Title: Gloria

Author: Chris Else

In: Sport 7: Winter 1991

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, July 1991, Wellington

Part of: Sport

Keywords: Prose Literature

Conditions of use



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Sport 7: Winter 1991

♣ Chris Else — Gloria

page 53

Chris Else


A Tale of the Old West

You go West far enough and you get back to the East someplace and, at the back of the East, there's another world where nothing is quite the way it's supposed to be, where people are shadows, where words flap around in the wind like tattered flags after a battle. There ain't no reason in a place like that. It's a wild country and if you don't have no laws and lay them out good and clear and nail them down with a bullet, then you've got nothing left but desert and cactus and the vultures picking over the bones of the dead.

—Oh, my boy, my boy, my poor, poor boy!

Filling a man with whiskey is turning him over like a rock. All the fears and fancies lying there quietly in the shelter of what he thought he was are suddenly out in the open. They go crawling and wriggling and scuttling away as fast as they can or else they come slashing out at you with their teeth and their tails, trying to get a strike in first. I guess there are more kinds of drunk than there are hours in a day and some folk can drink their way through most of them. There's drunk that's brave and there's drunk that's yellow. There's drunk that's miserable, drunk that's sad, drunk that's happy, strong, weak, sick, dead. There's drunk that's cold and logical, like Nick Wright, the gambler, whose wife died of fever before she was twenty two, and there's drunk that philosophical, like Judge Sam Carter, mean as buckshot when he's sober, but always ready, somewhere in the second quarter of the first bottle, to give you the fulsome benefits of what he calls a classical education. Worst of all, there's drunk that's crazy, like young Mickey Haggarty.

—I had a dress of yellow silk, remember? Such yellow, golden like the daffodils.


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Mickey was twenty-five years old, a tall, strapping young fellow with sky blue eyes and a mass of golden blond curls that made him the darling of all the women over forty. He worked in Doc Fletcher's livery stable, eating and sleeping with the horses. Mickey was the orphaned child of a local schoolteacher. He wasn't stupid, exactly, but he was a long way from clever. I guess he suffered from what you might call an excess of amiability. He was too easy-going to care if he could read or write or what might be the value of either. He loved horses and they responded to him with an equal measure of loyalty and affection. It was as if he had a secret hold on the soul of the dumb beasts and could call out of them a nearly human response like you'd never expect from half the people in the county.

Every month or so, however, Mickey would have a strange notion come upon him. Maybe it was the memory of his dead mother or the fury of some planetary conjunction or just a blast of pure, uninhibited animality that would rise up inside him out of nowhere. He'd gather up all the money he'd saved from whatever Doc Fletcher paid him, he'd wash himself good and well in the horse trough beside the stable, and he'd dress himself up in the only decent clothes he'd ever owned; a pair of blue denim jeans, a dark blue cotton shirt, a leather jerkin with silver studs, and a pair of tooled leather cowboy boots. Then, he'd take himself down to the Golden Wheel Saloon where he'd find the two things he needed most, whiskey and women. From that point on, it would depend upon the peculiar balance of the evening just how things would work out and who would suffer for it. If things went well, Mickey would have a lot of money for whoring and wouldn't drink too much before he started into it. If things went badly, the whores would turn him down because he was too drunk and he'd still have enough money to keep drinking. Whiskey's like gasoline. It never puts out the fire. It only stokes it so the flames burn hotter.

—I didn't want to leave you. I never meant to leave you. You remember my dress? Like silk, my yellow hair.

'The Golden Wheel!' Sam Carter said, raising his glass to the smoke and noise and spilt liquor smell of the saloon. He chuckled and stared with rheumy eyes at the three men sitting at the table; Cody Jones, Dick Malloy, and young Tom Finn. Dick Malloy was the Sheriff and the only man in the page 55 room who was openly carrying a gun.

'Now, what do you suppose a wheel might signify?'the Judge demanded.

'Fortune,' Cody said. 'Or progress, maybe.'

