A short historical fiction written by Pamela Eason
W.A. Jenkins took a slug of whiskey from the Dr. Bull’s Cough Syrup bottle. He was sitting on a stack of Coca-Cola crates, elbows resting on what was left of a wooden table, eyes fixed on an advertisement ripped from a page of the Wichita Daily Eagle. The tattered advertisement announced the Shaker Concert.
Holiday Celebration with Presents for Everybody
Useful Souvenir for Every Child
Grand Prize for One Lucky Child
Toler Auditorium, December 27, 1900
A diamond ring, lines jutting out from its faucets giving the impression of a bright glow, was drawn below the stylized words.
A tarnished pistol with two bullets in its chamber lay a few inches from W.A.’s right hand. Will, who was standing almost parallel to W.A., eyed a bullet hole, still visible in one of the rough-cut pine planks that ran horizontal along the walls, and hoped his father’s drunken rage wouldn’t go that far this time.
Will was not a child. He was almost seventeen, but he was small for his age. The fine blond hair blossoming above his lip was barely perceptible, and, from a distance, he could pass for a carefree boy of twelve or thirteen.
Will didn’t know exactly what W.A. was thinking, but he recognized the meanness incubating in his father, and it made him feel scared and angry all at the same time. Brutality was already molding W.A.’s eyes into a squint, and callousness was pulling his lips into a tightly crinkled ball.
A clear bottle, labeled Thedford’s Black–Draught, along with a dozen or more unopened amber-colored bottles, were scattered on the white-washed cupboard’s shelf. Their contents, also ranging from clear to amber, were disguised with various drug store labels. Dr. Bull’s bottle would be the first of many before the night was through. If he stayed, Will would be facing a belligerent bull of a father, but he was not planning on staying.
Will held his breath and silently slid along the clapboard wall towards the door praying his father wouldn’t notice. The floor creaked. Will froze. W.A.’s head lifted but did not turn. His gaze had settled on a patch of a yard beyond the window that had once been his wife’s garden. The garden, covered in dead weeds, had not seen any crops or flowers in the three years since she’d died.
Will kept his eyes fixed on W.A.’s head and crept closer to the door. He gently wrapped his hand around the leather horsewhip leaning against the door’s frame and soundlessly slipped it between his belt and the back of his canvas pants trying not to interrupt his father’s concentration with his movements. He grabbed his too-big coat from its nail, unlatched the door, and shoved it open with his shoulder. It squealed out a sharp loud creak. Will ran, coat tucked under his arm, till his breath was coming out his nose and mouth like frantic smoke signals.
There was no horse. Will had been walking or taking rides from whoever offered for five months ever since W.A. had staggered out a west-side joint singing, “Little Brown Jug, you and me” to discover Old May was not at the hitching post. Will would have preferred to have a horse, but he was, for the most part, glad Old May had been stolen. Seeing her struggling, skin and bones, beneath the relentless, stinging, bad-tempered demands of his father’s whip had always made the skin between his shoulders flinch like Old May’s flank. Sometimes at night he would drag his fingers along one of the scarred whelps scattered across his own back and chest, think of her, and imagine that she was in a happier place.
Will crossed the tracks that ran east and west before drooping forward. He rested his hands on his knees till his breath slowed. He had to decide where he was going. He would have to be back at the docks of the Kansas Milling Company before sunrise the next morning, and his arms and back ached from ten hours of unloading fifty pound bags from three of the company’s boxcars. He thought about heading straight to the loft of Mr. Osborn’s barn, bunking down and closing his eyes, but the frosty air snapping at every exposed part of him jarred his senses. He was too awake to sleep now. He thought about the concert at the Toler. He would at least be warm there, and there would be sweets. He slid his arms into the sleeves of his coat and started walking in that direction.
The walk took him along a dirt road that ran parallel to the Arkansas River. Every now and then, between the trees, glimpses of shimmering water, reflecting the sun low on the horizon, flashed across his eyes. Cold rocks pushed against the too-thin soles of his shoes sending unpredictable stabs of pain through his stiffening feet. A jagged one pushed into the arch of his foot.
Will stooped to remove the rock and continued north on Handley. He moved toward the right side of the street concealing himself as best he could in the growing shadows. Scattered groups of rowdy, half-drunken cowboys, who had ended their cattle drive in Wichita mid-afternoon, stood on planked porches of storefronts already talking in raucous, sloppy sentences.
Will turned the corner, east on Maple. Three men stood, not two feet from him, under a handmade sign.
Come On In
Notes, shrieking from a fiddle, assaulted the air, and the odor of liquor mixed with the stinking pungency of dried-up sweat filled Will’s nostrils.
“That old lady’s in town,” Will heard one of them say. He was small like Will. Greasy red curls crawled like worms from his hat and around his face and neck.
“What old lady?” the biggest cowboy asked, tilting the front of his hat back revealing a broad forehead with a crease line running from temple to temple where the hat band had been.
“Carry Nation. From Medicine Lodge. Ugly as sin. I heard some fellas in Abilene talkin’ about her. She smashed some joints in Kiowa awhile back,” the redhead said.
“Yeah? Why’s she been doin’ that?” the other cowboy asked. He was tall and lanky. His dark beard was trimmed neat.
