Western Short Story
For an Irish drummer, Cornelius Avergood McCloran, fateful events always travel in threes. The old superstition has a strange way of holding on … when only two of the events come to passing, he’d be wakeful for the third.
Now, on this day, on the verge of Willowville, at the edge of the grass and not far from the Snake River, Cornelius Avergood McCloran, book drummer, is about to kick his mule into another start. There has been half a dozen unsuccessful attempts before the mule falls dead in the traces. Perhaps because of the strain on the lead elements of the wagon, the wagon breaks down for good; it is not going anyplace any more. He is sure of that when he hears something crack. The front axle, he thinks. He kicks the wagon.
“That’s two,” he says under his breath, fearing to let his fear be so exposed.
He thinks of walking the short distance into town, going to the saloon, and having a shot of whiskey. Does he not deserve it after all of this? Of course he does.
He heads into town.
Out of New York, and Ellis Island as a lad right from the Old Sod, McCloran suddenly knows he is not alone as he walks into Willowville. From behind him, way back, in another time and another country, the voices come down the invisible tunnel, the unseen audible streaming of words, a jumble at first, and then whole passages read to him in his youth by both grandfathers, and by his father and mother. It is the legendary stuff, the long-lasting stuff that has resonated for ages in his family, from the men teachers, the women readers, from the great writers of the age, down to the children listeners.
Now, his wagon broken down and obviously gone past use, he is 40 years old, unmarried, a drummer for almost 20 years, comfortable in his ways. And yet he listens again, as if a boy, feeling the fire in the crude kitchen fireplace touching him with comfort, the warm voice of one elder or another sweeping the legends into his ears, the heart of Ireland and the nearby islands echoing for him. The voices are endless, streaming, and resonant.
They make a difference, the voices, the words. He hears Shakespeare and Defoe and Goldsmith. And others. Glorious passages come back to crowd him into pleasure, as if they are sitting on his shoulder, pitched at one ear, waiting.
A pounding comes, resonance, brilliance upon brilliance in the gathering of words. It all hits home again, like the ocean surf, like tall grass out there on the plains waving to an incessant breeze.
So, recalled, different hungers coming applied, McCloran walks into town, passes the saloon and goes directly to the general store. He buys jerky, hardtack, salt, bacon, beans and coffee, changes his speed.
To himself he says, “Where I am I’ll stay, outside of town.” It will become his spot, like that of a squatter. Nobody will touch him. He is harmless. The wagon, even broken down, going no place, is re-assessed. It gives him cover from the weather. It has a tiny wood stove for cooking, warming the old bones. He might, if needed, add on to it. He could brace a winter or two when they come, be comfortable otherwise.
Perhaps the third event will fall on its own to the wayside, not find him “being good.”
Another superstition is at work; if you’re being good, the devil can’t find you.
Malcolm Ledger, storekeeper, says, “Connie, one of the B-Bar boys said he saw your wagon broke down outside town. Can I do anything for you?” He has known McCloran for a dozen years, both of them new to the west, survivors in a sense of the expansion, roots of a sort working for them.
“No, Mal,” McCloran replies, “I just made up my mind that I’m going to sit out there for a while, stake out a little patch of ground, hang around a bit.”
“You still have that little iron stove?”
“That I do, Mal. Does me well.”
“I’ll make sure one of my boys gets a load of firewood out there before the cold weather comes. But that’s a month or more for sure.”
“I’ll put some of my books on your shelves.”
The deal is done.
Two days later, his drop-down bunk squared away in the wooden-sided wagon, the little stove in a new location with a flue inserted out a hole in the side, his supply of books stashed In high piles on one side, McCloran can look winter in the face.
He has not yet had a drink in Willowville. The good dreams come upon him, and the words come back down the tunnel. He feels happy, sated, listening. He opens a book, one of the many books he’d been drumming. He has Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Defoe, the Irish and English and Scottish poets. He has the words to fill his own tunnel.
Sorting favored books for his own reading pleasure, McCloran hears a sound outside the wagon.
