Friday, December 04, 2009

BARBARIA Installment 8


There were only 20 white people in Chowchilla, including 4 women, 10 children, and Engles. The telegraph key was at the store where Angelita had found the handbill with Frances’ picture. The man who tended the store sent the marshal’s message, and was then questioned about organizing a rescue party for the kidnapped agents.

“Do you speak Spanish, Marshal Engles?” the storekeeper said.

“Of course not. I come from New York, not Spain. If you want my opinion, they ought to make that foreign tongue illegal in …”

The storekeeper didn’t want the Marshal’s opinion, and interrupted, “Them two old boys you arrested were about the only white folks in town who could speak it, you know?” The man suddenly began to laugh. He was standing in front of a high table that served as the store’s counter, unpacking a shipment of short handled hoes from a wooden box.

“What the hell!” snapped Engles.

“Oh, no offence, sir,” the store man recovered his composure, “I was just thinking that the best folks to help you get up a posse around here is the boys you’re trying to catch, you see?”

“Are there any other white men in this place besides you? Anyone with some influence? Who owns that big brick place?”

“That would be my boss, Mr. Munch. Short fella. Wears coveralls and big riding boots with the pants tucked in. Makes him feel taller, I guess.”

“And where would I be likely to find Mr. Munch at this hour?”

“Well, it’s daylight, so he’ll be out in the fields somewhere, working. Probably plowing, over by the creek, there.” The storekeeper waved a hoe in a southerly direction. He was holding it by its sturdy hardwood handle.

“I’ll need a horse.”

“Yeah, I suppose you will. Too far to walk, really, unless you have a whole lot of time on your hands.”

“What the hell’s your name, anyway?” Engles’ was getting red in the face. He was a federal police officer, entitled to respect and obedience on the part of the civilian population he was sworn to serve and protect. He was also exhausted, having just walked over ten miles through the god-forsaken California prairie. He had been humiliated by his captives (He could hear their laughter, as he ran from them), abandoned by his own horse, and could have been killed.

For two hours as he stumbled toward town, as fast as he could move, Engles had expected at any moment to be ridden down and slaughtered in his tracks. His agents may well have been murdered already, and if that were so, it was not going to benefit his reputation in Sacramento. He had lost his patience with this store-tending bumpkin and his sly, derisive comments.

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” said the man, to whom the concept of a direct answer seemed to have no meaning, “there’s been some confusion about that over the years. Now my Mama, she …”

Engles’ arms, especially his forearms and grip, were quite powerful. He grabbed the man by the shirtfront and pushed him backwards over the top of the counter, causing the fellow’s head to ring sharply against the wood, and sending brand new short handled hoes clattering to the floor. One or two of these implements remained beneath the unfortunate storekeeper’s back, serving as a fulcrum, so that the blow to his head was extraordinary, due to leverage action.

The store man, whom everyone called ‘Keep’, because no one ever got a straight answer to the question of his name, also had very powerful forearms and grip. He was holding tight to one of the unpacked tools at the moment of Engles’s surprise assault, and when Keep brought his knee sharply up against the blade of the instrument, the sturdy hardwood handle was forced, with leverage, into the marshal’s groin, lifting him off the floor and crushing his testicles.

The pain experienced by Engles in that moment was severe, to say the least. When he had taken hold of Keep’s shirt, rending the fabric and sending buttons in all directions, the marshal had begun to shout, “No! I’ll tell you what!” Engles intention had been to give the fellow a piece of his mind – to put him in his place, and to warn him to saddle a horse immediately, or else.

But after the crushing of the testicles, all the policeman could do was make a muffled cry and collapse among the cultivating tools, to lie in a fetal position, whimpering. And then vomit, and then bury his face in the crook of one arm, with the other clamped between his legs; to gasp for breath and weep like a forlorn child.

