Banning, Montana had sprouted out of ambition, mud and dust. But without roots its hastily built structures were losing to the wind. Abraham watched the late afternoon squalls bounce skeleton tumbleweeds down Sprott Street whispering the town's precarious balance. He could imagine the town, maybe the entire Montana Territory, acceding back to the raw spruce, hemlock and lodgepole mountains, and to the rocky moraine that spilled into Banning Lake.
"Ya know," offered Bunny Sprott, "they're building warehouses, putting machines to making boots and shoes. Back east, Charles says."
The wind shot dust against the storefront. The sign above the cobblery groaned.
Abraham tightened his bark-stained fingers around the cowhide. Another shock of street grit stormed the shop's cracks and hung in the air. "You will hold still? Or maybe you wait another four-five weeks. Maybe more." His accent negligible but there. "I am not one of those machines."
Bunny's hands went up in retreat, palms so soft you could almost smell the lotion. "I'm just a messenger."
The hint of lotions nettled him. Her ruffles nettled him. Her porcelain skin and olive eyes did the same. He pulled the leather to her right foot. "Sewing machines . . . " He spit the words. "Goodyear Sewing Machines. Good luck. The rich rubber guy's son will turn craft into crap." Abraham tugged hard.
"Easy!" she said. "Who ya think you're handlin'?"
Abraham didn't know for sure and that irritated him. She was born Anna Louise—a rather cultivated name thought Abraham—yet her husband, Charles, insisted on calling her Bunny. Like some common jackrabbit. Still, Charles being Charles, it made sense for everyone else to do the same. But it was so unlike Charles to marginalize anything he possessed.
"Shoddy? That is what you want? Go for the machine." He reached for the pincer, then decided against it.
Bunny sniffed at the muggy walls, inhaled the scent of the large, warm barrels of tanning bark, the hanging strips of cured leather, and the damp workbench lined with awls, chisels and scrappers. Not unlike her father's workshop. Her shoulders fell, relaxing into the precious moisture. "Could put you out of business, dontcha think?" He didn't answer. She filled the space. "I like the smell of your place. Always have."
He pulled the leather off her flawless foot and slipped it onto the wooden last. "We are finished for now." He slid her dun-powdered boots back on, then blew on them, raising a burst of powder that joined the room's haze. He closed his eyes and dragged his fingers over each of the boot's vamps, searching for a clearing of pure hide, dowsing for some ancestral quality.
She flinched. "What're you doing?"
"I am reading." Then gruffly, "like a blind man."
"You read, Abraham?"
He pulled his hands off her boot. "Of course."
His chafed reaction obvious though she deflected it. "I thought so. What do you read?"
"On whatever I can get my hands." His jaw locked. "Why?"
"So, you know what's happening in Cleveland?"
He waved her from the stool. "They are getting electrical street lighting. Progress, they say." He wiped his hands on a rag and threw it down.
"Yes." She seemed surprised, and pleased. "What kind of books do you read?"
"Same. Whatever I can get my hands on. Step down, please."
She appeared to debate with herself, then asked, "You like humorous books?"
"I've got one for you. Rudder Grange." She slid off the stool.
He didn't know what to make of her. "Thank you."
She pulled on her shawl, black with lush red roses and plump yellow carnations—something she'd mail ordered from St. Louis. She brushed at the tassels. "You got a chip on that shoulder?"
"No chip," he said. "See you next week. They should be done."
She hesitated in the shop's doorway, inventorying the place. Abraham took the knob and ushered her out into the bright light and onto the wooden boardwalk. Her sage balm curled by him and the wind swept it away. Unnerving. "Next week," he said. He should have offered some pleasantry, something to pass on to Charles. But he didn't.
He turned to his workshop and, shoulder against the door, shut out the quarreling September gusts. The door shivered and rattled. He fingered the "Closed" sign. Then left it on the small hook.
He stepped between the benches—strewn with wooden molds and shoes and boots in transition. He moved directly to his workbench and opened a small drawer. It opened like warm butter, smooth, satisfying him. He pushed aside eyelets and small bronze tacks. He pulled a tattered piece of paper and unfolded it on the bench. He read the crudely handwritten leaflet again:
Meeting of the True Americans
This Saturday Sept. 13, 1879
Restore your community.
