What the Dead Men Say

BOOK: What the Dead Men Say
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Ed Gorman
What the Dead Men Say
    In August 1898, Septemus Ryan is beside himself with grief after his young daughter is killed during a bank robbery. So when his sixteen-year-old nephew, James Hogan, celebrates his birthday by accompanying Uncle Septemus on a trip, it soon becomes apparent to James that Septemus has other plans than visiting the agricultural fair.
    James witnesses his uncle become darker and darker with anguish and despondency, until finally, Septemus kills the one of his daughter's murderers. Now James and Septemus not only have the two other murderers on their tail, but Sheriff Dodds as well.
From Publishers Weekly
    This slight, sorry western begins in 1901, when Septemus Ryan takes his 15-year-old nephew, James, on a combined coming-of-age and revenge trip. Septemus has tracked down the three men who killed his daughter, James's favorite cousin, during a bungled bank robbery. He has come to the town of Myles to kill the trio and to teach James, whom he considers a mama's boy, "about manly things." Arriving in Myles, Septemus is recognized by the sheriff, who warns him against vigilantism. That evening James is treated to a
Boy's Life
episode with a prostitute. Septemus kills one of the bank robbers, then kidnaps another whom he ties up in a lonely cabin, telling his young charge to do his duty by his dead cousin. James can't shoot the man, but Septemus, a raving lunatic by this point, can and does. James and the sheriff try to catch him before he kills again and, in a predictable climax, the youth-according to Gorman's (
Death Ground
) muddled sense of maturity-becomes a man. The only positive aspect of this lackluster effort is its brevity.
From Library Journal
    In August of 1901 16-year-old James Hogan accompanies his Uncle Septemus Ryan, ostensibly to travel to the Iowa State Fair. Along the way, the two stop at a town where Septemus plans to avenge his daughter, killed three years earlier in a bungled bank robbery in Council Bluffs. Septemus drags the fatherless James along to "start teaching you about manly things," including, to Septemus's grief-maddened way of thinking, revenge. Gorman has written a gritty tale of a boy's coming of age. Memorable characters and the author's detailed knowledge of the locale make the story believable. Desperadoes really did roam Iowa (e.g., Jesse James and his gang). Highly recommended to public libraries.
    Scaning & primary formating:
    Secondary formating & proofing:
    The title of this novel is taken from a short story by Philip K. Dick. I felt it was appropriate here.
    I used John Madson’s excellent
Stories From Under the Sky
(Iowa State University Press) as background in two scenes. If you’re interested in nature lore, you’ll like Madson’s book as much as I do.
    The newspaper account told it this way:
On the sunny morning of June 27, 1898 a thirteen-year-old girl named Clarice Ryan walked into the First Trust Bank of Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Out of school for the summer, Clarice was helping her father Septemus, one of the town’s leading merchants, by taking the morning deposit to the bank.
Ordinarily, Clarice always stopped by the office of bank president Charles Dolan. The banker is said to have kept a drawerful of mints for the express purpose of giving one to his “lady friend,” Clarice, each working morning.
On this particular morning, however, Clarice was unable to visit her friend Dolan. As soon as she walked into the bank, she saw immediately that a robbery was in progress.
Against the east wall, four customers stood with their hands up as a man with a red bandana over his face held a shotgun on them. His two companions, one wearing a blue bandana, the other wearing a green one, stood near the safe while two clerks and Mr. Charles Dolan himself emptied greenbacks into three sailcloth bags.
The man in the blue bandana ordered Clarice to stand over next to the other customers. Like them, she was told to put her hands over her head. Witnesses said the young girl smiled when she was told this. Scared as she was, she obviously found the order to be a little silly.
When all the greenbacks had been taken from the safe, the three thieves gathered in the middle of the bank. At this point Dolan and the two clerks were moved over to join Clarice and the other customers.
It was then that policeman Michael Walden, who had seen what was going on from the window on the boardwalk outside, came through the door with his own shotgun, ordering the men to lay down their arms.
The rest of the story remains confused, Deputy Walden insisting that he fired only because one of the thieves opened fire on him. Two of the customers insisted that it was Walden who fired first.
At some point in the minute-long exchange of gunfire, one of the adult customers was shot in the shoulder. One of the thieves was also wounded, though all three managed to escape. Clarice Ryan, shot in the heart, was killed instantly.
Several rewards have been offered for the capture of the thieves. “I guess I don’t need to say dead or alive,” Council Bluffs Police Chief Dennis Foster told assembled reporters. “And a lot of folks would just as soon as see them slung over horses and brought in dead as otherwise.”
Investigation into the death of thirteen-year-old Clarice Ryan continues.
    E.G., 1990
    From the second-floor hotel veranda he could look down into the dusty street and see the women twirling their parasols and hurrying about in their bustles. These were town women with sweet Christian faces and sweet Christian souls. Carlyle, six years out of prison at Fort Madison, wanted such a woman. He imagined that their juices were tastier, their love by turns gentler and wilder, and their soft words in the darkness afterward balming like a cool breeze on a hot July afternoon. He would never know. Sweet Christian women had never taken to Carlyle. He had put his seed only in whores and long ago his seed had turned to poison.
