When my mother saw the Statue of Liberty her waters broke. I was born a short time later at Castle Garden in the city of New York. I am a genuine American and that's maybe the most important part of my story. But, the old man sitting across the table does not want to hear about my mother or about Castle Garden. No, he wants a particular story of his own devising. He's been trying to pry it out of me for the last hour, giving less than easy hints here and there, walking me around it in wide, sweeping circles so I can see the outlines clear enough, but not so I can get a tight grip on the details. If I could, I might figure out precisely what story he needs to hear and then I would gladly tell it to him. I mean to say, who wants to be caught up in prison for want of the appropriate story? And stories are cheap, cheap as dirt. Everybody's got at least one. Me? I have as many or as few as needs be. Damn good ones too, and a whole lot more exciting, not to say a whole lot more true to real life, than those you find in the Dimes.
Stories? Sure thing. It's because I'm a good listener, although "good" doesn't really capture the full reach of it. You see, listening is what I do best. In fact, I'm well known in parts of the West as one regular Jim Dandy listener. A full-time professional if you will. Some say it's a special gift, and they could be right, but I wasn't always a listener, good or otherwise, nor did I especially want to be one before a busted-up throat left me no choice, as well as no words you could actually hear.
First off it hit me awful hard when I had to concede to that silence, but after some tough times it ripened up in me what was needed to get by in my new life. Of course, there is a big jump between the needing and the being able, especially as anything out of the ordinary can put a scare into people. A hump, a limp, being short an arm or leg, spluttering through a harelip or being dumb, and some folks will cross over the road. If you can't talk they reckon you can't hear, so they shout at you. Some figure you for just plain stupid, so they talk real slow and wave their hands. But over the years I've learned how to get by all that nonsense and help others -- the road-crossers, the shouters, the slow talkers, and the hand wavers -- get by it too.
I must have the knack to get people to trust me despite my crumpled throat and my grunts. I can't say exactly what that knack is and why it draws stories and their tellers to me. Maybe it's because I don't give them any competition. Maybe there are just lots of people who need to be listened to and not enough folks around to oblige. Maybe they see me as nothing but a small, big-eyed kid passing through, someone who couldn't possibly do them any harm even if he wanted to. No matter. Some of that, could be all of it, has helped me make a passable living one way or the other.
Sometimes I think I'm kind of a mirror in which people can see themselves as they want to be seen. OK, I gotta admit right off it wasn't me who came up with such a fancy notion, it was George Kyner, who ran a newspaper back in Victor. He reckoned he was a poet, the way a lot of people do. Anyway, he said I was a mirror for people's stories and I kinda liked the idea. What it's meant is that I've heard a lot of stories -- sometimes I think too many. Hard luck stories -- betrayals, disappointments, false hopes, and broken hearts. Heroic stories, amusing stories, and downright ribald ones, stories about undying love and stories which staggered under the weight of moral instruction. Stories about gunfighters, Indian wars, cattle stampedes, mine disasters, train wrecks, cold-blooded murder, and unexpected fortune. Stories about strikes, riots, and never-ending injustice. True stories, half-true stories, stretchers, and real outsized whoppers. In my short life I've listened to all kinds of stories, but now I'm being asked to tell an extra special one, personally tailored, not store-bought. It just goes to show that as far as stories are concerned, no matter how many you've listened to, how many you remember, you will never hear them all. But then this is America, and isn't America the land of endlessly new stories? How could there ever be a limit to them here in God's Own Country?
It's not that I haven't been trying to get it right for the old bastard, but I'm not having much luck and unless I do, I might never get out of this cold pile of stones they call the Idaho State Penitentiary.
"Now, we don't have to be hard on you, boy. We don't want to be hard on you. What we need to know is who put you up to it. We know it wasn't you did it on your own or even with that Orchard fella, who wants to call himself Hogan. We know that for sure. It's just the names we need. Those that wanted it done. Those that planned it. Those that paid for it. So, let's us start from the beginning. Wadda you say, son? You just take up your pencil there and get on with the telling."