The White Knights
Down the street, several miners gathered around Curry's General Store, sharing stories and handling the arsenal of picks, sledges and borers that Frank Curry propped against his storefront.
Abraham tucked against the wind and turned into the Back Rows at the edge of town. For a mining settlement already so thin on polish, the Back Rows—with its maze of alleys, stench and thugs—exposed rovers to Banning's bleakest netherworld. And yet he came. But always on the lookout.
Mostly it had been the lack of female companionship that had first brought him here, after his Lillian didn't last the first winter. She just left. No note. No explanation. He tried to understand. He chose to accept that the raw nature of the land which freed him, was simply too much for her. In Banning you had to make do. And the Chinaman was at least gracious.
"So nice to see you again, Mister Abraham."
The sweet, welcoming smell of opium surrounded him. "And you, Min, as always." He rubbed against the leaflet in his pocket, his intention to warn Min no longer certain. Perhaps he was overreacting. The air softened around him. "Where is that darling daughter of yours?"
"Janey? She play by lake. This place too stuffy for six-year-old."
Abraham and Lillian had dreamt of children. "You are a lucky man."
"Thank you, she my gem." Min showed him through the beaded curtain to the dimly-lit room of straw mats, couches and beds. Men and a few women sprawled around in the haze. None bothered to look up and Abraham made no attempt to identify them, though he recognized William B's deformed leg and foot dangling from a settee—bent unnaturally skyward from a mine accident—and Benjamin, the livery boy, suckled to Florence the whore, his narrow foot sliding up and down her robust thigh.
"This room is okay?" said Min, offering him a pipe. "Or you prefer the Green Lady Room in the back?" His lack of pretense always a salve to Abraham, a gratitude Abraham didn't know how to express.
Abraham found an open spot close to William B and took the long pipe. "This will be fine, Min. Thank you."
Min lit the pipe.
* * *
Charles Sprott had the benefit of circumference, which made up for his lack of height and hair. But the way he swung his ivory walking stick was his true calling card. Some would say it was a club, and there were several stories to corroborate its use in that manner.
"You ever considered selling your shop, Abraham?" Sprott brought less dust with him than most. He made himself comfortable on the cobbler's stool, swinging his walking stick like a pendulum. "Maybe get yourself out of this dreary place." Sprott stuck out his heavily waxed, oak-tanned Spanish leather boots; a demand for immediate service.
Abraham stopped stirring the vat of lime. "What do you need, Mr. Sprott?"
"Need 'em shined."
"I am busy. Can you leave them here?"
Sprott looked around the shop. "Don't look busy."
"I have shoes and boots on order for seven people. I have another twelve for repair."
"Yes, well I'm here now," said Sprott. "Maybe you could do me a favor."
Abraham placed the lid on the tub of lime, wiped his hands on a cloth. "Mrs. Sprott is one of the customers ahead of you."
Sprott smiled. "Bunny would want you to put me ahead of her."
"Sorry, Mr. Sprott, but if you come back—"
"I think you should sell me your shop, Abraham. There's talk of a railroad in a couple years and a Philadelphia machine that stitches sixty-four to the inch. It's going to wipe you out soon enough. Get out while you can."
For all of Sprott's pomp, Abraham wanted to remind him that he'd seen his tiny feet, his hairy foot knuckles, his ape-like metatarsal phalangeals. But he resisted. "No machine is doing that," said Abraham. "And this is what I do. What makes you think you will do better? You are going to bring fancy machines to Banning?"
"Ben Potts is a friend of mine."
Abraham raised an eyebrow. "The Territorial Governor is good with leather?"
"You might not understand," said Sprott standing and stretching himself. "But I come from pretty clean, pretty smart stock."
"See, I didn't think you'd understand. Never mind. But think about it. Think about moving on."
* * *
On Saturday, from a hillside, Abraham watched the few town folk with religion file out of the makeshift church. The town's men greatly out-populated the women, but equal amounts wandered out this afternoon, shaking the hand of the pastor who stood tall and rooted. Abraham knew the pastor's feet, the biggest he'd seen in several years, except for that miner who only lived three months in town before he slipped into a pit and was covered alive in gravel. O'Halloran his name. Irish accent and all. So full of hope. Didn't do him much good. Buried in those size seventeens.
