The first bullet clipped Ross’s shoulder and crashed through Constable Westaway’s heart knocking him back into shelves of cans and crockery at the front of the store. In the half moment before Wagner was on him, Ross saw the stocky gunman’s eyes, naked and bloodshot, lit by the flame of the revolver, and glimpsed the long shop counter at the back where another man disappeared into darkness.
Then Wagner bulled forward and they were carried over into crates of pineapples and coconuts. Ross had his hands around Wagner’s neck and he felt the man’s tendons bulge and strain against him. Wagner fired five more shots but Ross heard none of them nor felt the flames searing his face and hands. He only saw the light that first illuminated the scene and then blinded him again with brightness so that what he experienced was like snapshots ratified by his knowing and recorded in the uncanny stillness the mind attains in moments of greatest peril: Wagner’s teeth shining within his beard. Bananas on the stalk hanging from the ceiling. His partner laid out in a heap of dry goods behind them.
They were on the wooden floor then, breathing and bleeding on each other.
Some years later, Ross would smash a man’s face into a brick wall for sharing the same sweet breath as Wagner though Ross would not know this was the reason thinking instead that the man was about to strike him and that all his own violence was in self-defence and therefore justified. Wagner lost the gun and bit into Ross’s neck. The constable could feel the warmth of Wagner’s saliva, his lips pressed against him. They rolled and Ross came out on top and drove his forehead into the bridge of the gunman’s nose. Then Wagner went limp beneath him and it was quiet.
Ross pawed for his flashlight and handcuffs. The March wind gabbered across the water, through the wagging door and over the cooling body of Westaway but Ross could not hear it for the silence of his own huffing and dizziness. He felt the world going from him now. The colourless dark breaking up into pieces between which was nothing. He noted the blade of light from the hotel next door that opened a gap in a window blind and fell across the chandlery brass on the opposite wall. He felt wetness at his neck. Footsteps. He remembered the other man who’d gone behind the counter. Then Wagner stirred.
The courtroom for the spring assizes was in a grey stone building near the harbour. High in the west wall were two rectangular windows that let in the laziest salt breeze.
“Mr. Julien, can you identify the man in the defendant’s chair?”
The prosecutor spoke slowly and Julien didn’t like him.
“Alias The Flying Dutchman?”
A quiet hubbub passed through the bodies in the crowd.
“Couldn’t tell you.”
“Alias Harvey Logan of Rock Creek, Montana?
The prosecutor turned and looked at the courtroom.
“Alias Kid Curry?”
There was shuffling in seats.
“I’ve heard that name,” said Julien.
Wagner didn’t glance at the witness. It was hot in the courtroom and Wagner was damp with sweat around the collar and underneath his arms. He’d not been permitted scissors or a razor for fear he’d use it on himself or a guard and now his hair and beard had gone shabby and grim. He seemed bigger to Julien than ever before and a coldness came over Julien thinking of what he was about to do and that Wagner might yet escape.
“And your relation to the defendant?”
“You are his cousin, are you not?”
Julien swallowed. “That’s what my mamma said.”
“You were with Mr. Wagner on the evening of March 4th.”
“I don’t recall my whereabouts on that date.”
“This was the evening Mr. Wagner shot and killed Constable Westaway and attacked Constable Ross while in the process of robbing the Fraser and Bishop’s store in Union Bay.”
“I don’t know who shot the constable.”
“But you were in the store?”
“I was,” he said.
“Were there other people in the store?”
“Coulda been,” Julien said. “We weren’t seeking anyone out.”
“And you forced your way in?” the prosecutor asked.
“We came through a window on the hotel side. It was unlocked.”
“And why were you in the store?”
“To rob it.”
“You admit you were there to rob the Fraser and Bishop’s store?”
“What did you intend to take?”
“Clothes,” he said. “Food. Alcohol.”
The prosecutor went to a leather bag under the table. Then he stopped.
“Did Wagner have a gun?” he asked.
Julien waited. “He did.”
“Do you know the model?”
“A Colt .44 I believe.”
The prosecutor pulled from the bag a revolver with a long black barrel and wooden handle. He entered it into evidence as the weapon that had killed Westaway and placed it with two hands on the table.
“Did you see Mr. Wagner shoot this firearm?”
“Did you see him shoot another firearm?”
“No,” Julien said.
“But you heard shots?”
“Yes,” he said.