“Said God told her to smash the joints up. Said if the crooked officials weren’t gonna enforce Kansas’ prohibition law, she was. Said she’s gotta do what God says.”
“Yep. You gotta do what God says,” the biggest one said, pulling his eyebrows closer and making vertical creases appear between his eyes and hairline so that a kind of cross formed on his forehead.
“You gotta do what God says,” the other two answered in chorus, nodding.
“Ain’t that right boy?” the redhead said, stepping directly in front of Will, blocking him off. His hand rested on the butt of his pistol.
Will moved his right hand slowly to a button on his coat. He was thinking about reaching his hand beneath his coat toward the whip handle still wedged in his belt. He was pretty good with it. He could send it coiling around any fencepost with a flick of his wrist. Once he had even caught a rabbit with it. He intended to eat the rabbit for supper, but he couldn’t convince himself to break its neck. He put some black salve on the rabbit’s soft back where the whip had dug into him, set him free, and ate a dried-up biscuit instead.
The redhead was drumming his fingers on his gun. Will moved his hand away from the coat button and back to his side.
“What? Are you dull as dishwater? Better keep those hands where I can see ‘em.” The redhead moved his face so close that Will could see patches of frizzy red hair framing his foul mouth and thin red lines streaking across the whites of his eyes. I said, ‘Ain’t that right boy?’” He drew each word out slowly, filling Will’s nose and throat with the stench of rotten eggs stronger than skunk spray.
“Yeah. I guess you do,” Will said trying not to breath and stepping back a little. He was thinking that God had something to say about drunkenness and bullying, and shooting defenseless men, and he was wondering how he was gonna get past the cowboys who had formed a kind of barricade around him.
“You guess?” the redhead challenged.
“You gotta do what God says,” Will said slowing and deepening his voice.
“Aw. Let the boy alone,” the bigger cowboy said. “We don’t want no trouble.”
The redhead stared at Will a few more seconds and then stepped aside. Will slowly stepped away from the group watching them from the corner of his eyes. He continued west down Maple toward the Wagon Bridge that spanned the Arkansas River. The sun, diminishing into a half circle behind him, spread a street of gold across the water that sparkled and glistened in dancing waves. The icy wind whipped erratic wisps of white fog toward the bridge. Will pulled his coat tighter around his neck and wished he had a scarf.
He expected the bridge to be full of buggies taking families east into the best side of town or bringing shop clerks, stockers, and waiters west out of it, but instead he saw a group of about fifty women on the bridge walking west towards him. They wore black dresses, black cloaks, and black high-top boots. Some wore fancy black hats and others wore black veils. Will thought it might be a strange funeral procession, except they were carrying banners and signs and what looked like Bibles. Some were brandishing rocks. Others carried whips and iron rods. Will stopped and read each sign aloud as they passed trying to comprehend the strange contrast.
Women’s Christian Temperance Union
Workers with God
For God & Home & Humanity
Help us to keep him pure.
Do right and fear not.
Mortify the deeds of the body and live.
Fight against drunkenness.
Will thought about what the cowboys said: “You gotta do what God says.” He did an about-face and trailed the women back down Maple for a few blocks before turning south on Handley. The full moon looked down on Will and illuminated his homeward path.
Will stepped back across the tracks and pulled the whip from his belt. The cold air snapped to attention with the flick of his wrist.
You gotta do what God says. Flick. Pop.
Do right and fear not. Flick. Pop.
Mortify the deeds of the body and live. Flick. Pop.
Fight against drunkenness for God, home, and humanity. Flick. Pop.
Determination surged through Will’s body with each pop. To keep his courage stirred, he repeated, You gotta do what God says, flicking his wrist after each repetition. The popping air sounded like an exclamation point. He didn’t notice the growing ache the icy wind was drilling deeper into his ears or the pain stabbing at his numbed feet with each step.
When he finally arrived at his door, half-frozen, Will paused before raising his whip with the vehemence of full conviction. He pulled at the doorknob with his free hand, and the door swung open. He saw W.A. slumped on the floor, sticky red pooling around his head, his right hand still curled around the pistol. His left clutched the wadded advertisement.
Will sucked in a breath that punched his heart hard, squinted his eyes, and drew his lips in. Tension flexed the muscles of his arm, still raised like the head of rattlesnake in the desert ready to strike its prey. He flicked his wrist and sent the opened bottles on the table crashing into slivers and shards across the floor.
Will stepped across the floor, glass crunching beneath his boots, and pulled the crumpled advertisement from W.A.s hand. He ran his fingers along the back of it, smoothing it against the table. His eye caught on a headline.
Vengeance is Mine
The article continued:
Rev. C.E. Bradt delivered the following address at the basket dinner of the First Presbyterian Church. His address was based on Romans 12:19: Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Today let us consider …
Will folded the paper, put it in his coat pocket, and headed toward the door. He gently laid the whip in the corner and looked back one more time. Beams of moonlight, shining through the kitchen window, landed on amber slivers making them glow like sunlight breaking through a raincloud. One big fragment of the clear Thedford’s Black-Draught bottle sparkled like a diamond above W.A.’s head.
Note: Gotta Do What God Says contains some historical names and places, but the story itself is completely fictional.