Down below, Henry Thomas wasn't wearing the modified Wellington boots Abraham had made for him, but his brother Louis was wearing his ankle high lace-ups. Louis bid his wife goodbye, and joined his brother and skinny Willie Warden, and Frank Curry. The four disappeared behind the weathered row of storefronts in animated conversation.
Abraham considered each man. Could a successful businessman like Frank Curry join a group like the White Knights? Or one of the Thomas brothers, one a skilled assayer and the other a busy mining claims recorder? Willie Warden was crude and uncouth, but did that mean he was hateful?
"You're not a praying man, are you Abraham?" Charles Sprott leaned against his walking stick.
Abraham startled. He turned away from his view of the church and gathered himself. "I pray."
"You do? And who might you pray to?"
Abraham assessed Sprott; it was none of his business. "Saint Crispin."
A kind of sporting indulgence spread across Sprott's unusually broad, plump pink lips. "Never heard of him. You're making him up."
Abraham steadied his breathing. "And I heard you were a well-read gentleman."
Sprott's smile collapsed.
Abraham lifted his head to the dust-yellowed sky. "I thought everyone knew the patron saint of shoemakers."
"There's no such thing."
"He was put to death for his beliefs. Can you imagine that?"
Sprott glared. He looked ready to raise his walking stick. "You know, Abraham, this life in the territory, it's just not right for some. They don't belong. Just look what happened to that Mick—"
"Yeah, him. And the Mexican Beaner."
"Good day, sir," said Abraham ambling off the hillock toward town. He resisted a look back. Instead, he surveyed the south-facing mountains and the slender lodgepole pines beginning to drop their needles and turn rusty—a sign that the bark beetles were attacking. Even dead, he knew, the trees would stand another hundred years unless cut down.
At the edge of town, he turned to The Back Rows, and made his way to the Chinaman's. If escape was all he desired, King's Saloon would do. But, ultimately, Abraham found liquor to be dispiriting; the Chinaman provided something more: civility and peace. If only for a few hours.
The Back Rows took winds from all sides. They slapped at the Chinaman's door, opening it a few inches, then clapping it shut, then opening it again. No voices leaked into the alley.
A single step in and the air lacked its usual sweetness. The lamps were not lit. Not even one. A dim light filtered from the Green Lady Room, a room Abraham had visited but twice; the only place in town that offered a notion of elegance.
To that room, Min had brought silks from afar, large luxurious ones, that Abraham found beautiful in ways he'd only imagined, and only then because his father had said such things existed—before his father placed Abraham on a ship and sent him away. The Chinaman arranged the fabrics against the Green Lady's walls and ceilings, a portal to Abraham, to the greater world. Places he could feel and taste though he'd never been, and might never.
And in that Green Lady Room, there was an ornate mint-colored bed that resembled a boat—perfect for sailing away—and a brass ceiling lamp lent calm protection, as the room lied about what roiled on the other side of its walls. And because of that evasion, Abraham often preferred the transition from the Common Room to the street to be easier. But there were times, like this, that Abraham welcomed the oncoming artifice of the Green Lady.
Buzzing horseflies caught his ear, sawing at the stillness. The light of the room darker, his eyes adjusting. He bumped against weight. Hanging from a rafter. A silhouette.
Before he even glanced at Min's contorted face, Min's nakedness—hanging like that—disoriented Abraham; he imagined for a moment that he'd already taken a puff of opium and was caught in one of its trade winds.
Min's emerald robe and ornate golden slippers lay on the floor below him. The room crowded with the demons previously unleashed by his customers. And as if pushed by them, Abraham fell against the Chinaman, breaking his fall by wrapping his arms around Min's legs, his thighs. With the crack of the rafter, the corpse rained down-all arms and legs and snapping head—onto Abraham's back, the Chinaman's chilled pale skin hanging over him in one last embrace. Abraham threw off the body.
Circled in iron-colored blood, a rusted nail punctured deep into Min's belly and skewered a handwritten note. The handwriting familiar.
Asians, Blacks, Catholics, Jews or Mexicans.
If you got color, take it out of here. We don't want it.
* * *
Two hours later, Abraham still twitched. He rocked from foot to foot. As if the balls of his feet were being violated by hemlock slivers. "See," he said, and turned to the bulky man brushing chalk from his canvas duster. "See, High Water?"
