Read The Outlander Online

Authors: Gil Adamson

Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000

The Outlander (37 page)

BOOK: The Outlander
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Only hunger could penetrate the fog. In the end, it was the idea of
cinnamon that drew her back. Porridge. She could make some hot porridge and put cinnamon
on it . . . if she got up. Twenty years old and she had already reached the border of
her heart's endurance twice. When she rose, she felt like another woman, one
direly accustomed to loss. With nothing to her name, she had simply let go, let go of
everything. The widow rose and clumped around the store, rooting listlessly among the
fallen goods and coming up with a cooking pot. She boiled some oatmeal, sprinkled it
with sugar and cinnamon, and sat by McEchern's stove and ate it slowly. Then she
went about the place looking for scissors, a sewing kit. She flipped through the piles
of hides, sorting out ones she could use. And here she had been for a day, bent over her

From his perch behind the counter, McEchern held forth on matters of
current interest.

“It doesn't matter what you do, they get in anyway.”

“I know,” she said soothingly.

“Stand here with a Gatling gun, they'll sneak in and take what
they want.”

“You're right.”

“Two barrels, two goddamn barrels, Mary! Gone. We have three bottles
of whisky left and that's all. Can you believe that?”

“I can.”

“Well, good for you. That's just wonderful.”

The thread snapped between the widow's teeth and the dwarf winced to
watch the procedure.

“Do you have to do that?”

“Do what?”

He watched her put the thread in her mouth, press the end with her lips to
flatten it, and thread the needle. “I know who did it too,” he said.
“It's those two fat-faced boys. I'll shoot the little bastards when I
find them.”

“They're long gone, Mac,” she said, “along with
your barrels.”

“And rope. And all the knives. And my other hat!”

“Have a drink to calm your nerves.”

“Don't you get cute.”

The dwarf thought sadly about the state of things for a moment, then
hopped lightly up onto his stool and sat leaning on the cracked display case, his cheeks
in his hands, the picture of sullen defeat. “Pricks,” he said. “Sonsof

In the days following the landslide, nearly all the miners had left town.
had sent a massive rail-clearer that chugged up the valley in a
cataclysm of acrid smoke and mournful whistling, a few boxcars in tow. It came ploughing
through the flooded river waters, each set of wheels casting off a wake in which
infinite numbers of V-shaped wings ran off across the glassy surface. The cowcatcher in
front forced a perpetual fountain of brown water before it, in which drowned animals
bobbed and rolled. In the wan morning light, the engineer slowed his engine at the
curve, slowed almost to a stop, coming on languidly, hesitant to enter the disaster and
become part of it, and so the train crawled and chuffed, bawling repeatedly. Men came
running downhill in
a panic, waving madly, as if they actually
sensed this reluctance and were afraid the train might reverse its course and leave them
in the valley.

They crowded at the tipple, waving their hats like men on a pier, and a
few waded along beside the vicious black metal sides of the boxcars, banging hollowly on
the doors, grinning like madmen. The engineer stopped when the first car came level with
the tipple, where in better times ore cars were tipped and coal was dumped into open
railway cars. That day, bound and shrouded bodies lay on the platform, and ropes lowered
them stiffly down into the boxcars, where they were lined up and counted, like cigars in
a box. Forty bodies — one-quarter of the number missing. There was silence among
the living men who stood around and inside these eerie cars, their minds still boggling
at such potent disaster. With no work, no hope of pay, foremen and headmen dead, the
counters gone and buried, the survivors had crowded in a mass aboard the idling train,
some huddling on the roof, preferring that to the charnel house below. Only a few men,
those who looked like they had grown up in the wilderness, remained behind.

