, a losing hand even better."
Delgado thanked him. "I had excellent teachers. I played whist every Saturday night for three years at Oxford, almost without exception."
"Oxford? I didn't think you were an American, sir. English, then?"
Delgado smiled. "Not quite. My father is a Scotsman. My mother is the daughter of a Spanish grandee."
He left it at that, for by that time the cognac
had the better of him, and he wanted nothing more than to retire to his stateroom and lie down and close his eyes. Sterling was intrigued, one look at Delgado McKinn and you could tell his was no ordinary pedigree. His black hair was wavy and unfashionably long, by American standards, to the shoulder. His clean-shaven features were aquiline, the eyes brooding and almost black. He was tall at two inches over six feet, and so slender in build that he seemed taller still. He spoke with a definite accent, but it was not obtrusive. One thing was clear—Delgado McKinn was endowed with a gentleman's grace, and had a gentleman's grasp of manners and vocabulary, and yet strong, almost reckless, passions surged just beneath that polished exterior. Finally, and with perfectly natural envy, Sterling conceded that Delgado McKinn was an extraordinarily handsome fellow. No young woman—and probably no woman of any age—no matter how well brought up, would be able to resist letting her gaze linger in speculative wonder upon this dark and rather mysterious stranger.
For his part, Delgado had learned to be vague about his citizenship. His home, Taos, was still part of the Republic of Mexico, and Mexico, as of May 13, 1846, only eight weeks ago, was at war with the United States. Technically, then, Delgado McKinn was traveling through enemy territory.
The side-wheeler's whistle shrilled again, and Delgado rose from his bed. Though it took considerable effort to do so, he was determined to
demonstrate to the Fates that he still had a will of his own. He had slept in his clothes, so he changed into a clean white cambric shirt and donned a fresh waistcoat, fitted dark blue frock coat, and a fresh cravat, skillfully knotted to create an impression of deliberate negligence, which was the fashion of the day. He made certain to transfer his wallet from last night's rumpled coat to the one he now wore. One did not leave one's valuables lying about in a steamboat stateroom. Even on a boat as reputable as the
. On the river packets you met the wealth, the wit, and the rascality of the land. The passengers included ladies and gentlemen of unassailable propriety: businessmen, cotton planters, Creole lawyers, bankers, and commission merchants. But there were plenty of scoundrels riding the river, as well. Gunmen and gamblers, courtesans and common thieves.