"Don't call me that." High Water tugged at his mustache, he examined the paper. His peak-to-broken-peak nose, its own history of run-ins.
Someone in the area had nicknamed the lawman "High Water." It got around and stuck. Each spring, he made "sporting trades" predicting high water marks for each of the area lakes. These transactions, like most transactions, usually included the exchange of money or property. Which he'd been prohibited to take given his position, and a slice of which always went to Charles Sprott.
Abraham pressed again. "Okay, sheriff, what are you going to do?"
"Not anymore." He handed the paper back to Abraham. "Not anymore. Go find Morgan Earp. He's the guy now. Or Timberlake. What you gonna do about the body?"
The horseflies swarmed Min's glassy eyes and took turns gnawing on them. Outside, the wind kicked up. Abraham drew his gaze back to High Water. "What?"
"The body," sighed High Water. "What you gonna do about it?"
"Who is going to get the people who did this?"
High Water shrugged. "Not my problem. And probably not yours either, I don't suppose."
"You can see what this is." He pointed to the leaflet in High Water's hands.
High Water handed the paper back to him. "Well, I see the old Chinaman at my feet. Don't really need no piece of a paper for that, now do I? Don't know who'd do this. Maybe you do."
Abraham shook his head. "I don't." He swore in a language foreign to the ex-sheriff. "Kurva! I do not. And where is the little girl? Who is going take care of her now? We have monsters in this town."
"Monsters? You smoke too much of that stuff." High Water waved his arm around the lifeless room. He cracked his knuckles. He regarded Min's cut and tortured face, one eyeball distracted from the other: one pegged to the ceiling, the other staring up at the two men-oozing a thick fluid. He winced. "Unless you got witnesses or proof of some sort, I'd let it go."
The cords in Abraham's neck grew taught. "Let it go?"
"Look, I'll help you with the body." High Water motioned to the corpse. "Or you want to leave it here?"
"This is like the Mexican," said Abraham.
"You could forget him? The short guy; always cracking jokes, hard to understand. Worked at the saloon cleaning up. A year ago. They found him by the creek, impaled on a lodgepole spike."
"Oh him," said High Water. "An accident. Mexicans don't understand these mountains. You want to leave it here?" He pointed to the Chinaman's body.
"Kurva!" Abraham threw Min's robe over his privates, motioned High Water to take Min's legs. Abraham grabbed his shoulders. The horseflies circled briefly then resumed their feasting. Min's head and broken neck slopped to its side onto Abraham's stomach, smearing the seeping eye across it. "This way."
* * *
Zerial Hall, Banning's scraggy undertaker, wanted nothing to do with the body; said it was bad for business. Abraham snorted at the absurdity. Zerial slammed the door in his face.
In a far corner of the cemetery, the wind moaned and the fallow sky faded, shrouding Abraham as he pulled the Chinaman's body from his buckboard and dug a shallow grave. Then set out looking for Min's daughter.
He asked everywhere—in the few stores that were still open, in King's Saloon, in the livery and by the lake shore. He even went to the church but it was locked. No one had seen her. He searched till Banning became one with the moonless night and the coyotes began howling. He dragged himself to his spare cottage behind the cobblery and fell asleep fully clothed.
"Min!" Abraham woke, wet and sticky with a sour pit in his stomach. Even in the filmy darkness he sought familiar objects; his eyes jumping from his small stove, sitting cold. The two unlit lanterns hanging by the door. His heart still thumping.
Then the sound, a kind of rustling. Not the autumn rodents nesting in the walls. Murmuring. Voices. Behind him. In the clearing behind the cottage. The small rear window flickered with light, daylight several hours away. Too far away. The light fractured, a moving mosaic. Abraham moved with it, to the back door.
He threw it open.
Surrounding him were seven figures, torches in hand; crude white hoods, long white robes stopping above their ankles.
They were of various sizes and girths. The tallest man took a half step toward him. "If you're a practical man, you'll go. You have one week, no more." The man rejoined the group.
Abraham didn't recognize the voice. Their torches spit at the night, crowding it out. Their whiteness towering. "Get in the house and start packing." The men lowered the torches and pointed them at him. Their eyes glistened like tombstones in the firelight. "Now!"
