Monday, February 4, 2013


Four of you have responded to my request in the last post on this blog to read and comment on the first chapter of my Wyatt Earp novel Riding the Hearse.  The remarks were mostly favorable and I'm obliged to those of you who took the time to read the piece and advise me.  I very much want to get this book right, so I encourage more comments, especially from those of you who may be familiar with the tale of the Earps and their time in Tombstone, Arizona.  As I mentioned in the preceding post, this book has been in gestation for close to twenty years and although I know it to be flawed, I also have high hopes for it.  So my sincere thanks to the brave four who gave me your opinions.  And let me urge more of you to do the same.  I look forward to hearing from you.

With that, I offer Chapter Two below:



One morning on the western edge of Tombstone, the woman who'd been calling herself Virgil Earp's wife long enough to have made a fact of it killed a badger-sized rat with a shovel in the shed behind the one-room adobe they shared with Virge's relations.  When she was done pounding the rat she summoned Virge down the ladder from the roof to view the remains.  Virge was glad of a reason to excuse himself from patching the several holes in the dried mud of the roof.  Always the holes he repaired gave birth overnight to more holes still larger and more ragged, and she knew he was close to thinking it was beyond his power ever to catch up to their rate of increase.  He descended the ladder to observe her rat.  It was a Goliath indeed, but Virge allowed he'd seen bigger.  Allie demanded to know where.

"Fort Donelson, Tennessee," he replied, "during the Rebellion."

Suspiciously she squinted.  "I declare, that war was the most convenient thing that ever happened to you, when it comes to telling stretchers.  I just hope someday I meet an old messmate of yours, so's I can question him and expose all your fiddle-faddle."

He picked up the dead rat by the tail and flung it into the creosote that grew thick behind the cabin.  It hit the ground in a puff of dust and two others darted into the open to scurry out of sight underneath brother James's big Shattuck wagon.  Allie shook her head.  "You've got to find us a cat before these critters nibble up everything we own.  I chased one off this morning that was dragging a poke of coffee beans right out the door into the road."

Virge shrugged.  "Only thing scarcer than unclaimed color hereabouts is a mouser.  I saw a fellow give ten silver dollars t'other day for an old one-eyed tom with both ears chewed off."

The corners of Allie's mouth turned down in a little moue of sarcasm.  "If brother Wyatt's so foxy about how to get rich, how come he didn't fetch along a wagonload of cats?"

As usual Virge failed to rise to the bait.  Virge's younger brother Wyatt prided himself on his foresight and business sense; it was on account of him and his visions of prosperity that Virge and Allie - and older brother James and his family too - had come to such a dry-bones spot as Tombstone in the first place, to make their fortunes, as Wyatt was fond of saying.  Allie harbored doubts about brother Wyatt and his plots and often spoke her misgivings out, like now.  But instead of taking issue—he seldom did—Virge only stood close and wrapped one big arm around her.  He favored her with that look of his that could still make her squirm with delight, even after their five years of living together.  His smile was regretful.  "I reckon," he said, "'t'ain't no fit place to live atall."

She laid her head against his broad chest.  She smelled the good salt smell of his sweat mixed with the spicy aroma of his shaving-soap and the faint whiff of lye that lingered in his shirt from its last laundering.  She threaded an arm underneath his jacket and closed it about his waist.  He felt so firm that he might have been planted in the ground with roots, like an oak.  He was what she needed most.  In the twenty-five troublesome years she'd lived before he came swaggering along to cast his sunshine over her, Alvira Sullivan had been steadily losing hope that this world offered anything beyond a power of misery, or that she could ever count on another living soul, or that there was any remedy at all for being so lonesome she ached.  Virge had fixed that just by showing up.  That was why she could abide a swarm of rats, and an adobe hut with the mud stucco falling off in chunks and holes in the roof so big you could look up through the rotten vigas and the rips in the muslin of a night and count the stars.

Unmindful of her contentment, he gave her a squeeze meant to reassure.  "Directly we'll have a proper house of our own, Al, I promise.  Just be patient awhile longer."