A reporter had come to do a story on the slide, but since the men were
mostly leaving, he remained on board, interviewing anyone who spoke English, while a
photographer hopped about from rock to rock, trying to get a good shot of the now
collapsed mountain. The photographer bent over his large camera box, leaned to adjust
the jointed tripod legs. He rummaged in his bags for new plates. Of the photos he would
take, some were of people standing on the tipple platform, people milling and curious,
some unaware of the
photographer, others not sure what he was doing
or even what purpose his little wooden box might have. McEchern in his bowler hat and
the widow in her torn weeds had been there among the crowd. The photographer put fingers
to his mouth and whistled. He asked them to stand together, the woman in the middle,
please, and slowly the group obeyed. He snapped the photo, satisfied. But on the final
print he would later see a blur of movement as the men closest to the woman shifted
away, stepped back, turned their heads away from her. In the centre, the widow, clear as
a bell.

She bent now and snapped the thread with her teeth, tied a knot with one
hand. She held up the new costume, a strange admixture of the parlour and the wilds.
Though in outward style the dress was Indian, the widow had added a high collar, a
profusion of tiny buttons held by loops of twisted thread, and an attempt at a ruffle
across the breast that, in deerskin, lacked refinement. Finally she tossed the garment
aside and began tacking together the panels that would make up the pants. She hopped
from the pile of buffalo hides and held this object against her, testing the length of
the legs, kicking her feet out and marching around the store, holding the waist to her

The flaps of McEchern's tent were drawn back and the door went dark.
Giovanni had stooped to enter the store. The cat skinner seemed even bigger indoors. His
impacted neck bent with difficulty as he tried to avoid goods strung from ropes above.
His body gave the impression of being accordioned, and should he ever stand up straight,
he would rise into something truly massive.

“Salutare, nano,” he growled.

McEchern gagged speechlessly for a moment, then rocketted off his

“The very man himself!” he cried, his legs and arms askuttle
as he hurried to the giant's side, gabbling and welcoming like a court jester
round the king.

“Dov'é il padre?”

McEchern, thinking he meant something about moonshine, nodded and
gesticulated, “If you've got it, I'll take it. By God, you got

Giovanni solemnly leaned over, hands on his knees, as if to address a
child. “Eh, vive il padre?”

The widow froze in her dark corner, for all of a sudden she understood
him. “Giovanni.”

He turned.

She shook her head.

The giant sagged and his eyes drifted away. He sat his bulk down on a
creaking box. He brought a badly burned hand to his face and wiped the whole homely
surface of it, as a swimmer does when rising from water. There grew a familiar smell in
the closed confines of the tent: burnt whisky, burnt fur, burnt skin. McEchern stepped
up and took the massive injured hand in his own and hefted it like a dinner plate. The
widow hopped down from her roost. All three inspected the seared and blistered fingers
where the creases shone with a clear liquid and the palms were caked with blackened dead
skin. Clearly, Giovanni's still had been incinerated and he had tried to save

“That must smart,” McEchern said.

The giant shrugged.

Twenty minutes later, the widow was stirring a rabbit stew completely
devoid of vegetables. They had plenty of meat,
but not much else.
It was the Cregans who had wandered about collecting fallen animals, dressing them, and
salting or smoking the meat. They reasoned that there wasn't much time left for
the meat. Another week and nothing would be edible, every carcass rotting, though much
of it might still be unmarauded from lack of living scavengers. So stew was the everyday
meal. She made masses of it available to anyone who came by.

McEchern applied to the giant's hands his recipe for burns, a
grey-green glutinous sludge made from the simmered contents of a glass bottle on one of
his shelves, full of what looked like loam — dried and powdered plants. He wrapped
the hands finally in boiled rags and tied a medic's knot. He kept up a happy
one-sided conversation with Giovanni, who sat pale and silent within his barrel of a
body, his head turned sideways to stare unseeing at the floor.

The widow watched them over her cooking. There had been much of this
lately. One man tending to another's wounds; sometimes the injured one rising and
going to a worse-off fellow. Goodwill flowing downhill.

McEchern hefted the bowl of salve and shoved it at Giovanni's face.
The stink of it roused him immediately. “Ma, che puzza!” he said, and the
dwarf laughed.

“I learned this from an Indian lady few years back, calls herself He
Walks. I always thought that was a funny name for a woman. She comes in here every now
and then. Has all kinds of tricks; like she can cure a toothache by blowing on the
tooth. Anyway, she showed me how to fix a burn.” He rolled up his sleeve to expose
his little muscular shoulder.