The combination of shock and a sharp rap on the back of his head had disabled Keep, so that he could not attend to the needs of the policeman, having similar needs of his own at the moment. There was no one else about, and it remained to be seen, who might recover first. After several minutes of semi consciousness, Keep managed to right himself.

As he sat upon the counter top, dizzy and nauseous, he became aware of the marshal in a heap on the floor. Since the storekeeper had not assaulted the policeman intentionally, and did not even realize that he had done so unintentionally, Keep could not comprehend what his eyes beheld.

When his blurred vision and vertigo diminished, he was able to accept the marshal’s sad condition as fact, and not a phantom of his injured brain. Then the storekeeper became alarmed.

His revitalized imagination suggested that the marshal, while in the act of assaulting Keep, had himself been assaulted from behind. The fugitives, Keep thought, must have followed the policeman to the store and shot him. The man was no doubt at death’s door. But where were the assailants? Still in the store? In the back? Outside?

The man’s instinct to survive overcame his inertia, and stimulated him into action. He must get to his horse and go for help. He launched himself from the counter, over the moaning form of the federal marshal, and out into a gathering summer storm. Thunder was rolling in the distance and rain was beginning to fall in huge, slow drops. He ran around the building, hoping to find his horse, and no desperadoes.

His prayers were answered. He swung open the corral gate, grabbed a halter and rope from the fence, and climbed aboard the animal, bareback.

Six miles away, by the creek, Munch had stopped his plowing and was leading his horse out of the field. Employer and employee met about half way, on a wagon road that was filling with workers heading in, out of the rain.

“Keep!” shouted Munch, “What in the Devil’s name are you doing out here? Why aren’t you at the store? What’s ….”

“Desperadoes, Boss! We got desperadoes!” Keep was riding too fast and waving one arm as he approached. Munch was obliged to veer off to one side to avoid a collision.

“What the …. Calm down, will you? Good Lord!”

Keep was red in the face, sweating, and mud-splattered from galloping his animal in the rain. Without a bit, he had trouble reining in the horse. The bareback animal skidded past Munch, throwing the rider off balance, and dumping him with a sloppy thud in the middle of the road.

“Good Christ!” Munch yelled.

The felled rider hit his head on the ground, suffering his second concussion in the space of a half hour. This proved too much for the storekeeper’s consciousness, which temporarily expired as he strained to mutter, one more time, “Desperadoes …”

Several people came to the man’s aid, and Munch, marching about with his trouser legs tucked into calf-length boots that were now filling with water, supervised the rescue operation. He instructed his workers to put the injured man back on the horse, but they ignored him. One of the rescuers was wearing a serape, which was fashioned into a stretcher, and four men began to carry the dazed Keep in the direction of town.

Munch, believing his store to be under siege by a gang of marauding criminals, mounted his horse and raced for home to get guns and reinforcements.

* * *

Immediately after Keep had fled from the store in fear for his life, leaving Engles to recover as best he could on the floor in front of the counter, several customers came in.

They were Japanese men, who were building the music hall on what was slated to become Chowchilla’s central plaza. One of them, a heavy set man in his forties, was a doctor. As he checked the patient’s vital signs, the men cleared the counter, deposited Engles upon it, and carefully stripped him naked from the waist, rolling his trousers and using them to pillow the injured man’s head.

“He’s in shock; slipping in and out of consciousness from the pain, I imagine. Masaki,” the physician said to a younger man, “Get some laudanum off the shelf back there.”

Engles’ genital area was severely swollen and discolored. His penis, gorged with blood, stood mightily erect.

“He seems to be having pleasant dreams,” joked one of the men.

The doctor wasn’t amused. “Shut up, you idiot, and go back to the site and get my kit. Hurry!”

The man took off in a rush. Masaki, a giant of a fellow and the doctor’s son, had fetched a 6oz. bottle of liquid and began to spoon it into the marshal’s mouth.

“Give him plenty,” said the doctor, “The whole bottle, if you can. The longer he’s out, the better.” He was massaging and probing Engles’ testicles. “Not too fast. Don’t make him choke or cough, if you can help it.”