Judge Carter laughed. 'Ixion, my friends! You ever hear of Ixion's Wheel?'

Nobody answered. They figured they were all going to hear soon enough. Listening to the judge talk was the price of drinking his liquor.

'Ixion was a king, in Greece someplace. Way back in the olden times this was. Now, in those days, and in those places, a man had to buy himself a wife, pretty much like some of the injuns do round these parts. In Ixion's case, though, something went wrong. Maybe, he thought he got a bad deal or maybe he was just plain cheapskate but, howsoever, he took the woman and he didn't pay the price. His father-in-law was regular displeased by this so he moved in pretty damn quick and he rustled all Ixion's horses. Now, a good legal opinion might rightly be that the old man was taking no more than his due, seeking proper damages and compensation for a broken contract. Ixion didn't see it that way, though. He pretended he wanted to reconcile with the old fella but as soon as he got him into the house, he grabbed hold of him and threw him into a pit of fire, cooked him like a pig on a spit.

'Indians down Musochta way roasted a man,' Dick Malloy said.

'Folks in Morgan County burnt an injun,' Cody answered. 'I seen it.'

Over by the bar, Mickey Haggarty was standing, smiling, flush-faced, a glass in his hand, a bottle, half-empty, at his elbow.

—I know you loved me, love me, love me. Say how you see how pretty I am. Say it. You always used to say it.

'Hey, Judge,' said Tom. 'That wife-buying thing. When a man takes a whore, he pays like that.'

'No, son. He does not. In the classical times, the bride price was part of the legal contract of marriage. Paying showed respect for a woman. There ain't no respect in a whorehouse. Precious little joy, either. The way a whore gets treated is the way a man abuses the tenderness of his own soul.'

Mickey Haggarty was laughing to himself, waving his free hand at someone like he had a conversation going on in his muddled head.

Judge Carter took a long, slow sip at his whiskey. He swallowed with a page 56 little sigh and settled himself more comfortably in his chair. 'Now the Law is an expression of the people's will. That's good philosophy. And as true in Ixion's time as it is now. Because he was a king he was a hard man to bring to justice but that didn't stop them hating him none, no sir. He was near the most abominated man in the whole of Greece, the wide world, maybe. He was shunned and insulted and spoken ill of and plotted against. It got so damn bad that in the end Zeus, who was chief of all the gods, got to feeling sorry for him. Zeus himself was never one for respecting the law much beyond his own convenience, so I guess he had some sympathy for a statute of limitations in Ixion's case. Anyways, moved by mercy he was, and he took Ixion up and carried him off to Mt Olympus where all the gods lived.'

'That'd be like taking him up to Heaven, wouldn't it, Judge?'

'Sure would, son.'

'Mighty light punishment for roasting your wife's daddy,' Malloy said.

Mickey had found himself a woman. One of the saloon's regular queans had floated by him and been grabbed promptly by the arm. Swaying slowly, he was leering down at her, his tongue too thick to put the proposition he intended.

Judge Carter nodded. 'Sure is, son. But the Law has its time and the time has its laws. Now, you listen to the way it turned out. You might think that Ixion would be plumb and sweet and ass-licking grateful for the mercy shown him. No, Sir. He straight way took himself a fancy to Zeus's wife and he lost no time in trying to throw his leg across her. I guess you've figured out by now what kind of reprobate we're dealing with here. Not only the wife of his rescuer but she's a goddess as well! That's what they called hubris in the classical times. The Sin of Pride. When Zeus found out, he could hardly believe it. It was beyond even a divine comprehension. So to prove the point, he took a cloud and he made an image of his wife and he laid it down in Ixion's bed. Ixion comes home, from whatever iniquity he's lately been engaged in, sees the object of his lust all ready and waiting for him, and in he goes, slam-bang. Out jumps Zeus and catches him in the act, in delicto flagrante, as they say. No merry this time. Arrested, tried, judged, sentenced, all before you can count my boots. And the punishment?'

