CONJUNCTIONS:66, Affinity (Spring 2016)
From Huck Out West
The following is an excerpt from the three selections from Robert Coover’s Huck Out West that first appeared in Conjunctions:66, Affinity.
Huck And Tom in Minnysota
It was up in Minnysota that Tom made up his mind to give over cowboying and take on the law. Becky Thatcher was the daughter of a judge and maybe she give him the idea how to set about doing it. Before that him and me was mostly adventuring round the Territories without no thoughts about the next day. We run away from home all them years ago because Tom was bored and hankered to chase after what he said was the noble savages. At first they was the finest people in the world and Tom wanted to join up with them, and then they was the wickedest that ever lived and they should all get hunted down and killed, he couldn’t make up his mind. Some boys in a wagonload of immigrants we come across early on learnt us how to ride and shoot and throw a lasso so that we got to be passing good at all them things.
That story turned poorly and we never seen what was left of them afterward, but ending stories was less important to Tom than beginning them, so we was soon off to other adventures that he thought up or read about in a book or heard tell of. Sometimes they was fun, sometimes they warn’t, but for Tom Sawyer they was all as needful as breathing. He couldn’t stand a day that didn’t have an adventure in it, and he warn’t satisfied until he’d worked in five or six.
Once, whilst we was still humping mail pouches back and forth across the desert on our ponies, I come on a rascally fellow named Bill from near where we come from. He was also keen on adventures and he was heading back east to roust up a gang of bushwhackers in our state to kill jayhawks over in the next one. The way he told it, he had a bunch of swell fellows joining his gang and he wondered if Tom and me might be interested. With the war betwixt the states starting, there were lots of gangs forming up and making sport of burning down one another’s towns, which seemed like sure enough adventures, not just something out of books, so maybe we was looking in the wrong place. But when I told Tom about it the next time we crossed up at a relay station, he says he reckoned he’d just stay out west and maybe get up a gang of his own, because he couldn’t see no profit in going back. But I knowed that warn’t the real reason. The real reason was he couldn’t be boss of it.
It was while we was on one of his adventures in the New Mexico Territory that Tom got the notion to go watch the hangings in Minnysota, a notion that would change everything. The Pony Express company had suddenly gone bust the year before when the cross-country tellygraph come in. We never even got our last paychecks, so we paid ourselves with ponies and saddles, which was how I got Jackson. I’d named Jackson after an island in the big river where my life took a change because, with me and Tom setting out on our western adventures, it was a-changing again and I wanted to mark that.
Jackson’s Island was where me and Jim met up when we was both running away, so naming the pony Jackson was also a way of remembering our grand adventures on that river all them years ago. The last time I seen Jim was one of my sorrowfullest days ever, and I seen more’n a few. We’d brung Jim out west with us when we’d left home, Tom and me, but when we hired on as riders for the Pony, we didn’t know what to do with him. The war had not yet started up, and though Jim was a free man, the bounty hunters didn’t always mind such particulars. Sometimes we had to pretend he was OUR slave, and we always had to be on the watch-out he didn’t get stole.
The Pony Express Stables, however, was hiring only skinny young white orphans, and though Jim was surely an orphan, he come up short on the other requirements. The station keeper said if we wanted the job, we had to get rid of him. I says we have to look for another job, but they paid fifty dollars a month, which was more money than a body could tell what to do with, so Tom said we didn’t have no choice and he sold him to a tribe of slaveholding Indians. “It’s the right thing to do, Huck,” Tom said after he’d gone and done it. “Jim’s used to being a slave and he’s probably happier when he has someone telling him what to do. And besides, they’re more like his own kind.” Tom was surely right as he most always was, but it made my heart sink into my bootheels to see how sad Jim was that day. I waved at him and he looked at me like he was asking me a dreadful question, and then he was gone, with a rope round his neck. Tom bought us new riding boots with the money.
We was both broke, money just falling out of my pockets somehow, whilst Tom was spending his up shipping long tellygrams back to Becky Thatcher. He wanted all his adventures wrote down like the ones he’d read in books and she knowed how to read and write and was the sort of cretur who would be impressed by his hifalut’n style and not have nothing else to do, so she got elected. She couldn’t write back to him because there warn’t nowheres to write to, but that warn’t no matter, there warn’t nothing she’d have to say that would interest him.