A group of Mexican customers came in and observed Engles on the counter, having his erection massaged by the Japanese construction worker. Another Japanese, known to the Mexicans as El Chino Grande, was restraining the marshal and spooning liquid between his lips from an easily recognized laudanum bottle. The language barrier made communication difficult between the attending physician and the audience, one of whom shrieked at the sight, and bolted from the premises. The others, less panicked but unsure of what was happening, thought it best to follow his example, and also departed.

“Sir,” said Masaki, “Don’t you think we should cover the man’s genitals?”

The doctor smiled. “Son,” he said, “You’re a good student, and one day you’ll be a fine doctor. But even you will not be able to effectively treat an injury if you cannot use your eyes to see that injury.”

“Yes, of course, I …”

* * *

As Munch galloped his plow horse headlong into town, he saw two men running. At first, a Japanese seemed to be chasing a Mexican down Main Street, but then the Japanese darted into the store, and the Mexican started waving his arms and screaming for Munch to stop. He reined to a halt.

“Boss! Those Japs! They’ve captured that marshal in the store. They’re getting ready to cut his balls off!”

Munch couldn’t understand what the terrified man was saying, but surmised that it something to do with the Japanese guy who had run into the store. There was a small group of Mexicans standing, now, across the street from the store. The boss figured it must be some kind of race riot. He shouted at the man on the ground, then kicked his horse into motion.

“Vamoose! Get Jose! Vamoose!”

There were a number of ‘Joses’ living in Chowchilla, but only one who was Munch’s Mexican foreman, so the worker understood the instruction. He knew that Jose would be at the livery stable, and took off running in that direction, following the boss’s horse, because the stable was located between the store and the brick castle. In spite of the rain, which had become a downpour, and the mud, which was clay, and formed a slippery soup over rock-hard surfaces, it only took Munch and Jose a half hour to organize a well-armed militia of seven men, ready to go into action. They kept close to the north side of Main Street, and advanced in single file toward the besieged store, Jose at the lead, and Munch bringing up the rear, having emptied the water from his riding boots and re-tucked his trouser legs.

Keep had regained consciousness, but was now afflicted by a grievous headache. He and the stretcher party were across the street with a sizable crowd, which had gathered under shelter, to watch the advance of the militia.

Engles was still out cold on the counter, and the condition of his penis would have indicated to the uninformed that he was still experiencing pleasant dreams. The doctor had prepared a poultice and wrapped it against his patient’s lower abdomen. He was now intending to apply an ice pack to the turgid area at the base of the penis, to reduce inflammation and swelling, and to return Engles to a more appropriate flaccidity. Before he and his assistant could initiate that procedure, however, Jose and his men burst through the door.

“Oh,” was all that the doctor said, as a bullet entered his back to the right of his spine, slipped between two ribs, and brought an immediate halt to the pumping of his heart. As the dead doctor pitched forward, he shoved Engles off of the counter. The doctor’s son, Masaki, who was holding the patient’s legs, threw them upwards in reaction to the gunshot, and poor Engles head was driven into the floor like a pile driver, cracking two vertebrae at the base of his skull.

Keep was the only one in town who could work the telegraph key, but his condition rapidly became serious without proper treatment, and he was unable to even speak coherently, let alone send a message on the contraption. Munch, unable to call for official assistance from the outside world, took charge.

“Here’s what you do, Jose.”

The Japanese men who had not been shot were lying on the floor at gunpoint.

“First things first,” Munch said, “Get these Jappo’s down to the jailhouse and tie ‘em up and gag ‘em so they can’t talk to one another. Then take the dead one out to the graveyard and bury him. Don’t worry about no coffin. No time for that, and anyway. They ain’t Christians, you know.”