She might fancy the man, but it was no reason not to keep him feeling beholden.  She wagged in his face the swollen tips of her fingers, red as rosebuds from sewing the stiff canvas she and Ceelie Anne were making into an awning for Mr. Jim Vogan's saloon and bowling alley down the road.  "Well, till you mining tycoons strike the mother lode, sister Ceelie and me will just keep on slaving away with the needle and thread and that Singer machine of mine.  I expect if we work double shifts we can manage to earn enough to feed the eight of us and the rats too.
Virge dipped his head the way he did when he felt remorseful.  Frank, his old Pawnee dog, came loping around the corner of the hut, lifted a leg against the nigh rear wheel of brother James's Shattuck, then stretched out in the dirt and watched them with his liver-colored tongue dangling.  Virge wistfully watched him back.  Allie knew he was tormenting himself and it made her feel smug.

Presently he said, "You know that fellow Gird, the mining engineer?  Wyatt took him out to look at the claim this morning.  Gird says it looks to him like the ore's setting big end up.  There's no telling how deep it goes without working it, but what's on top assays out at about seventy dollars to the ton, although he did get a hundred fifty out of our best piece of float.  It might get get richer lower down."  He paused and gave a squint.  "Or it could peter out," he admitted with a little sigh. "We can go ahead and sink on it and hope for better value underneath, or we can just decide it won't stand blasting and sell it off.  Myself, I'm inclined to put her on the market."

She barely heard him and in time he sensed it and quit conversing to the empty air.  He was used to her notice winding off elsewhere whenever he remarked about the mining.  He'd always loved the long chance, and in the three years they'd lived in Arizona he'd used every free moment prospecting for the seam of gold, or silver, or copper, or lead, or something, that was going to make them flush.  They weren't flush yet—far from it, God knew—but Virge felt sure they would be, one day.  Allie suspected otherwise but never did begrudge him his hopes.  She was just weary of hearing him go on about them.

"Well," he laughed in a sheepish way, "seeing as how I've put you in a doze with my palaver, I reckon I'll go back to work and leave you a-slumbering." 

She watched him climb the ladder nimble as a cat despite his size and heft.  It always amazed her how quick and clever he could move and how graceful, him being so big-boned and inclined to stoutness as he was.  He looked over the edge of the roof at her and grinned in his ruddy face so that his droopy mustache the color of cooked carrots reversed itself and turned saucily up.  The sun kindled in his red-blond thatch.  She thought him the seemliest of sights up there, smiling down on her.  Allie had been an orphan girl and homely with her freckles and her scrap of orange hair, yet this man, mighty and handsome as he was, had wanted her.  It still seemed a marvel past all accounting.

She resumed feeding the laying hens as she'd been doing when the rat appeared, while above her on the roof Virge commenced humming in his tuneless way, troweling out the fresh mud.  It was a wonder to her how jolly Virge could be when brother Wyatt was such a draught of cold, with ways as dank as a serpent's.  Wyatt was the middle one in age—there were two others apart from Jim, Morgan and Warren, younger than he—but he always behaved as though the whole clan had got together and elected him boss over the bunch of them. Maybe they had, at that.  Whatever tune he called, every last Earp would dance it.

Yet, though nearly all thought of him vexed her, in a strange way Allie couldn't help holding him somewhat dear.  Partly this was because he was of Virge's blood, and close enough in likeness to be his twin save for being slighter, and because he clearly doted on Virge.  Also, as an orphan Allie loved being in the heart of a big and boisterous family at last and brother Wyatt was a part of that.  He was a long, rangy, good-looking cuss, over six foot high, with close-set blue eyes and thick blond hair with auburn tones in it and the white and slender hands of a gambler.  He carried himself like a potentate.  Yet there was his coldness.  Sometimes it frightened her.


After finishing with the chickens she went into the jacal to make ready for dinner.  She skinned and cut up the two rabbits Virge had shot that morning and picked the shot out of them and put them in a pot with some onions and potatoes and peppers and set out to fix a stew.  On the other side of the cloth partition that divided the one room she found brother Jim's stepdaughter Hattie lying still abed, in her nightdress at eleven o'clock in the morning, and although it was no concern of Allie's how much the girl lolled and lazed, Allie couldn't help reproaching her for her layabout ways.

Hattie stretched in such manner that one white globe of teat popped out of the yoke of her nightdress and showed its nipple of pale pink, a vision that was wasted on Allie but when presented - as it often was - to the menfolk of the house, sometimes fetched an appreciative if guilty glance sideways.  "You cover yourself up, young woman," Allie admonished.  Hattie had chill and empty eyes, pale as moons.  She fixed these on Allie, who felt them on her like spots of frost.  "You ain't my mama to be telling me how to be," Hattie remarked in surly fashion.  She sat up on her pallet with her knees under her chin and the bottom of the nightdress hiked up to display her nearly hairless nether parts.  Allie turned aside in chagrin.  Hattie said, "Get yourself your own youngun to argue at."

