Early Mendocino County is filled with many yarns and tales. One of the characters in Outlaw Ford (the novel excerpted here) states, “Sometimes you have to lie to get at the truth.”
That's more or less a direct re-statement from one of my great uncles. Fiction sometimes comes closer to reality than a history textbook. However much Outlaw Ford reflects a certain part of local history from more than a century ago, I must remind readers that it is ultimately fiction, lest some thirteenth cousin sue me for presenting Aunt Billie-Bobbie in an unflattering manner.
Of course, I have/had no Aunt Billie-Bobbie. Many of the locales presented in these excerpts are real. Just west from where I write, the Albion Lumber Company maintained a Company (Guest) House alongside this river. A few bends of the river westward, at the mouth of what is still called Deadman's Gulch, a white picket fence enclosed a cemetery. How its first occupants first arrived there occurred in much the same way as described herein.
Without further ado, here are the opening scenes from chapter one of Outlaw Ford:
I’ve been cheating the Fates right from the start.
The night I was born Ma, Pa, and big sister Cal played cutthroat pinochle by lantern light in the log house of my youth. Ma held a winning hand when the labor pains hit, wouldn’t lay down her cards ‘til she made her bid.
A storm rumbled the sky while they helped Mother to the tracks and onto the handcar. Pa and Cal pumped the handles down the rail line toward the Company House.
According to Ma, “You shot right out in the rain, bounced clean over the edge. Pulled you back, yanking hand over fist on your cord.”
“Lucky to be alive,” they said at the Company House when Pa carried us in. Not one, or two, but three midwives there; the Fair sisters: Lacey, Chloe, and Atropos. They managed the lumber company’s guest house and restaurant. Cal waited tables there.
Thunder clapped and Pa said, “God’s applauding the birth of my son.”
Chloe Fair spun her thread. “It’s God alright, shooting craps across the high heavens.”
Her sister Lacey measured me head to toe. “Beelzebub’s betting the Almighty can’t save this baby’s soul.”
“Who’ll win?” Cal asked.
Atropos, who’d snipped my cord, looked up from beside the couch where they’d laid Ma and little me, “Too soon to tell.”
Lightning struck all around; New Year’s Eve, New Year’s morn.
Nineteen hundred, nineteen ought one, flip a coin; take your pick. With all the fanfare you’d think I’d get more attention, but Ma was back at the stove next day. I got a makeshift bassinet in a corner of the kitchen.
Sister Cal wasn’t born there, but back on the farm in Kansas. The folks lived their ambitions and humor in their children's names: California, Nevada (born in Nebraska), Louis (for Louisiana), Ida (for Idaho) and off they went. In California, Moreland, Orland and I were born. Cal called me Les right off, never Lester. Mother and Father, they had their mirth. Three boys in a row: More, Or, Les.
After we all rolled out, I wasn’t more or less, but right in the middle, so’s you’d hardly notice; six older, six younger.
Father’s brother, Nolan, taught me how to play cards. Scarcely could walk and talk when he showed me how to shuffle a deck and other tricks of the trade. Soon I was playing rummy with Chloe and Lacey Fair whenever Ma went to town.
Next time Nolan showed at home I boasted, “Double dealt. They never knowed. And I bested ‘em.”
Ma overheard, slapped my hands and said, “That’s cheating. No. No!”
She scowled at Uncle, but when her back was turned he whispered, “Anything goes when you have to play Fair.”
Father chopped in the woods six days a week. Sundays, camp meeting. Preacher came, riding the circuit, read the words, led the hymns, gave the look for all to say amen.
One Sunday afternoon when I was four, Father walked me down the railroad track. His hand held mine while we strode toward Dead Man’s Curve; big bend in the river, sharp turn of the rails.
On a slope above the bend, a picket fence surrounded Dead Man’s Cemetery; three unnamed markers. “Shot in that cabin.” Father pointed up the hill. “Playing at cards, wild wagers on a moonless night.”
I looked up to my father, who said, “Never gamble on cards, boy… When you do, don’t wager more than you can afford to lose. Always play to win, but let the other fellas slink away with a little somethin’ jingling in their pockets.”
We walked around the fence once or twice, patting every picket. “Death’s never a stranger ‘round here, boy. Seldom sends ahead to let you know he’s coming.”
Just a few days later, I played with an old deck underneath the dining room table of the Company Guest House while Cal cleared the plates; all three Fairs too busy for me. Dealt out cards to an imaginary opponent; changing the rules to my own brand of War so I always won.
The front door banged open against the wall. Dishes clattered to the floor all around and Cal wailed. A young steamship captain staggered in carrying a man in his arms, their shirts smeared with drying blood and more that seeped from an unseen wound. Both men disappeared while the captain set the injured man on the table top. All I saw were polished boots. “Log flew off at Deadman’s, Miss,” The captain said to Cal. “Hit him flush.”
Blood flooded the tablecloth and dripped from the fringed edges onto my jokers and aces. The injured man slammed a hand down and called, “Jesus! Help me.”
He didn’t come, unless the Company House cook was Jesus Christ. In which case you’d think he’d make a better vegetable beef soup.
Blood swamped my entire deck. The injured man let out a prolonged groan. The table shook, then wobbled to a standstill, followed by a longer quiet.
The captain and Cal clasped hands together, spoke some holy words and amens. The cook said, “Death’s got him now.”
Felt a shiver run right through me. The front door slammed shut. I scrambled from under the table, but by the time I swung the big redwood door open Death was out of sight.
I started going to Dead Man’s Cemetery almost every day after my chores were through. Pitched pennies against the rails, leaned over the fence looking for new headstones.
One afternoon I caught a splinter in my palm. Big brother Louis ambled along while I tried to pinch it out. “Whatcha doin’ down here?” he asked.
“Guardin’ the gate, so Mr. Death doesn’t put Pa in with the dead men.”
“There’s no Mr. Death.”
“No, but if there is, he’d be a lot sneakier than you give him credit for; wouldn’t be hiding out at the graveyard. That’s not where people die, it’s where they go after they’re dead.”
I popped the sliver along with a trickle of blood then spit in my palm. Louis daubed it dry with a corner of his shirttail and I asked, “If he don’t come here, why doesn’t everybody live in a graveyard?”
More about this novel: malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com