He's a gray-haired, stout fellow, well dressed, with a heavy gold watch chain across his belly. Gold-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose, and on his lapel a white stickpin with a picture of a deer's head. Irish by the sound of him. Hasn't told me his name. Must be about seventy. Walks with a slight limp. He runs a finger under his big walrus mustache, lifting first one side then the other like he's giving his lips some air. He leans forward across the table and offers me a concerned, fatherly stare. His eyes are milky and ice-cold and I can smell the whisky on him.
"Only a boy really," he says after a moment and then shakes his head. "Infernal schemes hatched by the Devil and put in the hands of innocent children."
A child? Gee fizz! I know I'm kinda small and scrawny and my face has yet to feel a razor, but I'm nearly eighteen and been paying my own way for years.
The old man smiles, reaches across and pats my hand. Brown blotches on the back of his, the palm damp and slippery as stones in a winter pond.
"Come on now, son," he croons softly. "We can talk, you can talk to me."
He looks over at the pencil and the wad of writing paper I have threaded on a string tied to my belt. He coughs.
"You know what I mean, son? It'll do you good to tell me all about it. Write it all down. Confession is what I'm talking about. Cleanses the soul, it does. Confession will make you rest easy. You see, son, sins are nothing but baggage you'll be holding for the Devil; they only serve to weigh you down. You know that, don'tcha?"
I do and more. I know that his low soft voice full of Jesus and his singing at me offers nothing but bad cards and worse pain.
All my listener's life people have tried to hijack my cache of stories. Most times I've surrendered them, apparently without a struggle, preferring to tell the hijackers what they think I might have heard. Because, trusted as I might be, silent as I might be, a listener is always a secret agent in the unnoticed corner of somebody's room. It's the likes of this old man who know that and also think they know how to extract the secrets they're after. But young as I am, I'm no greener at this particular game.
"There's no sin too big to be forgiven, son. Not a sin too terrible in the eyes of the Lord. That is, if you confess them. You know the story of David and Bathsheba?"
Everyone knows that story. But he's more likely than not to have his own angle on it. I've learned that even the good old stories can be told differently and it's only in the telling that you find out what the teller wants you to know, whether he knows that or not. The old man doesn't need it, but I give him an encouraging look all the same. He settles right in.
"Well, son, Bathsheba was just about the most beautiful woman there had ever been. Skin like ivory, hair like the night, eyes, well, eyes to light up fires with, fires of sin. Wife of Uriah the Hittite she was, but David, well David you see he coveted her, lusted after her, and he was the king. He ordered that she be brought to him and then he forced her to lay with him, to commit fornication, to commit Adultery!"
He paused, staring hard at me and at all that old-time sinning he was seeing so clear.
"Well, soon enough David found out that she was with his child. So, he had Joab, his number-one general, put Uriah right out there in the front of the battle so he might be killed, which, of course, he was. Then David he ups and marries Bathsheba. All those commandments broken, son, one right after the other, Covetousness, Adultery, Murder! Well, the Lord, He was mighty angry, powerful angry He was, and He told David that was no way to be carrying on, especially after all He'd done for him. You know, making him king of Israel and giving him the strength to kill Goliath and such like. David prayed and fasted and after a time God forgave him his sins, terrible as they were, and He will forgive you yours, that is if you come to Him and ask for His Divine forgiveness. Come to him in Christ's name, son. That's where you've got to look for salvation. Look to Christ our Redeemer to wash away all your sins in His holy tears! He doesn't turn away from anyone, even a murderer."
I might have guessed, a flint-nosed Bible banger. Boy oh boy, is he talking to the wrong person. But he can't know that. After all, he thinks my name is Herbert Brown, which it isn't, although it is as much my name as any I've had.