Jose was feeling bad about killing the man, now that it was obvious that the Japanese weren’t armed. “I thought they had guns, Boss. I wouldn’t have shot the guy …”

“Don’t worry about that,” Munch said, “They assaulted the marshal, there, and had his pants off. The Good Lord only knows what the heathen beasts were up to. Vile creatures. Should never have hired ‘em in the first place.”

Engles remained unconscious on the floor, his private parts still uncovered and erect. Munch, surmising that the herbal poultice was the cause of the man’s hard on, had ordered it to be removed from the marshal’s groin and thrown into the trash. Engles was feverish, now. Sweat soaked his shirt and poured from his face. His body had begun to twitch and shiver. No one bothered to cover him.

“What about the other Japs?” Jose asked, “The ones at the camp?” The men’s families lived in makeshift shelters at the edge of the barrio, east of town.

“That’s the next thing. Round ‘em up and tie ‘em up, same as these boys.”

“The kids too?”

“Of course! Have to do it. We don’t know what they’re plotting. Can’t take any chances with these idolators.”

“Shouldn’t we take the marshal down to your place? Get him into bed? Maybe your wife could tend to him.”

“Good God Almighty! What are you talking about! Look at that thing sticking up there in the air! Good God Almighty, Man! You can’t allow a woman to be around a thing like that!” Munch shook his head in disgust, “Look at that! We’ll just leave him be until he returns to normal. Good Lord!”

“Keep’s feeling real bad, too. Says the marshal attacked him,” Jose said.

“Oh, that’s ridiculous,” snapped Munch, “The man’s delirious. Needs to see a proper doctor. So does the marshal. There’s one over in Five Points. Get ‘em over there as soon as you can.”

* * *

It took a week for a government search party to get organized and find the two agents chained to the tree on the prairie. One of them was still alive. After several days, when he had recovered enough to leave his hospital bed in Fresno, he went down the hall to make a personal report to Marshal Engles, who had a private room.

“Marshal? Sir? How are you?”

Engles opened his eyes, but couldn’t speak.

A nurse came into the room and checked her patient’s pulse. “Thrombosis,” she muttered to the agent, “He can’t speak. A blood clot from his broken neck has lodged in his brain.”

“Can he hear? Can he understand?”

“Yes. It seems so. The doctors aren’t sure how much he understands, but he can probably hear you alright. Can’t walk, though, or talk.”

“I’m real sorry, Marshal Engles,” the agent said, “I hope you get better soon. But don’t worry about that Albertson fellow. We’ll catch him. He’s in Houston, Texas, running with some guy named Max. It’s just a matter of time till we catch up with him, Sir. Don’t worry.”

The agent left the hospital and waited on the sidewalk for a cab to the train station, fingering the two hundred dollar coins that nestled in his vest pocket. His name was Harlan Brooks, but folks always called him ‘Fancy’, because of his passion for finely tailored clothing. A cab, driven by a remarkably large Asian man in a tight fitting black suit and wearing a bowler, stopped in front of agent Fancy. The door to the cab flew open and the occupant, a white man nearly as oversized as the Oriental driver, stepped down into the street and smiled at the marshal, holding the door for him. The marshal thanked the man and shouted to the driver to take him to the train station, then climbed in.

To Fancy’s surprise and dismay, the cordial white gentleman climbed in as well, sat across from the marshal, and pulled the door closed. “Sir, my name is Stuart. C. G. Stuart. How do you do?” Chain Gang offered his hand.

“Oh, yes. I’m Brooks. Harlan Brooks. My pleasure. Going to the train station, are you? Thank you for sharing your cab.”

“You’re quite welcome, Marshal.”

Fancy didn’t respond, at first. He watched Stuart’s eyes and waited for an explanation of how this stranger knew he was a federal agent. But the big man just smiled, then reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a soft leather pouch, which he handed to Fancy. The marshal opened the pouch, removed and counted eight $100 bills, and handed the empty pouch back to the stranger.

“Thank you a second time. You’re a hundred short.”


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