Riding, wrangling, and shooting was what we done best and our backsides had got so leathery toting mail a body could strop razors off them, so we hired on to guard wagon trains and run dispatches and handle horses and scout for whichever armies and exploring parties we come upon, and we had a tolerable good time of it. Back home we was Rebs, I guess; out here we mostly worked for the Union, though we warn’t religious about it. Fact is, that time back in the New Mexico adventures we started out scouting for the Rebs, who was trying to cut a route through the Territory to California to get at the gold and silver; but we got lost and ended up instead scouting for the Union army and having to shoot at our most recent employers. Tom thought that improved the adventure considerable, adding what he called a pair a ducks, which Becky, if he wrote to her about it, maybe understood better’n me.
One a the Union colonels was a hardshell parson who had such a strong conviction about the afterlife that he believed in shipping all his prisoners off there to populate it, sending along with the mall their ponies, mules, grub, garb, weapons, and wagons, just so’s they’d feel at home when they got there, he says. He needed a lot a shooting and burning for this holy work and we was volunteered to supply it. Tom was a good soldier and done as he was told. I warn’t and didn’t always and didn’t then. So I was oftenest in trouble while Tom palled around with the bosses. And it was whilst he was setting down with the parson over fresh roasted horse meat and the colonel’s private sin supply, as he called his jug of whiskey, that Tom learnt that they was laying out intentions up in Minnysota to hangmore’n three hundred Sioux warriors all at the same time. The parson thought this was the splendidest idea since the Round Valley massacres and Tom says it was something he had to see.
Tom loved a good hanging, there warn’t nothing that so lifted his spirits, and he never missed one if it was anywheres in the neighborhood. I warned him about getting too close to them things, some day they may decide it’s his turn, and he says, “Well, if that happens, Huck, I’ll only be sorry I can’t watch.” And then he grinned under the new mustache he was growing and says, “But you’re invited, Huck.”
The notice of that quality hanging party up in Minnysota had Tom so feverish he couldn’t set down, lest it was in the saddle heading north. “Just think of it, Huck! Over three hundred injuns all swinging and kicking at the same time! It’d be something to see! You could say you was THERE!” I druther be able to say I warn’t there. Gallows always make me feel powerful uncomfortable and clumsy, like I might stumble and fall into one of them scratchy loops by happenstance. But Tom, like always, had his way, and soon we was making the long trek north.
Tom was afraid we’d be late and miss everything, so we clipped along at a fair pace, but it warn’t anything like galloping across the plains. Winter was a-coming on, there was north winds and snow, worse weather than I ain’t never seen before or since, not even in the Black Hills. We heaped blankets on us and on our horses and stuck our chins out and blew up at our noses to keep them from freezing up and dropping off. The days was ever shorter and seemed like night, even at noon, and we didn’t always know, famous scouts that we was, where we was going.
The people along the way was good to us, though. They fed us and our horses and let us sleep in their barns and pointed us toward the hanging grounds when we was misdirected. They all said they wished they was going with us, and told us horrible stories about what them filthy heathens had done to them and to people they knowed, and some of the stories was maybe true. They was all good Christians and said they prayed they’d hang every last one of them red hyenas, they was just pisoning the earth.
Then come the bad news. They was only going to hang thirty-nine of them; the president had let the rest off. The people was madder’n blazes. The president and his spoilt wife was living high and mighty off in the East somewheres and couldn’t understand the feelings out here. They said they ought to make room on the gallows for that ugly string a bones. They was sorry they had voted for him. He had let them down and ruint their Christmas.
It was Tom’s opinion that the president was a bumbler who ain’t got the brains nor the guts for the job and who was only against slavery because it won him votes. And now that he’d stumbled the country into a war, he was too dumb to know what to do next. When I says that it seems like everybody wants to shoot him, and that’d be a pity, Tom says, “Well, that’s just what makes this country so exciting, Huck. Just like in the time of King Arthur, and all them kings in the Bible.”
“Was that the same time?”
“Almost. We was born too late, Huck. This is what we got.”
I agreed it warn’t much and sejested we turn back and go where it was warmer, but Tom wouldn’t have none of it. It was still the biggest hanging ever and he wanted to be there, though you could see he was awful disappointed.