    Right now, though, Carlyle wasn’t worrying about women, sweet or otherwise. He was looking at the two riders who were coming down the middle of the street, one astride a roan, one on a dun. A water wagon followed them, cutting the dust with sprays of silver water. Behind the wagon ran some noisy town kids waving and jumping and laughing and carrying on the way kids always did when they were three days out of school and just beginning summer vacation.
    The two riders didn’t seem to notice the kids. They didn’t seem to notice much, in fact. The small midwestern town was a showcase hereabouts, what with electricity, telephones, and a depot that President Harrison himself had once told the local Odd Fellows club was “most singularly impressive.” Anyone could tell, therefore, that the two riders came from a city. Country folks always gawked when they came to Myles. City folks, who’d seen it all already, were too cynical and spoiled to gawk.
    One of the riders was a boy, probably sixteen or so, tall and lanky, with a handsome rugged face. But it was on the other rider that Carlyle settled his attention. The man was short, somewhat chunky, packed into a dark vested suit far too hot for an afternoon like this. He wore a derby and carried a Winchester in his scabbard.
    Carlyle knew the man. Oh, didn’t know him in the sense that they’d spoken or anything, but knew him in the sense that the man was in some way familiar.
    Carlyle raised his beer mug and sipped from it just as, sprawled in a chair behind him, the whore yawned again. She was too wide and too white. It was for the latter reason that she liked to sit out on the veranda, so the sun would tan her arms and bare legs. In her petticoats she was damned near naked and it seemed she could care less. Her name was Jenna and she and Carlyle had been living in the same hotel room for the past eight months. Last night she’d started talking marriage again and Carlyle, just drunk enough and not impressed by her threats of leaving him if he ever slapped her again, doubled his fist and poked it once straight and hard into her eye. Her shiner this morning was a beauty. Of course, he’d had to offer her something in compensation. Not marriage, he said; but teeth. Store-bought teeth. Hers were little brown stubs that made her mouth smell so bad he had to down two buckets of beer before he could bring himself to kiss her.
    “What the hell you lookin’ at so hard?” Jenna wanted to know.
    “What man?”
    “Man on a dun.”
    “You never saw a man on no dun before?”
    “Wonder why he came here.”
    “Came where?”
    “To town. Myles.”
    “Free country.”
    “Yeah, but he wants somethin’ special.”
    “How you know that?”
    “You can see by the way he rides. Like he’s just waitin’ for somethin’ to happen.”
    “That’s how I was last night,” Jenna laughed. “Waitin’ for somethin’ to happen.”
    He looked back at her. “You don’t like it, you whore, you can always move out.”
    “Just a joke, Henry. Jus’ teasin’. Too much beer affects most men that way.”
    But Carlyle was no longer listening. He had turned his attention back to the street and the two riders. Halfway down the block, and across the street, they were dismounting in front of the McAlester Hotel. Unlike the place where Carlyle and the whore lived, the McAlester didn’t have cockroaches and colored maids who went through your room trying to steal stuff.
    “Sonofabitch,” Carlyle said.
    “I just recognized who he is.”
    “Who is he?”
    "Sonofabitch,” Carlyle said again.
    He went back to the whore and tried to hand her his beer mug.
    “I don’t want that thing. I ain’t your maid,” she said. She could get real bitchy, this one.
    Carlyle threw the beer in her face.
    “You ain’t got no right to do that,” she said, spitting out suds.
    “Hell if I don’t,” Carlyle said. “Long as I pay the rent on that room, I got a right to do any god damn thing I please.”
    Then he was gone, inside to his room and then into the hallway and then down the stairs to the lobby. He took two steps at a time.
    He had suddenly remembered, from all the pictures in the newspapers right after it happened, who the man was.
    He did not stop hurrying until he was two blocks from the downtown area, and running down a side street so fast people stopped to look at him.
    The kid’s name was James Patrick George Hogan, George being his confirmation name, taken for the saint who slew dragons. In his Catholic school book there had been an illustration of George in armor and mail standing triumphant with his huge battle sword near a slain dragon. The dragon’s scales and reptilian snout had captivated James.
    Looking at illustrations of dragons and dinosaurs was his favorite pastime. He could stare at them for hours, imagining himself living back then. The only thing wrong with this was that back then there would have been no Marietta Courtney, this being the fourteen-year-old public-school girl James had been steadfastly stuck on since he’d seen her a year ago riding her bicycle, her red hair gorgeous in the sunlight, her smile in equal parts impish and unknowable.
    These were some of the things James had thought about on the last part of the journey to Myles. His uncle Septemus Ryan had fallen into one of his silences. Of course, James knew what the silence was about: a few years back his uncle’s girl-and James’s favorite cousin-Clarice, had been shot and killed in a bank robbery back in their hometown. This had been particularly hard on Septemus, because only two years previously his wife had died from whooping cough.
    Since these deaths there had been a lot of talk in Council Bluffs about “poor Septemus not being quite right upstairs.” He was given to violent tempers, unending days and nights of brooding, and talking to himself. The latter seemed particularly troubling to Council Bluffians. Here was a leading merchant, and a darned handsome one at that, walking down the streets of town quite obviously carrying on some kind of conversation with himself. What he was saying or to whom was a mystery, of course, and a disturbing one to those who cared about him.
BOOK: What the Dead Men Say
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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