The judge paused and looked round the table. Over at the bar, the woman had made her mind up. Wrenching her arm from Mickey's grasp, she stepped quickly away, her long skirt swishing round her ankles.

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'Ixion was chained to a wheel of fire, a wheel with wings, turning, turning till the end of time.'

Mickey lunged after the woman and almost fell. Then, he righted himself, blinking, his smile gone now. He picked up his bottle by the neck and drank.

—Yellow is the colour of my true love's hair.

'I'll tell you, Judge,' said Cody. 'I got sympathy for your man back there. You put a goddess in my bed and I'd be into her faster than a rattlesnake.' 'Not if she's a cloud, you wouldn't,' Tom Finn said. 'You'd be flat on your belly then, for sure you would.'

Judge Carter chuckled. 'Damn right, son. To a mortal man a goddess is always a cloud. There ain't nothing there once you get your arms around her.'

'Ain't no goddesses in the Golden Wheel. Ain't nothing much in the way of whores neither,' Malloy complained.

'It's the gamblers I can't stand,' Cody said. 'I truly despise a gambler.'

The judge laughed. 'No, Sir. Wrong again. You can't despise a gambler. You can only hate him. You hate because he shows you your own stupidity. There's a truth in this. Whores and gamblers both, they hold a mirror up to nature.'

—Soft, my love. So soft my secret. Dying. The wheel turns, hopes, my dreams. You bet your dreams on a girl with yellow hair.

Mickey slumped against the bar, legs sagging, slowly raised his head, stared blearily at the empty bottle.

'Barthee,' he mumbled, beckoning with clumsy, flapping fingers. 'Bartheek!' Louder, when there was no response.

'Yes, son.' The barman hovering, vague in Mickey's vision.

'Whitby, barthee. Whithy.'

A shot glass, tiny like a thimble. A measure being poured.

'Naaaugh!' Mickey in outrage. 'Bo'ull. Bo'ull, barthee.'

'Nope,' the barman said, firmly. 'You had a bellyfull already, son. I give you another bottle, it'll kill you, for sure.'

'Whitby, barthee. Bo'ullo whithy.'

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'I told you, son. You get yourself back to the stable and sleep it off, boy.'

'Whitby!' A roar that hushed the room. Mickey's arm swung out, grabbing. Bottle and glasses crashed to the floor. The barman, nimble, stepping back, avoiding the scooping hand.

'Scuse me, Judge.' Dick Malloy stood up from the table. Another man, too, grabbing Mickey's arm, a fool, was dragged in, butted head to head, as Mickey roared again. Malloy was there quickly at the boy's back, a full nelson on him, pressing him to the floor. And Mickey's booze numb fingers groping behind him for the weight, the strong man.

'Whaaaa?' A whiskey puzzle, somewhere in the dream. And then a rage, volcanic, muscles like a horse, dumb beast, exploding, slammed himself backwards (and Malloy) against the bar. Malloy grunted. They fell and Mickey, struggling, kicking, roaring, huge, a heave, was on his knees, another to his feet and standing there, swaying, glaring at the room, with blood pouring from his nose and Dick Malloy's six-gun in his right hand.

—Oh, my love, my darling boy, my lost soul. Why should you be such a difficulty to the dead?

If you wanted to gamble big at the Golden Wheel, you didn't do it in the main saloon. You took yourself off to one of the siderooms where there wa! a low lamp over a green baize table and where five or six or seven could sit in a concentrated quiet with their minds on draw or seven card stud of blackjack. Here it was that Nick Wright, gambler, drunk his slow sips of bourbon and slipped gently into the dark waters of his mind. Slowly, as the hours went by, his stillness grew, his hands on the cards seemed barely to move, his voice dropped to a whisper, his courage hardened into an icy hatred. Nobody played cards with Nick without feeling the anger in him Nobody who lost to him, and there were many, could fail to wish him dead.