“How many shots did you hear?”
“Five,” he said, “six.”
“And what did you do when you heard the shots.”
The crowd laughed again. The prosecutor was not laughing.
“You fled, isn’t that correct? Out a window at the back of the building?”
Julien looked at Wagner. Wagner was smiling but Julien flushed with embarrassment and shame. He looked back at the prosecutor. Even handcuffed, Wagner was too close to the gun.
“I did,” he said.
“And you rowed Wagner’s launch the twenty-four miles to Lasqueti Island?”
“Not all at once.”
The crowd laughed awkwardly.
The prosecutor flustered. He returned to the notes on the table where the gun rested. His neck was going scarlet red above the barrister’s collar and Julien hoped the prosecutor's embarrassment had made some kind of positive impression on his cousin.
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
Julien smirked sheepishly.
“Hank had the spark plugs.”
The crowd erupted and the magistrate held his hand up to calm them.
That summer, the cavalry from Fort Assiniboine camped in a clearing outside of town. This was in the high buttes and coulees of northern Montana. A place called Landusky, not far from where the Great Northern Railway was laid a few years later and Kid Curry and the Cassidy gang made the Wagner heist all the papers reported on and O. C. Seltzer painted from photographs of the dynamited railcars he got through the Burlington Railroad Company. For five dollars admission, you can still see the painting hanging in the Phillips County Museum among stagecoach robberies and cattle rustlers. When we made the coast in ‘04 and the Pinkertons said The Kid had killed himself after the Gardner fiasco outside Parachute, Colorado, and they’d buried Lonny in his place in a cemetery overlooking Glenwood Springs, we needed new names. Hank started calling himself Henry Wagner, he was so proud of that heist. He never liked being called Kid. But that’s getting ahead. It was Elfie Landusky and the town that bore her father’s name that got things started.
Landusky was new and had been pimped into being by the succubus of gold. The cavalry was called in to keep the peace among the dreamers. Hank and his brothers, Jack and Lonny, had come up the Missouri from Iowa the previous fall and starved out a winter in a gulch panning for gold flake and trapping rabbits. The landscape outside of town was blighted with shacks and tents prospectors had thrown up with whatever they could scrounge. The boys were calling themselves Curry by then after Hank drove cattle with Flatnose Curry down in Texas. Being orphans, they were always looking for someone to take after. I came up that spring, myself, and me and Jack bought a ranch at Rock Creek with a little cash I’d made on the Iowa stake and Lonny started seeing Elfie behind her father’s back.
This is the truth of what happened.
Hank went into Landusky’s saloon hoping the lawman would would catch him there and Hank would get a chance to take revenge on Landusky for locking him up two nights before. His lip was split from the licking Landusky had put on him but his blood coagulated good and he was angry.
He’d seen Elfie in the upstairs window as he was going in. She wasn’t a pretty girl, with that big round Ukrainian nose, but Hank could forgive her for telling Landusky it was him she’d got involved with instead of Lonny because Lonny was his big brother and Hank would have died for him in those days. Jack and me had paid the $500 bond to get the kid unlocked, but when we followed him into the saloon that day we both knew we weren’t to see that money again. Part of me was glad Elfie had given the kid up otherwise Pike Landusky would never have done what he did and we’d have been there to revenge Lonny’s slaying rather than the wrongdoing Hank had endured and somehow this would have made that day and everything after less bearable.
I don’t remember the conversation well. It was the usual yip yap. Jack and I talked wolves which were still a problem then in that territory and went on being so for years. We’d sent Lonny to Milestown to get a remuda together for the drive that fall. Custer’s horse, Comanche, was said to be there and we jawed on that too. I recall Jack asking Hank to wrangle for us and him agreeing kind of absently as though he’d not really heard his brother or didn’t believe it would happen for one reason or another and therefore might say anything and anything was equal. But that’s about all I can say about that. We were drinking cognac. It was sweet compared to the white-mule Jack cooked. We all knew what was going to happen and we were all anxious and curious how it would unfold.
Hank sat with his back to the door. This was unusual and on purpose. And even though from where I sat I could see Landusky coming for Hank from across the bar and it was obvious what he meant to do, I didn’t warn the kid because I knew that’s how he wanted it.
A story is a simple thing really. So here it is.