At the sting of this Allie bit her lip and fought back a surge of tears.  She had kept alive for long an ember of hope for the child she and Virge had always wanted but hadn't got.  The Lord only knew why they were not favored in that way.  Maybe something was wrong with Allie inside.  Or maybe—she didn't really believe this—there was some taint to Virge's seed.  Whatever the reason, she longed for a babe as only an orphan can.  She wanted a little girl she could dress in pinafores and ribbons, who would grow up to be pretty and sly and funny and wise.  Virge wanted a girl too, to make into a tomboy with scabs on her elbows and dirt on her knees and her hands sunk to the wrists in a jar of night-crawlers. God, if there was a God, hadn't answered that prayer in five long years.  There on the mountain at their sawmill camp by Thumb Butte above Prescott, where they'd lived before coming here, she'd dared hope maybe He would.  He hadn't, or maybe didn't exist atall and couldn't; and now Allie feared her ember of hope was fading out.

"No," she told Hattie by way of reply, choking back her pain, "you ain't my youngun, and thank the Lord for it.  But it's the job of an aunt to teach a girl what's becoming."  She scowled and added, "And what you're a-doing, ain't."

While Allie busied herself with the stew, Hattie got up and went padding barefoot out of the jacal; Allie watched through the window as she walked in the dooryard with the sun shining through the thin cotton nightdress in such a way as to outline every curve of her.  Hattie wanted Virge to see her body from his perch on the roof.  She leaned over to pick up a pebble so that Virge could remark how her bosoms dangled.  Then she threw the rock at the rooster, who ruffled up his neck feathers and looked offended. "My mama's a whore," Hattie said, as if addressing the rooster.  "The man that says he's my papa is a pimp."

Allie shook her head.  Bad blood ran in Hattie's veins and it was running hotter by the season as she grew out of her sullen girlhood toward a woman's state.  There was no telling what scamp had got her; she was a woods colt and sister Bessie, her mama, had never told the father's name.  Bessie and brother James—Jim, they mostly called him—were in the sporting trade and because of this, by common consent many such large questions lay unanswered and unexplored between them.

Allie conceded that Hattie was something of an argument against having younguns.  But she also thought Hattie dwelt on carnal matters thanks to sister Bessie, who'd passed on to the girl whatever demon it was that tempted women to take up the gay life.  Bessie herself was a great beauty and wore a cloud of brunette hair.  She was a devout Catholic and would regularly go to mass and confession.  The faith of Rome was the perfect one for what she called a Cyprian, she always maintained, because you could be absolved every morning for what you did by night.  And Bessie favored the life, no question about it.  As a matter of fact, it was probably what she was up to this very minute, down at the other end of town where the cribs were.

Presently Hattie returned inside frowning and Allie couldn't help wondering if it was because Virge had refused to leer at her—Allie hoped that was the case.  Virge was a hot-blooded man; most every night he got after Allie, saying he had a trouser serpent that wanted to bite her.  Not that she minded it one bit.  Smiling in secret she busied herself in the kitchen.  In a while Hattie began washing up and doing her hair, although she kept the nightdress on.  When the stew was ready Allie hollered out the window to Virge and he came down the ladder all smeared with mud.  While he cleaned his hands at the wash-basin Hattie tried the same trick of putting her knees under her chin but Virge gave her nary a look and Allie was pleased.


Brother Jim and his step-boy Frank showed up for dinner.  Jim had taken a job tending bar down at Mr. Vogan's place, whose awning Allie and Ceelie were sewing.  Nephew Frank, who at sixteen was a year older than his half-sister but no more related to Jim than Hattie was, had got himself hired by a freighting outfit and was due to leave for Globe tomorrow driving a rig.  His nature was just the opposite of Hattie's—free and laughing and brim-full of cheery humor.  Virge had named the dog after him because Frank was so lively and the dog such a lollygagger and the difference between them tickled Virge.  Allie was going to miss the boy.  He poked fun at Hattie - said half-naked as she was, she put him in mind of a prairie dog partway skinned out, but not near as fetching.  Jim, who’d spoilt the girl, would never have spoken a scolding word.