“See there? Lantern fell on me and got my sleeve. The skin burned
before I could get the shirt off. Hurt like the very shit.
thought I was going to die. Wanted to chew my own arm off like an animal. Someone sent
her round. Look at this. Where's the scar?” he said. “You can't
see it 'cause it's not there.”

The giant seemed not to hear. Rousing himself he turned to the widow and
said, “Lady? When is ready, this food?”

His companions stood stunned, as if unable to understand him once he
actually spoke English.

“Mary,” said McEchern eventually, “this man's

The widow hurried over a bowl, and the giant held it in his lap and bent
over it, spooning the hot muck into his mouth with affected good manners, the spoon like
children's cutlery in his massive hand. He said nothing more but breathed with his
bear's lungs and ate more slowly than anyone the widow had ever seen.

After a few minutes she went back to her corner, backed up against the
pile of buffalo hides, hopped up, crossed her legs, and rethreaded the needle. From time
to time she looked up at the scene surrounding her. To someone else it might be a
sideshow: Her torn costume in almost lascivious tatters; the dwarf wandering aimlessly
in his ridiculous bowler, strangely intact for all the devastation around him; the giant
slumped and drowsing by an empty bowl, hands bound in strips like a leper, shrouded in
his gruesome patchwork coat. The widow felt a surging gladness in her breast. She was
suddenly grateful that she was alive, relieved at how simple things were — an
ascetic happy with her lot.

Afternoon light fell through the tent's top hole and gilded the wood
floor, fell glinting off lanterns and pots and pans. Buoyed by the moonshiner's
appearance, McEchern bustled
about the place tidying among floating
dust and late summer insects. A Cregan, possibly the youngest, came in from outside. He
stood at the counter with McEchern, and together they inspected the handle on a lantern
he had been repairing.

“I think that's done it,” said the dwarf.

“Give me the other one.”

McEchern rooted under the counter and dragged another lantern out, this
one with no bottom and so no place to keep the oil. The boy went out with it. Outside,
the Cregans had erected a kind of forge and were busy repairing or recycling anything
that came to hand. All eight had survived the disaster, camped as they had been outside
town and half off the mountain, their prodigious familial luck holding. Their own horses
had been hobbled for the night, so even when the landslide came, their animals did not
run, but hopped and reared and fell harmlessly to the grass. The brothers had leaped up
from their bedrolls and staggered about on the bouncing ground in the moonlight,
bellowing to one another while their terrorized horses squealed. Finally, the fence had
collapsed or was kicked down, and hundreds of dollars galloped off into the night. Of
the eleven runaways, three survived. A few were found dead of exhaustion or injury, or
floating bloated in the river like obscene rafts.

Now the Cregans were scavenging what could be found among the wreckage,
their industry imparting a meagre cheer to the former town. The metallic sound of
hammering issued from the yard, and a yelp of annoyance as someone hit his thumb or,
perhaps, from the tone of the voice, a brother's thumb. After a while, Giovanni
raised himself slowly from his box and shambled out to help.

, do
they?” said the old doctor.

“Not so far,” said his son.

They had been watching the two enormous redheads for ten minutes now,
where they sat on the other side of the hotel restaurant. It was a small, pretty town,
with a view of the mountains. In fact, the doctor and his son had seen these men several
times around the hotel — they were hard to miss. The two brothers were always
together, and never had any other companions. They exuded the air of men with nothing to
do and nowhere to go. It didn't sit well on them.

The doctor's wife put out a hand and plucked at her son's
sleeve. “Darlings, you're staring.”

“Sorry, Mum.”

The redheads had caused a stir when they came in together, two identical
gentlemen filling the doorway. There was a hush from the breakfast crowd, followed by
innumerable comments, some of them indiscreet. And yet these men had ignored the hubbub
— they seemed immune to the excitement of others, the way one ignores the upheaval
of pigeons. The harried waiter had come beetling along through a sea of tables to seat
them, only to find himself following, invisible as a dog, as they strode to a table of
their choosing.

BOOK: The Outlander
9.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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