When we finally rode in, the sun was already gone down. Tom trotted us straight into town, afeard we might a missed it. A monstrous big gallows stood plumb in the middle of an open square betwixt the main street and the river, and there was crowds with lanterns milling about it in the dark, but the saloons was all closed and everything was stiller than it should ought to be. There was candles in some of the windows. People was dressed up in their Sunday best and some of them was singing happy church songs, but we was pretty sure it warn’t a Sunday. Tom was anxiouser than I’d seen him since we left the New Mexico Territory. He was sure we’d fetched up there too late and he was pegging at me for always moving too slow. “You don’t have no respect for the BUSINESS of the world, Huck,” he says. When he asked if the hangings had already happened, though, they called him a damfool and said you don’t hang even injuns on Christmas Day. Christmas Day! We didn’t know that. “Happy Christmas!” they said, and we said it back. Tom looked mighty relieved. “After sunup tomorry,” they told us. “We’re stayin’ up all night to git the best places.”
We was most about starved, cold to the bone, and dog-tired. We couldn’t a-stayed up all night if we was ordered to nor else face a firing squad. Tom was carrying a letter for the preacher of a church in that town, signed by “The Fighting Parson,” which described Tom as a hero in the noble battles against Rebs, Indians, and unbelievers, and me as his stable boy, and the preacher welcomed us and fed us a hot stew with something like meat in it and blessed us and prayed over us in his quavery way and let us sleep under our blankets on church pews. He lived in a little room off of it. It was my first time in a church since I was held captive by the Widow Douglas and her sister Miss Watson, churches comforting me about the same as gallows do, though I felt a surge a spiritual gratefulness when I was able to stretch out at full length for a whole night. Tom stayed up to write another immortal tellygram for Becky by lamplight, but without no help from his stable boy.
The next morning, Tom was up and out well before the sun was, but I waked slower and stayed for bread and coffee with the preacher by the light of his whale-oil lamp, setting at his rough-hewed pine table with him. He was scrawny and old, fifty year and more, with stringy gray hair down to his shoulders and dark pouches under his eyes like empty mochilas. He had a way of talking about Jesus and his friends like they was close kin of his, and praying come more natural to him than breathing done. He wore a raggedy black suit and peered over bent spectacles festooning the tip of a nose so thin and bluish it looked like a dead man’s nose.
He seen that I warn’t in no hurry to attend the day’s revelments and, after mumbling a few more praise-the-Lords, he let it out that he had preached against the hangings and all his congregation had upped and walked out on him. He knowed he shouldn’t a done it, and he was sorry about it, but he couldn’t help it. One of his deacons told him he resked getting lynched himself and he should best get out of town. He would a done, too, but he didn’t have no place to go. He’d been waiting for them to come after him ever since and was scared to answer the door when me and Tom knocked the night before. But he was glad that he done so. He wondered now if maybe we could stay and help protect him. He couldn’t pay nothing, he says, but he would pray for our souls three times a day, or even up to six times if we wanted.
I told him we’d be leaving before them poor devils was even cold, and he shuddered and muttered that it was an ungodly thing they was doing, and the baby Jesus only a day old. He said them fellows and their families was starving to death. The federal agents wouldn’t let them have no food without the guvment paid them and the guvment was too busy and broke fighting a war, so they could just starve, they didn’t like them anyway, and it would be the guvment’s fault. Them poor people was always getting pushed around and almost didn’t have no place to live no more. Finally they got desperater than they could stand and they fought back and, when it was over, hundreds of Santee Sioux was taken prisoner and put straight on trial by the army without any lawyers or jury nor even no one to translate for them so they could know what everyone was talking about. As the preacher laid open the story, his nose flared up in splotches and a kind of sparkly light come into his pale blue eyes. You could see there warn’t no hope for him.
The little town set on a shallow river like a shrinked-down version of St. Petersburg back home. The walk to the middle of it shouldn’t of took more’n a minute, but there was thousands of people to squeeze past on the streets. The night before, the streets was frozen mud. That morning, with all the tramping of them, they was just plain mud. It was the most people I ever seen clumped up together in one place. Some of them was locals, but most warn’t. A few was looking scared, others angry, some was laughing and cussing. The saloons was all shut till after the hangings, but most everybody was carrying flasks under their coats, which they sucked at from time to time and whooped for the pleasure of it. They was having a grand party. I hain’t seen nothing like it since in that river town when everybody come running to watch old man Boggs get shot by the Colonel.