A red-headed boy, perhaps 8 or 9, whittles at a stick of wood. He looks up, not surprised and says, “Hi, what’s your name?”
“Hi yourself,” McCloran replies, “I am Connie McCloran, seller of books. What’s your name?”
“I’m Tommy Flaherty. My father’s the sheriff. He knows you. What’s in your books?”
“Everything, from knights to heroes to poetry to stories that swell the heart and race the mind.”
“I can only read a little yet, but I’d like to hear the stories. My father teaches me when he can.”
The boy carries a look on his face that screams interest and longing. It all says there is space that needs filling.
With ease and a welcoming flair, McCloran swings a wooden box out in front of him and points to it. “Sit there, he says, and I’ll be right out.” He enters the wagon and returns with a book. It is as thick as his wrist and has a reddish cover that looks like it was made of leather.
“This is the story of Robinson Crusoe who was stranded after a shipwreck, the only one alive after his ship sank from a storm. He ended up on an island.”
For an hour he reads to Tommy Flaherty, the boy wide-eyed, his jackknife and fingers a long-time still, his mouth open.
When McCloran closes the cover on the Defoe book, signaling the end of the reading session, Tommy Flaherty says, “Can I come back tomorrow?”
“Can I bring my friend?”
The next day Tommy Flaherty says, “This is my friend, Norman Hult. I told him about Robinson Crusoe. We’d like you to read those parts again. Just like you did yesterday.” Norman Hult, a good year younger than Tommy Flaherty, looks a bit nervous but brings up a smile when the drummer swings another box out for his seat.
The two boys sit on the boxes, McCloran sits on an empty barrel for a while, and then begins to walk back and forth while reading as his own excitement came apace. The boys do not move, sit wide-eyed, alert, soaking in the newness and the new words, the new adventure, seeing firsthand what it could do to an older person, a man who has been “out there in the world.”
The reading spans days as McCloran ends each reading at a heightened point of the tale and, before many days go by, young Tommy’s father, the sheriff, makes an appearance, introduces himself, and sits to listen. Sheriff Martin Flaherty doesn’t come every day, but comes several times each week, between posse runs, court duty, prisoner transportation. He too gets enthralled in the tale of Crusoe as McCloran spins it out, his voice dramatic, plausible, carrying the essence of Crusoe’s plight and emotion: how he is shipwrecked in a storm, is the lone survivor, and lands on an island which he calls the Island of Despair. Crusoe, with survival instincts pushing at him, retrieves tools, implements and available supplies from the ship before it breaks apart and sinks forever. He sets out to build a home for himself on the island, against extraordinary odds, grows crops, hunts and fishes for food; subsists on what’s at hand, what’s on the land.
Every reading leaps with excitement, crucial and instinctive decisions, and new ways at doing old things.
McCloran has not had a drink in weeks. He’s sleeping better, often through the whole night. The crowd has grown; now there are sometimes 14 or 15 youngsters, a father or mother with interest or idle curiosity about what’s going on, a few eligible females he assumes, one widow who comes every day, sits back, dreams.
Yet McCloran waits for the third bad luck event to come along the trail. It will come inevitably, to land at his feet for some past sin he can no longer recall.
It does come, just as Crusoe helps a prisoner escape from cannibals, names his new companion Friday, after the day of the week he appears, teaches him English and converts him to Christianity.
A sound in the night wakens McCloran. He hears guttural talk, horses making noise, the whistling swing of ropes in the air, and suddenly he knows his wagon is being pulled over on its side. It rocks, swings, rolls, and he rolls with it, out of his bunk. Everything falls on him. The fire in the little stove, luckily, died out earlier.
Clambering from blankets, books, other items, he gets outside and sees nothing. In the night come the sounds of horses galloping away toward town.
Anger building in him, seeing the young ones looking on the mess, he heads into town.
Late, there is a light in the saloon. Horses stand outside. He wants to rush in, accost the guilty parties, thinks better of it, and walks to the sheriff’s office. The light of a lamp shines in the window.