Even if I tell him what he wants, what then? I spill it out and there won't be a shining light from on high or a big heavenly chorus droning on about the Lord and Salvation. No tears of sweet Jesus. No sir, none of that stuff. I'll be out of this warm office and back to the ice-cold six-by-eight cell, three tiers up on Death Row, the shit-bucket smell rising in the damp air and the too-close attentions of Montana Jim Naylor, the baddest bad man there is, or ever was, or is ever likely to be. At least according to Montana Jim.
He's big and carelessly put together, shoulders sagging at different angles away from his thick neck. When they put me in with him, his pockmarked face lit up. Montana Jim sure thought it was Christmas come around again only a week or so after it had been.
"What has ol' Jim done to deserve this here?" he asked in reverential awe, looking me up and down.
"Now don't go eatin it up all at once, Jim!" shouted someone from another cell.
"Leave some of that young sweetness for the rest of us!" called another.
There was a lot of yelling and tin cups banging on the bars.
It didn't worry me though. I got my way out of worse corners before. Six years of surviving in the West has taught me that if I didn't want someone's unnatural attentions I had to move fast and keep my back to the wall. Buffalo Bill said that if you're not mean enough or tough enough, then when it comes down to it you got to be quick with your mouth or quick on your feet. In a cell, quite naturally, running was impossible. Quick with my mouth was out as well. So, I grabbed my pencil and started to write with a fury.
Unfortunately, the increasingly blank look on his face told me Montana Jim was not what you would call a literary gent. I smiled, pointed to my dented throat and my mouth and shook my head.
His heavy brows scrunched up.
"So?" he grunted impatiently. "Don't make me no nevermind if ya's dumb. Don't wanna be talkin at ya anyways."
He barked a laugh and made a grab for me. I slipped sideways and began to draw as I moved. I drew the figure of a woman -- giving her big breasts and big thighs and, of course, no clothes. I shoved the picture at the amorously advancing Montana Jim. He growled, shook his head like a mad old grizzly, but he stopped. I had his attention. Then I drew a house with a lantern by the front door and a boy, pointing between it and me. He looked at me, then stabbed a thick finger at the woman. I added a coin and arrows to show the transaction. He nodded. Then I grabbed my crotch and moaned as best I could, screwing up my face real good just so he would know for sure what I was trying to tell him.
Montana Jim gathered in the news real slow and then grunted a little less impatiently. He had a long stare at the drawing of the woman. I held it out to him. Without looking at me he snatched it with a swipe of his heavy paw, put it on his bunk, and climbed up to keep his new friend company. After that he sort of lost interest in me.
The man on the other side of the table is a different sack of beans entirely. No Montana Jim, but a clever black-coated gambler. He's trying to bluff me into folding my cards. I've seen his kind before. Weaving spells, making promises, saying anything to make you jump, to get you just where he wants you. But if you could really see, well then, there'd be nothing there, not a damn thing except the empty words pushing at you.
"You know we got you and Orchard, don't you, boy? Got you sure as there's a tomorrow. Folks here in Idaho don't take kindly to having their ex-governor blown up in his own front yard in what should be the safe bosom of his family. Most likely if the sheriff hadn't got you away from Caldwell in a hurry you'd have been swinging from a cottonwood right now. As it is, the judge and jury here in Boise's probably going to hang you anyway. But just maybe you and me, we can do something about that."
I don't move. I already told him, like I told the sheriff, that I haven't killed anybody. It didn't make any difference though. They arrested me all the same. Handcuffs and leg irons, like I was one of the Youngers or Jesse James. A night in the Caldwell jail, then a closed carriage with armed guards all the way to Boise and the State Penitentiary. By rights I should stay in jail until my trial, but because this case was special they said I'd have to be put somewhere more secure. For my own safety they said. More like to scare hell out of me. Why else did they deck me out in rough prison stripes and stick me on Death Row? All part of the Irishman's plan. I see that, but seeing it is not doing me any good. Like a cat on a greased board, I'm sliding and sliding.