'Raise you twenty,' Nick said. And waited. There were five other people at the table. Two had already folded. It was seven card stud. The player to Nick's right had bet five dollars on his two kings showing. The first to hi; left was a straight at best. The second to his left looked good with four heart in his upcards, ace high. Nick had queen and four of spades showing with ace, king, three in the hole. He knew he had the heart flush beat because the king was to his right. Was there a full house too? Eights or tens on kings The betting would tell.

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'See you,' the first left said. A sucker. He was on to be beaten twice on the cards. He should have folded at least a round back.

'Another twenty,' said the hearts. The flush was there. The right hand folded. Got you, Nick thought. There was only one question now. Should he raise and try to squeeze more out of the hearts or see in the hope that the sucker would come along too. Raise, he thought. The hearts have to see and the sucker can't be that stupid.

He picked up the glass at his elbow and sipped a tiny sip. Something was making him hesitate, a doubt, an irritation beneath his consciousness. Through the intensity of his focus on the cards, the chips, the green baize pool of light, he felt a growing sense of a change somewhere, a new factor. Something was wrong. The room next door, the saloon, was silent. No, not quite. There was a noise of furniture scraping, falling, a kind of shout, the thump of feet.

Nick lifted his eyes to the door just as it crashed open and flailing Mickey Haggarty fell through it, gun in hand.

'Jesus, Mary and Joseph!' gasped the sucker and flung himself away from the light. So did the others, scrambling, scattering chairs, pressing themselves against the walls. But not Nick. Unmoved, he sat and stared up at the red-faced, drunken boy with the bloody nose and wild, waving gun. Behind the swaying figure, a little knot of witnesses was pressing into the doorway.

'Whaaaa?' Mickey slurred, staring round, blear-eyed, at the pale faces in the shadows, the figure seated at the table.

'Go away, boy. We're busy here.' Nick's voice was so soft that Mickey could barely have heard but something registered, a recognition, a response to the gambler's stillness, concentration, to his cold hard, dark, unyielding fury. Mickey, his passion rising, lunged forward, one huge hand blundering among the cards and chips to support his weight.

'Raaaugh!' he roared. 'Why bathard, brudress bathard. Ay key-oo, keyoo. Thee! Thee!' The gun waved menacingly in Nick's face.

'Shoot him, Mickey!' A voice said, from the open doorway.

'Whoa, boy!' said another.

'I ain't got no weapon, son,' Nick Wright said, unblinking. His lips barely moved. 'You shoot an unarmed man, you'll be the most despised felon in the county.'

'Me! Me! Shoo bagh! Shoo bagh!' Mickey yelled, slewing upright, turning, jabbing his thumb up towards his shoulder blades.

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Nick looked round the room at the cowering figures, the anticipation, the menace lurking beneath their fears for their own safety. He stood up. Behind him, to his right, was another door, one which led outside into the alley beside the saloon.

'I'm leaving now, boy,' he said. 'I'm showing my back too.'

Slowly, he moved towards the door, opened it, stepped out into the night. He turned and looked back inside. Mickey was still standing there, swaying, arms spread. The faces stared.

'You ignorant piece of horse-fucking shit!' Nick said softly and walked away.

He heard the roar behind him, the table falling, and suddenly his courage left him like his foot going through the floor. His back cringed. He ran, stumbled four, five steps and flung himself to the ground, rolled over into the shadows beside the building. Noise in the doorway. Explosion from the gun. Mickey, roaring, plunged down the alley away from where Nick was lying, out towards the main street. Two other men ran after him. Silence. He felt a twitch, a spasm run through his body. He wanted to giggle.

—Am I your pretty? Yes. You must tell me how pretty I am. I love to hear you say it.