The gallows was a giant open box with nooses hanging like Christmas ribbons, ten to a side, and it was set on oak timbers eight foot high so’s there’d be room for the bodies to drop without hitting the ground. It also give everybody all the way down to the river a good view when it got light enough. It was the lonesomest thing I ever seen. It turned out from people talking that another prisoner had been pardoned, so there was an extra halter for whoever wanted it, and folks was volunteering each other and shoving them toward the gallows and hee-hawing. They said they better hurry and string up the rest of them devils, or they’d all get off and go back to killing and raping decent white folk again.
I didn’t have no trouble finding Tom. He was standing on a special raised platform near to the gallows hobnobbing with the quality. Now and then the crowd let out a big cheer and the man standing alongside of Tom in a black swallowtail coat raised his top hat and smiled and waved at everybody, and Tom smiled and waved too. Tom had trimmed his mustache and scraped his cheeks clean. The polished-up spurs on his boots shone bright as new silver. He was wearing his slouch hat and buckskin shirt and was smoking a seegar somebody must a gave him. He looked a western gentleman all over. When he took notice of me, he made a sign to come up and join him, but I shook my head. I seen all I wanted to see. He said something to the fellow in the hat beside him and stepped down off the platform and made his way over to me. The crowd respected him and opened up to let him through.
“Huck! Where you been? It’s about to start! I got us the bulliest place to watch, so close you can almost reach out and touch a body hanging there. But you got to come now. It’s starting up!”
I could hear them, somewheres further off, making some awful racket which might a been singing. “I seen you up there with all them high hats and was wondering what lies you had to tell to get invited.”
“Lies! Huck, how you talk! I only let them know we was famous scouts and injun fighters from out west and showed them the parson’s letter and I mentioned that you was the legendary H. Finn, breaker of wild horses, and all that was nearly mostly true.”
You could see the prisoners by then, past the caps of the soldiers standing in two lines leading to the gallows. They was tied up and wearing what looked like rolled-up muslin meal sacks on their heads, which give them a comical aspect. They warn’t moving too slow, but they warn’t moving too fast nuther. Their faces was painted and they was singing to beat the band, but you couldn’t hardly hear them because of all the hooting and hollering of the crowd.
“Who’s that big-bug beside you up there, the one been collecting all the cheers?”
“Why, that’s the persecuting lawyer, the one who got over three hundred savages sentenced to death. And they would’ve hanged them all too, he says, if we didn’t have such a weak injun-loving president. He says the heathen Sioux has got to be slayed to the last man and anybody who’d spare them is an enemy to his race and to his nation. That fellow ain’t had to shoot nobody nor get shot at, but still he’s the biggest hero here today. Ain’t that something?”
“If that’s him, he warn’t nothing fair. Them people had been getting badly misused. And they warn’t allowed no lawyers nor no—”
“FAIR! Stuff! You’ve clean missed the POINT, Huck! Ain’t NOTHING fair, starting with getting born and having to die. THAT ain’t fair. But a body can’t do no more about it than them poor condamned injuns can. You can only live out what you got as fierce as you can and it don’t matter when or where it ends.” The prisoners was being marched toward the steps up to the platform. They was still chanting and singing their “hi-yi-yis” and the crowd was still trying to drown them out with whooping and cussing. Some was hollering out church songs. They was all around us and you couldn’t hardly hear nothing else. “Besides, Huck, they’re only injuns, who are mostly all ignorant savages and murderers and cannibals.”
“What? They’re all cannibals?”
“Ever last one of them, Huck. Come on now, it’s—”
“You sold Jim to cannibals?”
“Well, wait, there’s two kinds of injuns, the ones that keep slaves and the ones that’s cannibals.” The prisoners in their white nightcaps was starting up the steps, and folks was growing quiet, letting them sing if they wanted to. “But hurry! This is HISTORY, Huck! You don’t want to miss it!”
“Tom? Huckleberry? Is that you?” It was Becky Thatcher, completely out of the blue, pushing through the thick crowds. It took a moment to reckanize her because she’d growed up some and warn’t sporting yaller pigtails no more. Tom’s jaw dropped like its hinges was broke, and I s’pose mine was hanging too. “My laws! How you boys have changed! All that face hair! That long, stringy beard makes you look a hundred years old, Huck!”
Tom had hauled his jaw back up, but he was struck dumb. He probably hain’t never planned on his audience visiting him head on. He turned and walked off without nary a word. Up on the gallows they was unrolling them muslin bonnets into hoods that covered their painted faces. Some of them was holding hands.
“Tom! Wait!” Becky called out, and went chasing after him.