* * *
Abraham went feverishly about his daily schedule, like a man hoping to outpace wolves. There were vats to fill and heat: the water, the lime, the tanning bark. There were shoes to fabricate. There were boots to rehabilitate and relinquish.
Customers wandered in and out all day. Like Widow Cutcher, complaining about the weather and picking at the scabs on her cheeks. Until Albert Armstrong checked in about his cowboy boots—the newest vagary and an odd one for Albert who always presented himself as uninterested in vogue or whim. Skinny Willie Warden, never voluble or interested in Abraham, coming in like a stray, making chit-chat . . .
"Willie." Abraham barely glanced up from scraping a hide, intent on meeting his deadline. "What can I do you for?"
"Just stoppin' in." Willie picked tobacco from his rotting teeth.
"Need your boots mended?" He checked Willie's boots. "They look pretty respectable." Abraham laid the hide over the workbench and began scrubbing it with vinegar.
Willie looked around. Rubbed his stubble. "Yeah. No. Has Henry Thomas been in?"
"Last couple days?"
Abraham shook his head. "Have not seen him. Wait. Saw Henry Monday."
"He is thinking about new boots. Asking questions, if I have time to make them."
Willie tilted his head. "Do you?"
"I am not sure. Why?" He inspected Willie's boots more closely.
Willie frowned. He scanned the room again. "This place don't change much, do it?"
"What do you mean? Looks the same since I have been here."
"Yeah, it sure does." Willie spewed a glob of fecal brown chaw to the floor. "Sure does."
* * *
A couple days later, Frank Curry came in looking for Willie Warden.
"You seen him?" Curry peeked at the tools carefully aligned on the workbench, the organization of boots and shoes, the unruffled order of things.
"I did. Yesterday or the day before." Abraham stopped paddling the vat of lime and gave full attention to Frank.
Curry ran his hand over the tops of the villager's waiting shoes. "Say where he was going?"
"Not to me."
"Hmm. You see him, ask him to come by the store. I got Joseph running the counter and a load of inventory next few days. Tell him I'm in back."
* * *
On the sixth day, as Abraham stirred the tanning vat, Bunny shuffled into the shop holding the book she'd promised him. He'd been concentrating on the wake of hot liquid as it spiraled to the barrel's edges. Her arrival clashed with his thoughts. "Mrs. Sprott."
She came in tentatively, and with a queer look. "Have you seen Charles?" She raised the book and laid it on a bench.
"Thank you," he said acknowledging the gift. "No, not recently." Despite the hemlock cloud drifting from the vat, he could almost savor her clarifying sage aroma, and yet her eyes lacked their usual vibrancy.
"He didn't come by yesterday?"
"No. Not that I recall. Why?"
She carried a weariness so common for the women—and many of the men—of Banning, but so unnatural upon her shoulders. "He said he was planning on coming into town."
"To see me?"
"Not specifically." She began to turn away.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
Head down, her eyes seemed to study the fissures in the floorboards. "It's not like him to be gone this long." She vacillated then grunted. "He sleeps with Florence the whore, doesn't he?" She raised her head and looked Abraham in the eye. "That's where he is."
"I wouldn't know."
"You're too much of a gentleman to say so. By now I should be used to it. He's a sonuvabitch. But you already know that." Bunny withdrew from Abraham's concern and explored the room. She settled into the space. Her anger came down a notch. "What're you doing?"
"At what? Can I see?"
"It is not so interesting."
"I want to see."
Abraham considered his options then motioned for her to come alongside him and the row of tubs, two of which were covered; the third bubbling a deep burgundy umber. "Color," said Abraham. "Hemlock. Much better than human brains, dung or urine for tanning."
She seemed to revive, chuckling at the eccentricity. "We don't always recognize the opportunities that change offers us."
"In some things," he said.
She watched her reflection expand in the vat of rippling dye. "This color, it's very soothing. But dangerous."
"Socrates died drinking hemlock," she said. "You know who that is?"
"Of course." Her prodding becoming a game. "But it was a different hemlock, you know?"
She blinked and softened in appreciation. "Really?"
"A plant, not the tree. He died for his beliefs drinking its tea. His choice."
Her lips parted. "Yes." She placed her hand on his arm. "You like plants and forests?"
It was if she'd thrown him into Banning's chilled lake. His breath caught. "I do."
"Beauty in common things."
"I have a book of nature drawings called that. I'll share it with you, too."