There was a light. Nick looked up. Ahead of him, at the corner of the building, towards the back of the saloon, was a woman holding a lantern. She wore a long dark skirt and a white blouse, high at the neck and trimmed with lace. No one he knew. No one who had ever set foot in the Golden Wheel. She held the lantern high so that it lit her face, her shoulders, and cast a wide pool of light around her, swiveling on the ground. Her skin was pale, her hair heavy, falling in dark waves around her face and neck. She took a step or two forward. The light swayed, swinging towards the spot where Nick was lying. She knew he was there, he could tell. In a few moments, she would see him. Her dark eyes were fixed on the shadows which hid him. There was a faint, soft, waiting smile on her lips. He did not move. He did not care if she found him or not but he was not going to show himself.

'Gloria?' A voice, female, from the street beyond the alley. The woman with the lantern turned her head and looked back.

'Come here and see this,' the voice said.

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Gloria turned and moved away. Nick felt a sudden surge of disappointment. He exhaled and realised how long he had been holding his breath. The woman had disappeared around the corner. He scrambled to his feet, moved quickly to the end of the alley and peered out.

Gloria was on the far side of the street beside an open wagon. The lantern, held high, lit the wooden sides, the rear wheel, the back of the tray. Inside was a jumbled of forms, dark, shadows, shapes, except for the human arm which stuck out over the tray's edge and the hand which dangled from it.

Gloria turned and looked out into the darkness.

'Mickey!' she called. 'Mi-ck-ey!'


Again. 'Mickey! Mickey Haggarty!'

Out of the darkness there was an answering shout, a mumbled curse. Mickey was down the street somewhere. His voice grew louder.

Then Nick noticed another figure, on the far side of the wagon from where Gloria stood. Dark, straight, in the darkest shadows.

Mickey Haggarty came stumbling forward, muttering, swaying. He was still carrying the gun. On the edge of the light he stopped.

'Hello, Mickey,' Gloria said, smiling at him.

Mickey groaned, a long, puzzled, fearful sound, like a dog which hears a noise out in the dark. The figure on the other side of the wagon moved forward a pace or two. It was a tall, thin man in a black suit and a black hat. Cradled in his arms was a double-barreled shotgun.

'Give me the pistol, son,' he said.

'Naaugh!' Mickey staggered back, afraid.

'Don't be a fool, boy.'

'Braaaugh!' Mickey yelled waving the revolver, lunging at the dark man. The shotgun swung, glinted, a roar. Mickey, blasted backwards, fell amid the echoes, lying sprawled and dying, his best tooled leather cowboy boots twitching at the edge of the circle of light on the ground. The dark man reloaded the shotgun, dropping the empty cartridges by his boots.

-Oh, my boy, my boy, my poor, poor boy.

Nick stood up straight, brushed with his hands at the front of his jacket, adjusted his cuffs. Then he stepped forward. Gloria turned at the sound of page 62 his approach. He saw her smile. He kept his eyes fixed on her face although he saw, again, the glint of the shotgun barrels as they were leveled at him.

'Hello, Nick,' Gloria said as he drew near. Somewhere, down below to his left, Mickey was still making a faint hissing noise.

—Oh, my boy, my poor, poor boy.

Nick turned towards the dark man. 'I ain't got no weapon,' he said. 'You shoot me and you'll be the most hated man in the county.'

The black hat tilted. The man smiled, a strange, snarling smile which showed only his lower teeth. He took another pace forward. On the left breast of his jacket was a silver star.

'I am already,' he said. 'But you don't need to worry none. I ain't gonna do you no harm. I wouldn't give you the pleasure.'

'Go home, Nick,' Gloria said. 'Go home where you belong.'

'Where's that?'

'Go home,' she repeated.

'You come with me.'

'Me?' She laughed. The lantern shook and the shadows danced over the wagon, the dark man, the boots of Mickey Haggarty. 'No,' she went on, 'not me. You go and find your own reasons somewhere else.'

—Am I your pretty?

'Well,' said the judge, 'there's two kinds of law. There's the natural law and the human law. And the natural law says that a man's got to follow his own destiny. But the human law says he sure as hell better not unless it'll stand up in court. That's the paradox of civilisation, son. That's what makes this a great nation.'