Business was slow, Jim declared, and Mr. Vogan had given him the afternoon off.  Allie liked Jim but thought him short on enterprise.  He was as unlike Wyatt as it was possible to be—lived day to day and till recently had never thought to lay a plan.  He was given to fits of temper and could swear something fearful when offended, but his heart was as big as a house and he was fond of the younguns regardless of whose they were.  He was a runt, overtopping little Allie herself by only an inch or two, but still he possessed that grand and noble Earp nose and a mustache every bit as sweeping as Virge's or Wyatt's.  But his coloring was brown, where theirs was fair and ran to red.  He had a withered arm from a wound he'd suffered in the Rebellion.

To accommodate brother Wyatt's notions Jim, like Virge, had lately been obliged to interest himself in unfamiliar matters.  The two of them sat talking about the Long Branch.  That was the name of Wyatt's newest mining claim.  Virge explained to Jim what he'd told Allie before, about the opinion of Gird the engineer and whether they might be wise to sell the claim.  This time Allie listened close enough to conclude that though the engineer had given it some degree of praise, there was still a better than even chance that the Long Branch mine might turn out to be a bust.

Still, most of the signs were good; the brokering of mining claims by and large was paying off, and though they were still short of spending cash, Allie had to admit it was mostly the doing of brother Wyatt that affairs were getting along as good as they were.  He'd got all the brothers together—Morg and Warren would be coming out from California soon—to go into the business.  But if Allie wanted the family about her as much as Wyatt did, she also hated having lost the peace and contentment of her old home on Spruce Mountain by the Granite Creek valley above Prescott.  So she was grateful to Wyatt but some wroth with him too, on account of having had to tear loose from a foundation she'd set down deep in those cool piney woods.

Presently Virge and Jim finished gabbing about the mining claim—since neither was a natural man of affairs, there was a limit to how much they could converse on topics of commerce when Wyatt wasn't around to steer the talk.  After dinner, Jim went back downtown to while away the afternoon in the saloons along Allen Street.  Nephew Frank mounted the ladder with Virge to help with fixing the roof.  Hattie finally donned a shirtwaist and skirt but lay back down on her pallet twisting ringlets of black hair in her fingers and closely examining them as if the hair-ends bore some powerful secret she was bound to parse out.

After scrubbing the stewpot and the dishes and flatware Allie took thought of supper and made up her mind to fry some chicken.  Prowling in the yard, she followed up the yellow hen whose laying had lately got unreliable and taking her by the neck swung her aloft and wrenched off her head with one motion like the cracking of a whip.  While that one dashed and wallowed she laid hands on another, the red with the one eye, and dispatched her the same.  Then she put a pot of water on the fire to boil so she could scald off the plumage.

While waiting for the water to bubble she dragged a rocking chair outdoors and sat in the yard letting the sun warm the sweat and dishwater off her.  The jacal stood at the end of Allen Street which was a red-dirt road running between rows of one-story adobes linked with fences made of ocotillo stalks and mesquite-wood.  Tombstone was a poor-looking place and their jacal was likely the poorest item in it.  But with the silver strike booming like it was, they'd been lucky to rent any kind of place at all; hundreds were camping out in the hills roundabout.  The brothers had butted the three wagons up against the jacal with the sheets run out like tent flies.  On nights when the weather was mild, the menfolk slept in the wagon-beds.  Otherwise the whole bunch of them would crowd into the cabin of a night like navy beans in an airtight.  In the dark the rats would scramble over you to get next to the fire in the corner hearth.  Virge's dog Frank, that they'd hoped would prove a rat-catcher, just lay by the hearth with his head between his paws benignly watching the rats come and go.

About the time the water came to a boil, sister Ceelie Anne returned from seeing the sights in the town and offered to help get the chickens ready.  She brought another chair out and the two of them sat there plucking tussocks of plumage and smelling the damp, disagreeable odor of scalded feathers.  When brother Wyatt arrived from Kansas, Allie had been surprised to see a woman alongside of him on the wagon box.  Not that he hadn't always been a petticoat-chaser.  It was just that Allie never guessed he'd take up regular with a female.  Still, she'd heard Virge tell how Wyatt was married a long time ago in Missouri only to lose his bride by typhoid or breach-birth or somesuch.  The match seemed to have been a case of love, and Virge said her perishing had broken Wyatt's heart.