It's that damn Harry Orchard! That miserable pig-eyed bastard! I should have known when I went looking for him I was only looking for trouble. When I saw him that day, standing in the street near the Saratoga Hotel, I should have known I had found that trouble, but by then it was already too late. Since I first ran into him up in Wallace in '98, Harry Orchard has been my Jonah, my own personal demon, my spirit nightmare made flesh. I'll be going along just fine and dandy and then he appears out of nowhere, grinning, back-slapping, and smelling of disaster. He's tied me into a good one this time and no mistake.
"Listen, son," the old man says. "Let me tell you another story, a story closer to you and closer to right now. It's about a fella went by the name of Daniel Kelly, called him Kelly the Bum, we did. You ever hear tell of this particular Kelly?"
I shake my head. Is there ever an Irishman without a story? An Irish story without a Kelly?
He gets up and walks over to the fireplace. He stares a long time into the flames and then bends over carefully, picks up a small log, and puts it on top of the fire. The wood pops and sparks. Outside it's snowing. Big flakes floating down, filling up the narrow yard and covering the stone walls. It looks soft and peaceful.
"Like the everlasting fires of Perdition," he intones, the flames reflecting off his eyeglasses.
"Kelly the Bum," he says, turning from the fire to look out the window. "Back in Pennsylvania it was, about twenty-five years ago now. There was this gang of murderous cutthroats terrorizing the coal fields, called themselves the Ancient Order of Hibernians. You heard tell of them?
"Some called them the Molly Maguires. That sound more familiar, son?"
I look up at the old man, give him a bewildered smile and shake my head.
Who hasn't heard the story of the Mollies, especially if they lived for any time in a mining camp? It seemed everybody knew one of those who had escaped from the gallows and run out West -- Mike Doyle, Bill Gavin, or Friday O'donnell -- had met them in some camp or other and heard the whole story straight from the horse's mouth. How good union men were sold out by a dirty Pinkerton spy. How nineteen of them were hanged, each going up the gallows' steps with a red rose stuck proud in his lapel. How the last one, Jack Kehoe, had swung for five minutes before he choked to death with his tongue bit half off. Sure, I'd heard about the Molly Maguires but, like with old King David, I figure it's better to admit nothing, let the old man play out his hand and take me for a baby-faced greenhorn.
"Kelly was one of the worst. But bad as he was, guilty as he was, because he saw the Light, decided to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, went with the State and named the others, he got off. Even got himself a reward."
He gives me a meaningful stare. I'm studying the snow flakes.
"The Inner Circle, boy. The Inner Circle. That's what we want. Haywood and Moyer and those others in the Federation central office over in Denver. Pettibone, he's another. You give them to me, tell me how they put you and Orchard up to the murdering and maybe we can do something for you. You don't want to swing for them, do you? Harry Orchard sure doesn't. No sir. Already told us enough to convict you, he has. How you helped him put the bomb near to the gate. How you . . ."
I grab my pencil and begin to write how I never did anything wrong, that Harry Orchard's probably the biggest damn liar this side of the Rockies and the other side if the truth were known, that I'm only a poor dumb. . . The old man lays his moist hand on mine and shakes his head.
"You see those buildings out there, son?" he says, pointing to the two high sandstone-faced cellblocks outside. "They're full of men who 'never.' Never did this and never did that. Never did anything wrong. None of them. It's always the same story, son, always the same. The cells are full to the brim with innocent men, just like you."
Who is this damned old Irishman anyway? Some kind of detective for sure. A Pinkerton? A Baldwin-Felts? At least now I know the precise story he wants to hear. Do I tell it for him? Tell it the way he wants it told? Cheap as dirt stories are, I know that, but if I tell this one it's going to come hurtfully expensive. Expensive for me, expensive for Big Bill and expensive for the others as well.
Copyright © 1996 by Bill Albert