Monday, March 5, 2012

Bearhunting in a Cathouse

image borrowed from MovieGoods


In 1901, in early fall,
Somewhere in the North Cascades,
Just a few feverish years after
Washington became a state,
A stranger rode up
Into the thickly timbered foothills
Wearing a huge bearskin coat
And a dude’s derby
And a Swedish pistol,
Clutching wet reins tethered
To a second horse struggling behind him.
“It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone
Who is just reaching for the sky
To surrender.”

John McCabe
Did not travel up from Bearpaw
To the rough-hewn mining town
Of Presbyterian Church
To dig for zinc, no,
He came with a red flannel Indian blanket,
To be used for a table cloth,
And a deck of well-worn playing cards,
And a pocketful of cheap stogies,
To fleece the populous, to skin back
Those hundred lonely men
And relieve them of their cash
And their old dreams.

He came softly
Like a shadow,
A dream master selling
A new tomorrow,
A golden time where most of those
Rugged ragged mortals
Could come to him
With greenbacks extended,
Desiring drunkenness,
Women and a dry place
To play poker and roll bone dice.

McCabe took their money,
A lot of it,
And bought wagonloads of lumber
And three sad whores;
A big woman with tits like water melons,
A wild one with a scar, like a birthmark on her face,
And a young girl that looked innocent
But who would turn out to be as unstable
As an unbroken filly.
He put them up in dirty canvas tents,
And he hired half the town to erect
McCabe’s Palace, Emporium, Restaurant,
And Social Club.
He made it known
That whatever these men desired,
They could scratch their itch,
Get pissed as an Irish monkey,
Get their cookies,
And gamble all night
At his place.

Sheehan could see
That this McCabe had
The right stuff,
And he begged him to partner up.
“We could own this town together
And make sure no one else opens up
A saloon without our permission,
And us getting a cut,”
The saloonkeeper postulated.
“Partners is one of those things I came up here
To get away from,”
McCabe mumbled, adding,
“If a frog had wings
He wouldn’t bump his ass so much.”
Sheehan smiled and nodded
Without comprehension.

Mrs. Constance Miller,
5’2” with piercing blue eyes,
A tiny waist
And dishwater blond hair
All teased up into a thousand ringlets;
Riding proud
On a machinery crate,
Pulled up from below
By a huge belching steam engine
That could roll along on trails
Without tracks.

“Mr. McCabe,
I’m a whore, a damned good one,”
She said directly,
“And if you let me
I will run your whorehouse for you,
Get some quality girls up from Seattle,
Take care of all their feminine particulars,
Keep the town from getting clapped out,
And split the profit 50/50.”

McCabe was stunned,
But not stupid.
He shook her tiny hand,
And built her a bath house
As directed,
And a two-story bordello,
As requested,
And became filthy rich
As anticipated;
Becoming the town’s first citizen,
Like a mayor
If they had one;
So that when he smiled,
Flashing that gold tooth,
He had damned good reason.
“Like any dealer he was watching for the card
That’s so high and wild,
He’ll never need to deal another.”

So much we never knew,
We never found out, like
If McCabe actually killed Bill Longtree
Over a card game,
Or what the hell was Mrs. Miller’s story –
Why she still clung
To her married name,
Why a woman that looked like her decided
To embrace the world’s oldest profession,
How she was introduced to
And became addicted to
The Chinese yardstick, the opium pipe,
And why she refused to be
Emotionally involved with anyone,
Even McCabe,
Especially McCabe.

But John the Dude became
Much too successful
And his good fortune
Was heralded
By mule train, lonesome travelers,
Lumberjacks, miners, and farmers;
McCabe was the one-eyed jack,
And he counted his gold at night
Like a cranky troll,
Tired of begging for love
And demanding respect,
Standing alone in his room mumbling,
“If just one time you could be sweet
Without money to it.”

He was but a simple man,
Swirled up in events
And emotions
Bigger than he was.
He would have loved her,
If love was what she needed.
She moved in mystery,
And even her glee seemed put on;
Only her sadness held water.
He could not tell her the things
He felt.
“I got poetry in me. I do.
I don’t have the education
To put it into fancy words,
But I sure as hell
Feel it.”

One rainy day
Two well-dressed strangers came to town,
Mr. Sears and Mr. Hollander,
And they offered to buy out
McCabe’s holdings
For five thousand dollars.
They were well heeled lackeys
For a monstrous mining conglomerate,
Harrison & Shanaughnessy,
Fat capitalists who ground up men
Like ore.

McCabe tried to play them,
To negotiate for a bigger pay off,
Even though Constance had warned him,
Because in her travels
She had seen their kind before, and she knew
Those men were not
They were naturally lethal, rabid, and ruthless.
At first impervious John
Would not listen,
And by the time her wisdom sunk in
And he chased after the buyers,
It was too late
For deals and apologies,
Too late for a little guy
To hang onto his big plans.