I should a stayed and watched, like Tom said, but that extra noose and the drumrolls was giving me the fan-tods. I seen the Minnysota River in front of me, and it called me down to walk it a stretch like rivers do. It still warn’t yet noon and soon as the hangings was over I was ready to saddle up and light out whilst there was still daylight, but Tom was having a high time and I misdoubted he’d want to leave till he’d lined out a few more adventures.
I felt comfortabler down by the shore. A river don’t make you feel less lonely but it makes you feel there ain’t nothing wrong with being lonely. The Minnysota was a quiet little wash, near shallow enough to walk across without getting your knees wet, but a flat-bottom steamboat run on it, and it was setting out there then with a passel of whooping gawkers on it, watching the hangings through spyglasses. It had started freezing up at the shore, and soon walking across it would be all a body could do.
Past the steamboat landing, the shore was low and woodsy like a lot of the islands in the big river back home, and it got me to thinking about other ways a body might blunder through life. By piloting a riverboat for a sample. That would be ever so splendid, and just thinking on it lifted some my sunk spirits. But probably I warn’t smart enough. Well, I could do the loading. Folks running away from the war was saying the whole river back home was on fire and the bullets was flying like mosquitoes in August, but in this nation a body can get shot anywheres, and getting shot on the river beats getting shot in the desert every time.
The day warn’t hardly more’n begun when I got back to the church, but it was already growing dark and puckering up like it might snow somemore. The preacher warn’t around. Maybe he was hiding somewheres from all the right-minded townsfolk. I found a morsel of bread on his pine table and though it was at least a week old and worse even than the hardtack we got fed at the army forts, I borrowed it and went and stretched out on a pew under a heap of blankets to gnaw on it.
The next thing I knowed, Tom was setting there talking to me. I judged it was Tom. He seemed more like a spirit, appearing so sudden like that and in such a place. He had a candle, and the light from it made his face sort of come and go. “What I wanted to tell you, Huck, is that there is two kinds of injuns,” Tom says, if it was Tom. “There’s the ones who slaughter white folks and roast them for supper, and there’s the ones they call friendlies who ain’t cannibals. The friendlies respect the white man and try to act just like him, which is why some of them keep slaves and eat with forks, and lots of them is even Christians.” I believed Tom like I always done, but I didn’t believe him. I was glad he come back, but I didn’t know why he’d waked me up to tell me that. Then I seen the others. Becky Thatcher. The preacher. Tom’s horse. “Huck, I’m gonna leave you for a time,” Tom says.
It turned out him and Becky was getting hitched by the preacher, and me and the horse was the witnesses. Tom was giving the horse to the preacher as pay for marrying them, and him and Becky was taking the steamboat upriver the next day on its final journey of the year to connect up with the big riverboats headed down toward St. Petersburg. “You can come and see us off,” he says.
The news shook me, but I done my best not to show it. Nuther me nor the horse said nothing, though the horse wagged his head about like he was looking for the way out. Well, he’d never been to church before and he didn’t know how to behave. It sure warn’t the place to be dropping what he was dropping, but he didn’t know that. Becky had bought some beer with her pappy’s money to celybrate the wedding with and after the preacher had gone and took the horse with him, the three of us set there in the church and drunk it. She’d also found some doughnuts and jelly somewheres to go with it. The hotels was jam full, Becky said, but a gentleman give up his room for them. She was staring at Tom like he was the most amazing thing she ever seen.
“You missed something great, Huck, when you left,” Tom says. “One a them injun braves starts yelping out that if we found a white man’s body with his head cut off and stuffed up his own backside, he was the one who done it. And he beat his chest with his tied-up fists and somehow got his britches down and wagged his naked backside at everybody. Ain’t that a hoot?” Becky was blushing and excused herself to step outside a minute and Tom leaned close and says, “I learnt something here, Huck, about the law and how it makes some folks poor and some folks powerful rich and famous. I want me some a that power, Huck. Judge Thatcher will learn me. I’ll come back and I’ll find you wherever you are and we’ll have adventures again. But they’ll be better ones.”
When they’d left, I blanketed me and Jackson and we headed south.
Robert Coover has published more than twenty books of fiction and plays, his most recent being A Child Again (McSweeney’s), Noir (Overlook), and The Brunist Day of Wrath (Dzanc). His new book of fiction, Huck Out West, from which the excerpts in Conjunctions:66, Affinity are taken, will be published by Norton in January 2017.