He tells the sheriff what has happened. He tells him there are horses outside the saloon at this late hour, laughter coming from inside.
The sheriff escorts him to the saloon. When they walk in, a party of four cowboys, known wise guys and trouble makers, are whooping it up at a table.
The barkeep looks up as the sheriff comes up to the bar, saying, “How long they been here?”
“Oh, most of the night, Sheriff. Most of the night.” A smile sits on the edge of his lips.
Flaherty turns to McCloran and says, “Go see if any of those horses are hot, been ridden in the last few minutes.”
He turns to the barkeep, “If they are, and you’re lying to me, Ned, I’ll lock you up and shut this place down.”
McCloran places his hand on the haunches of each horse and finds all of them sweaty and hot. He reports the finding to Flaherty in the saloon.
Flaherty ignores the lying barkeep and says to the others, “Out of here now, down to the jail. You’re all spending the night in a cell.”
One of them jumps up and yells, “He’s just a drunk drummer. We was having some fun.”
“You’ll have more fun when the judge gets here in a few days. He’ll set you straight.”
“Look, Sheriff, we ain’t scared of what Judge Malberg says. He’s a square dude.”
“He’s not coming to the court. He fell off his horse and won’t be out this way for months. John Crowsgather is going to be your judge.”
Another of the wreckers spoke up; “That one hates anybody ever in trouble with the law. Probably going to send us to the territorial prison for a few weeks, just to be mean about it.”
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll do that,” Flaherty says. “I’ll have a talk with him when he gets here.”
“Oh, we’ll ‘preciate that, Sheriff,” one of them replies saucily, a slight smile visible at the corner of his mouth.
Sheriff Flaherty and Judge Crowsgather have a talk before court opens at his arrival. The trial is in the saloon. The judge places his pistol on the bar and commences with the trial. He hears what McCloran had to say, McCloran’s melodious voice ringing out in the crowded saloon.
Then the judge listens to Flaherty’s comments, and those of his son, the boy speaking like an adult, a lift and a hope riding in his voice as if he has been transformed.
“Trials over,” Judge Crowsgather announces. “Here’s how I see it. You rowdies and wiseacres, in the middle of the night, wrecked a man’s home. I don’t care if it was only a wagon that already got broken down. You are going to replace some things here in Willowville, make it better than it was.”
He raps his gun butt on the bar top when some commotion starts in the back of the room. “You three,” he says to the culprits, “are hereby sentenced to spend your nights in the Willowville jail for the duration of your sentence.”
One of the condemned jumps up and says, glee almost ringing in his voice, “And we’re free all the days?”
“Oh, no,” accounts the judge. “It ain’t going to be that easy. During the day you’re not going to rebuild Mr. McCloran’s wagon, you’re going to build him a school. He’s the best thing to come into Willowville in years. You’re going to build him a good school, a solid school, so that he can start teaching all the children and those any older who want to hear what he knows in those books of his.”
One of the condemned screams again, “He’s just a drunk drummer. What we got to do that for?”
“He’s a teacher. He can read. That’s better than you. I know you can’t read. And you see how young Mr. Flaherty conducted himself in front of us all. Part of that comes from the drummer who’s a teacher.”
The judge turns to Flaherty and poses a question, “Sheriff, do you have someone in mind who can take care of this situation until the school is built?”
“Yes, sir, Your Honor. My deputy has run up a few barns in his time. I know he can do a good job on a new schoolhouse.”
“And tend jail time?”
“Yes, sir, Your Honor, he’ll handle that too,” the sheriff affirms.
Judge John Crowsgather smacks his gun butt down on the bar. “Done,” he said. “Done.”
The sentence, long as it is, is carried out, the school comes up off the ground, opening day eventually comes, and the lone teacher, Cornelius Avergood McCloran, book in hand, walks back and forth in the crowded single room and begins his newest reading, “It was the best of time, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope ...”
And there is rapture in the drummer’s schoolroom as Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities comes to life.