"I should get back to my work," he said. "I have very little time."
"Of course." She took one last look around and left him to his chores.
* * *
On the seventh day, Abraham closed the shop, but continued his agitated work. Every holler from the street and every thud from behind his building, raised heat on his brow and stiffened his shoulders. In the late afternoon the wind picked up, and the front door bickered against it. The rapping at the door came louder and more consistently. It wouldn't go away.
He raised the shade and found Bunny Sprott leaning against the wind and holding on to her round-crowned hat, the wide brim turned up on one side flapping in the bluster. Out of place and yet so refreshing in Banning.
He cracked open the door. "I'm closed."
She nudged forward, prying over his shoulder. "I'm looking for some hide, for my next pair of boots."
"I'm almost finished with the ones you ordered."
"I want to order another pair."
"Can it wait?" He clung to the door blocking her path.
"No. You've been tanning. You showed me yourself. I want to select from the new batch." She pushed past him into the shop. "Show me what you've got."
Abraham shut his eyes. He sighed.
"Well?" she said.
"Okay." And he led her to the strips of common fare hanging on the rear wall. Cow. Calf. Horse. Buffalo. "Dressy or work? I might have some oxen coming in."
"Don't know yet." She pressed him. "What else you got?"
"That's about it right now." He tried to walk her back to the front of the shop.
She pointed to a small door in the corner. "What's in there?"
"Not much. A few stragglers. Probably not enough for boots."
"I want to see them." She moved toward the door before he could intercept her. "Let me see." She opened it revealing a tight storeroom no more than six feet long, three feet wide with a low slanted ceiling, lit only from the main room windows. But even in the meager light she could see four or five hides hanging from hooks. "What are these?"
"Not as durable." He put his hand on the door. "Will not last like those others." He pointed to the main room. "Let us pick something out there."
She wavered, then followed his lead as he walked her back to the leathers. When he turned to her, she was standing by the vats. "How does this work?" she asked.
"I really need to keep moving, I have a time limit."
Her hands went to her hips, she stood her ground. "I'm a good customer, aren't I?"
"Okay," he said joining her. "And then you will let me finish my work?"
Bunny hedged for a moment, gauging his discomfort, before nodding.
"After salting the hide, I soak it in water until it is soft and any last pieces of flesh and fat are removed." He stepped to the next vat.
She started to lift the lid.
"No!" he said, slamming it closed. "It's lime, very caustic. You can burn yourself." Your beautiful skin.
"I'm sturdier than you think." But she backed off.
"I am sure you are, but this will dissolve your hair and epidermis. It causes the hide to swell. It opens the fiber bundles for better penetration."
She cackled. "Sounds fascinating."
The room felt warmer. Abraham tugged at his apron. "For tanning."
"This last vat," she said as she hovered over the last great cask, "it's like you showed me the other day?"
"Yes," he said trying to draw her away. "Let's get back to the hides."
She reached for the last lid. "I want to see the color again."
"No, I'm still working on something."
"Let's see." She lifted the lid; he reached for it, too late. Amidst the effervescing hemlock, a hide tumbled and pirouetted. "Can I see this one?" She bent over the barrel.
"It is not quite ready." Again, he signaled her to follow him.
"Even better." She didn't budge. Her chest began to heave. "I'm intrigued by your work, your craftsmanship."
"That is kind, but—"
"Please." Once more, she touched his arm and he caught a whiff of her purifying sage.
He reached for a large hook. "Very well." He dipped the hook into the vat and drew out the hide, hoisting it above the vat, letting the hemlock color drip back into the foam.
She studied the hide; admiration filled her eyes. "You are an artist."
He swallowed. "Thank you." Then began to lower the hide back into the churning cauldron.
"I'll bet you know every man and woman in this village by their boots and shoes."
Abraham cocked his head toward her. "I do."
"Funny," Bunny said, "this hide . . . with its pink oval there . . . They're like lips. Reminds me of Charles."
"Charles? Yes, it does I suppose." He replaced the cover on the vat. "Did he ever mention a group called The White Knights?"
She was clearly befuddled. "I can't say that he did. Why?"
"No matter," Abraham said. "I think we are rid of all of them now." His arm swept over the boots and shoes awaiting repair. "I better get back to work. I have lots to do; this town depends on me."