The Man from Bodie drank down a half bottle of the Silver Sun’s best; that cleared the dust from his throat and then when Florence, who was a redhead, moved along the bar to him, he turned and grinned down at her. I guess Florence had never seen a man so big. Before she could say a word, he reached out and stuck his hand in the collar of her dress and ripped it down to her waist so that her breasts bounded out bare under the yellow light. We all scraped our chairs and stood up—none of us had looked at Florence that way before, for all she was. The saloon was full because we watched the man coming for a long time before he pulled in, but there was no sound now.
This town was in the Dakota Territory, and on three sides—east, south, west—there is nothing but miles of flats. That’s how we could see him coming. Most times the dust on the horizon moved east to west—wagon trains nicking the edge of the flats with their wheels and leaving a long dust turd lying on the rim of the earth. If a man rode toward us he made a fan in the air that got wider and wider. To the north were hills of rock and that was where the lodes were which gave an excuse for the town, although not a good one. Really there was no excuse for it except that people naturally come together.
So by the time he walked into the Silver Sun a bunch of us were waiting to see who he was. It was foolish because in this country a man’s pride is not to pay attention, and after he did that to the girl he turned around to grin at us and we looked away or coughed or sat down. Flo meanwhile couldn’t believe what happened, she stood with her eyes wide and her mouth open. He took his hand off the bar and suddenly grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm around so that she turned and doubled over with the pain. Then, as if she was a pet bear, he walked her in front of him over to the stairs and up to a room on the second floor. After the door slammed we stood looking up and finally we heard Florence screaming and we wondered what kind of man it was who could make her scream.
Jimmy Fee was the only child in town and when Flo was stumbling over her dress up the stairs, he ducked under the swinging doors and ran down the porch past the man’s horse and across the street. Fee, his father, was a carpenter, he had built up both sides of the street almost without help. Fee was on a ladder fixing the eaves over the town stable.
“Pa,” Jimmy called up to him, “the man’s got your Flo!”
Jack Millay, the limping man with one arm, told me later he followed the boy across the street to fill Fee in on the details—little Jimmy might not have made it clear that the customer was a Bad Man from Bodie. Fee came down the ladder, went around in back of his place down the street, and came out with a stout board. He was a short man, bald, thick in the neck and in the shoulders, and he was one of the few men I ever met who knew what life was about. I was standing by the window of the Silver Sun and when I saw Fee coming I got out of those doors fast. So did everyone there, even though the screaming had not stopped. By the time Fee walked in with his plank at the ready, the place was empty.
We all stood scattered in the street waiting for something to happen. Avery, the fat barkeep, had brought a bottle with him and he tilted his head back and drank, standing out in the dirt with his white apron on and one hand on his hip. I had never seen Avery in sunlight before. The sun was on the western flats to about four o’clock. There was no sound now from the saloon. The only horse tied up in front was the stranger’s: a big ugly roan that didn’t look like he expected water or a rub. Behind him in the dirt was a pile of new manure.
We waited and then there was a noise from inside—a clatter—and that was all. After a while Fee came out of the Silver Sun with his cudgel and stood on the porch. He walked forward and missed the steps. The Bad Man’s horse skittered aside and Fee tumbled down and landed on his knees in the manure. He got up with dung clinging to his britches and lurched on toward Ezra Maple, the Express Man, who said: “He can’t see.” Ezra stepped aside as Fee staggered by him. The back of Fee’s bald head was bashed and webbed with blood and he was holding his ears. Little Jimmy stood next to me watching his father go up the street. He ran after a few yards, then stopped, then ran after again. When he caught up to Fee he took his belt and together they walked into Fee’s door.
Nobody went back into the saloon, we were all reminded of business we had to do. When I got to my office door I glanced back and the only one still standing in the street was Avery, in his apron. I knew he’d be the first over to see me and he was.
“Blue, that gentleman’s in my place, you got to get him out of there.”
“I saw him pay you money Avery.”
“I got stock behind that bar, I got window glass in my windows, I got my grain and still in back. There’s no telling what he’ll do.”
“Maybe he’ll leave soon enough.”
“He cracked Fee’s skull!”
“A fight’s a fight, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Well now Avery I’m forty-nine years old.”
I took my gun out of my drawer and shoved it over the desk toward fat Avery but he didn’t take it. Instead he sat down on my cot and we waited together. About dusk Jimmy Fee came in and told me his father was bleeding at the mouth. I went out and found John Bear, the deaf-and-dumb Pawnee who served for our doctor, and we went over to Fee’s place but Fee was already dead. The Indian shrugged and walked out and I was left to comfort the boy all night.
Once, around midnight, when it got too cold for me, I walked back to my office to get a blanket. And on the way I sneaked across the street—running where there was moonlight—to peek into the window of the Silver Sun. The lights were still burning. Behind the bar, Florence, with her red hair unpinned to her shoulders, was crying and pouring herself a stiff one. I tapped on the window, but she knew Fee was dead and she wouldn’t come out. I ran around back. The upstairs was dark and I could hear the Man from Bodie snoring.
When I came West with the wagons, I was a young man with expectations of something, I don’t know what, I tar-painted my name on a big rock by the Missouri trailside. But in time my expectations wore away with the weather, like my name had from that rock, and I learned it was enough to stay alive. Bad Men from Bodie weren’t ordinary scoundrels, they came with the land, and you could no more cope with them than you could with dust or hailstones.
I found twelve dollars in Fee’s bureau when the sun came up and I gave them to Hausenfield, the German. Hausenfield owned a bathtub, he had brought it in his wagon all the way from St. Louis. At the beginning of each month Hausenfield would fill that tub with water from his well and sit right down in back of his house and wash. He also owned the stable.
After I gave him the money he went into his stable and pushed out his wagon by the tongue and hitched up his mule and his grey. The wagon was an old stage with the windows boarded and the seats torn out. It was black, the one painted thing in town. He drove it over to Fee’s door.
“Put him in dere please.”
Jack Millay, who was standing by with his one arm, helped me take Fee out and put him in the wagon.
“Don’t you have a casket Hausenfield?”
“He never build me vun. He said he would build ten for me, but he never build even vun.”
I closed the door on Fee and the wagon creaked down the street and into the flats. It was cold and early but nearly everyone was out watching it go. A pickaxe clanked on top of the stage, one of the wheels squeaked each time around, and the clanking and squeaking was Fee’s funeral music. Hausenfield’s grey pulled harder than his mule and so the wagon turned eastward slowly in an arc. About a mile out in the flats it stopped. Behind the wagon, from the southeast, rain clouds were coming up under the sky. I didn’t know where Florence was but Jimmy Fee began to walk out after, now, with his hands in his pockets.
“Look there Blue!”
Across the street, in front of the saloon, the Bad Man’s roan stood shivering where he’d been tied since yesterday.
“Cold got that man’s horse,” Jack Millay said, “he never did see to it.” Even as Jack spoke the horse went down on its knees. That was all we needed—I wanted the man to go away with no difficulty, no trouble to himself. I walked into my office to think, and a few minutes later some fool who couldn’t bear to see animals suffer but who didn’t care if people did, stood a good safe way from the Silver Sun, probably behind some porch, and shot his carbine at the roan.
When I ran out the roan was twitching on his side and the street was empty.
Copyright © 2010 by E. L. Doctorow. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.