Whatever the truth of that, it was a puzzle indeed why he'd settled on this one.  Brother Wyatt was a handsome fellow but sister Ceelie was near as plain as a jenny.  She owned a roundish face with a big chin and a fleshy nose and a short, flat mouth that she generally kept bitten into a lipless line.  She had deep-sunk eyes of cornflower blue, quite pretty but also vacant, like the pleasant idiocy in the eyes of a cow.  Her hair was a dark auburn, coarse, inclined to kink and kept short.  She was reticent in a way that could easily deepen into surliness.  Though Allie really didn't like her all that much, she somehow felt inclined to protect her, if for no other reason than that sister Ceelie was a woman like herself, and under the sway of a heedless man.  But Ceelie didn't keep herself too clean, and as they sat there in the sun plucking the chickens Allie could smell her odor of unwashed grime even above the stink of the scalded feathers.

The sad fact of Ceelie's life was that in recent months brother Wyatt seemed to be losing interest in her, and lately she'd begun worrying he aimed to throw her over.  Allie for her part thought sister Ceelie had good reason to fret.  So neglectful had she got, and so prone to whining, it tested Allie's patience as sore as it must've tested Wyatt's; Wyatt was somewhat vain and kept a spruce appearance and always wore the finest clothes, and had no wish to present himself to the world with a woman on his arm so unwashed she reeked and showing under the sleeves of her bodice the dark round stains of old sweat.  Allie had to admit, though, that the slovenliness was a new development; there had been a time, not long ago, when sister Ceelie was always fresh and clean and wore the prettiest dresses and kept her silver bracelets polished, that were now dark with tarnish

While the sun traveled lower in the sky they kept on pulling the moist feathers, the shadows running out longer and thinner before them, and sister Ceelie complained that Wyatt wouldn't tell why he'd taken his latest trip to Tucson—he'd been gone a week, and she feared he kept a woman there to whom he was tendering his affections.  Allie knew better because she'd overheard Wyatt reporting to Virge what transpired.  Wyatt had met with Mr. Shibell, the sheriff of the county Tombstone was in—Pima County, that was. Wyatt nursed political ambitions and was getting the lay of the land talking to all the nabobs.  She told this to sister Ceelie but didn't think Ceelie was convinced.  Ceelie just fell disagreeably silent.


Once Allie and Ceelie got the hens plucked, they carried them inside to gut them and cut them up.  Ceelie seemed in a dismal temper while they worked and after a spell got into a bottle of Old Angelica.  Once the wine had loosened her tongue she commenced to tell how Wyatt had blacksmithed her for years first in a couple of whorehouses in Peoria and then in those Kansas cattle towns, and all against her will. She sobbed inconsolably when she told it and Allie went to her and hugged her close, and when she did, Ceelie felt weightless, like a bag half stuffed with feathers.  Allie was shocked and revolted by what Ceelie related but she’d long since learned what coiled and darksome byways the Earp boys had trod in their time.  She crooned and patted Ceelie's sharp shoulder-blades, enveloped in her odor of soilment and in an almost menstrual aroma she also gave off, which above the odors of wet feathers and chicken-guts smelled like the air of hopelessness itself.  She could feel the throb of sister Ceelie's heart against her own.

Allie knew some of the Earps had run a parlor house in Wichita a few years back and that Ceelie and sister Bessie had been on the line there.  She'd always assumed Ceelie was in the trade by choice.  Now it seemed it was more of a case of white slavery or somesuch—though Allie couldn't see how brother Wyatt could have compelled such degradation.  Surely Ceelie could've run off if she detested the life.  But maybe Ceelie had loved Wyatt too much to leave him.  Or maybe his force over her was too great.  Allie guessed what mattered was how a woman was made up.  Bessie was made up for the sporting life and Ceelie was made up different, just as Allie herself was.  And besides, sister Bessie knew how much her man favored her, while Ceelie doubted Wyatt felt any regard for her whatever, with her loving him to torment.  The world was hard, Allie thought.

Later that same evening of Ceelie's confession, when brother Wyatt came in just past midnight, Ceelie was seated at the Singer, rocking the treadle furiously to and fro, swathed in the heavy folds of Mr. Vogan's striped canvas canopy, the silver bracelets she always wore tinkling together on her wrists as she worked.  Brother Wyatt gazed for just a count or two at her swollen face and Allie saw his nostrils dilate, almost as if he'd caught that noisome scent of hers, and he turned to brother Jim, who was reading a two-week-old Arizona Miner by the lamp, and said, "I think I'll go downtown and deal some bank, if you want to ride the hearse," and he walked right back out the door.


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