Landusky hauled Hank to his feet, turned him and struck him across the face. Then Hank uncrumpled himself from the floor and Pike drew his gun. I drew mine and slid it across the table to Hank who was unarmed. When Pike pulled the trigger his gun backfired and blew apart his hand. Then Hank shot him in the gut.
People who were sitting stood up. People standing moved not an inch.
My eardrums banged with my heartbeat and Hank was tremors up and down his body.
Landusky staggered backwards and then sank to his knees like he was asking for mercy. But we were beyond all that.
And there was Elfie in a sky blue dress, coming through the smoke, picking up her father’s fingers.
At the foot of the gallows, he gazed up at the gibbet and the silver-blue August sky beyond it. Then he rushed up the stairs and stood beneath the noose.
To Ross, who looked on from the back of the courtyard, behind the crowd of policemen and politicians who’d come to see the famous outlaw and cop killer finished off, Wagner appeared haggard and psychotic beneath the matted and unkempt hair. And though Ross knew that the ceremony of Wagner’s death was meant to honour the memory of his partner, Harry Westaway, and to atone for Wagner’s life going all the way back to the badlands of Montana and before that likely into a darkness of unrecorded and unexplainable misery, he could not think on these things as he watched the hangman lower the noose around Wagner’s neck and remembered instead the flashes of light from Wagner’s gun and the outlaw’s bulging throat beneath his thumbs. It was August, 28th, 1913 and Constable Gordon Ross, the big Scotsman who’d enlisted for service in the South African War and had seen the Boer farmlands scorched and their women and children starved in tented concentration camps, was thirty-three years old and afraid for himself in a way he could never fully explain and that he carried with him the rest of his natural life.
The skin where the hangman tightened the rope was bruised and swollen from the sheet Wagner had wrapped around his neck two nights before and the bedraggled hair covered dried and crusted blood from driving his head into the bars of his cell. His face was a pale red. He looked straight on over the heads of his enemies and the prison yard fence to the crooked and ambivalent arbutus trees, their roots grappling ever so slowly with the rocky earth they were perched on. The executioner adjusted the noose and dropped the black cap over the prisoner’s head. It was early morning and gulls spiralled bizarrely overhead. The strap went around The Kid’s legs. The Salvation Army officer said the first three words of the Lord’s Prayer. The ratchet was sprung and the banging of the trapdoor echoed against the prison walls and the courtyard.
See the boy going barefoot through the Iowa grass. He’s not yet ten. The sky is as big as it has ever been though he doesn’t see it. It’s the background against which all things on Earth occur and move against. It contains nothing for him to put his thoughts to and take hold of and therefore does not exist in his boyish mind as something of its own that he might recognize as big or small or otherwise. The sky is only the air but more so. Beyond him are rolling hills of switchgrass the pale gold of his hair. His mouth is sore with cavities and he tongues the molar on the bottom left as he walks. He likes the way the pain is warm and bracing and blurs the world around him. There’s a slight bow to his legs that he has never been aware of until just this moment carrying the empty pail to the well. Something’s pulling him closer to the prairie grass. Or else pushing him down as if under the weight of a man’s hand. He feels heavier but he would not use that word. There is no one to speak to.
Behind him is the cabin where his mother is drowning in her bed and the two colossal bur oaks that hold out the sun in the middle part of the day. They live alone now that the brothers have gone upstate to their cousins. At the well, he cranks the windlass and drops the bucket clattering into darkness. When he peers down he sees white flashes of sunlight moving like serpents on the black water. There is a dream he has about serpents. He thinks of it as his second dream. In it he meets a rattlesnake on a footpath through the savanna. The snake tells the boy of a dream he has in which he, the snake, becomes a human. Just then, in his own dream, the boy realizes he too is a snake. This changes nothing.
He hears a susurrus in the well and he believes it is the wind whispering at him from the campaigns in the Mississippi Valley and Wilson’s Creek and Shiloh and Chattanooga where believes his father marches under General Sheridan, but is really the echo of his own breathing as he faces down the cool, refreshing darkness. His first dream involves his father. Then he begins to turn the handle and the weight tells him he’s drawn water. He raises it up to the light and pours the water from the wooden bucket into the pail. He drinks from the pail. He can feel the coolness of the earth going down his throat. When he finishes drinking he sees his face on the disturbed water in the pail and deeper in the water the distant invisible sky.
Matt Rader is on trial here.
Published On: July 1, 2012
Permanent Location: http://www.forgetmagazine.com/120701b.htm