With hat in hand,
McCabe went to a lawyer,
Who seemed to listen to his plight,
But who did not understand the gravity
Of his critical situation.
“I just don’t want to get killed,”
McCabe said simply.
The lawyer pontificated, and raved on
About justice and politics and a senator ship,
And McCabe found no help, no buffer
From the shit storm that was brewing
Just over the hill, too soon,
Too soon.

Too soon came the day
At twilight
When the three ruffians rode into town;
One was a giant in a white buffalo coat
Carrying a Sharps,
Wearing a flat black hat
With small silver Conchos in the leather brim,
Calling himself
Dog Butler;
One was an Indian,
At least part,
Who never smiled, carrying
Death in his dark eyes;
One was a disturbed cherub,
Blond locks chopped square
Under his European Dutch Boy hat,
With a large Navy Colt
Strapped low on his young hip,
And madness
Oozing from every pore.

McCabe marched over to Sheehan’s,
Cigars in hand,
Gold tooth sparkling,
This time ready to negotiate, to accommodate;
But Dog Butler
Was rude and had a mouth full of white teeth
Big as a horse’s beneath
His shaggy moustache,
And he looked McCabe
Right in the eye and said,
“I don’t make deals.”
McCabe gathering up his cigars,
Stammered and mumbled,
And beat a hasty retreat.
Butler turned to Sheehan saying,
“That man never killed anyone.”

These men were manhunters
And guys like McCabe
Were always their prey,
Three on one,
Like a wolf pack.
Later that night, bored and drunken
The feral Dutch Boy
Practiced his quick draw
On shadow figures,
Until a toothpick of a cowboy
In a ten gallon hat,
With big holes in his wool socks
From shuffling all day over new boards
In McCabe’s cathouse,
Found himself on that bridge over to Sheehan’s,
Facing the crazy-eyed punk.

“Show me your gun,
Or I’ll shoot it off your hip,”
The pink-cheeked gunslinger whined.
The cowboy reached for his tired old pistol,
That he never could hit the side of a barn with,
And suddenly saw two puffs of white smoke
As the kid’s Colt bucked
Two burning bullets into his bony chest.
Over the knee-high ropes he went,
Crashing hard
Down onto the ice over the creek beneath,
Staying alive just long enough
To wonder why
No one did anything, or said anything
To help.
They all had stood mute, watching
With only a casual interest,
Like the kid had only shot a varmint or a coyote.
The cowboy sunk slowly
Into the icy water with big chunks of ice
Breaking up all around
His lanky frame.
Who knows who finally dragged him out?
Maybe no one did, but for sure
Someone claimed his horse and kit.
Life seemed cheap here
And monumental sadness
Formed deep lines
On every face.

McCabe went to Constance,
Who was giddy on poppy smoke,
And he looked for the love
That would never appear
As he peeled off the bucks
That assured him space
Alongside her beautiful face,
And the momentary illusion
Of sanctuary
Within the warmth
Of her bed.

Morning came dark and overcast,
And he woke up alone
As snow blanketed the urban landscape
And filled the chilled air
Like frozen dandelion fleece,
Falling without sound,
Yet carrying the weight of behemoths
As it piled upon itself in deep drifts,
Beautiful and dangerous
In its whiteness.
She had already found
A pipe to suck,
And her fear for his safety
If it had ever really existed,
Were now only will-o-the-wisps,
Blowing lightly into the dark timber,
No longer carried
In her glassed over eyes
As she found her safe inner room

McCabe darted
Like a woodchuck
From cabin to shed,
Wearing his black canvas slicker
A damp derby and his Swedish pistol, and
Carrying a shotgun.
He made it to the church
And ducked inside,
Only to be confronted
By the crazy preacher, denying
Him shelter, picking up
Pudgy’s shotgun
And pointing it at him,
Pushing him back outside,
Knee deep in fresh wet snow,
With only a handgun.

Butler tracked him to the church,
Kicked in the front door
And blasted the first thing
That moved,
Which happened to be the preacher,
Who broke a lantern
As he spun broken to the puncheon floor;
And now the church was ablaze,
The shepherd was slain
And God was not amused.

Pudgy dodged in and around
The tar and tin, naked lumber, and zinc ore hillocks,
And stopped breathlessly
Cowering in the bath house;
Just as the kid entered
With Colt drawn.
McCabe slammed two slugs
Into his young back,
But the Dutch Boy was snake-quick
And he snapped off a shot
That nailed John in the gut;
The first nail
Of what would become the lid
On the rest of his life.
“He was just a Joseph looking for a manger.”

He found his way to a tool shed,
And the Breed passed by a window
As McCabe’s missles
Found asylum in his leather-fringed back.
Hell, back-shooting was not
Disgraceful or unmanly—
It was necessary.
But the Dog leveled his Sharps
And brought McCabe down
At 150 yards.
Butler trudged his way through the powder
To finish off the fool.
McCabe lay prostrate on his back,
And as the Dog bent over him
He shot Butler in the face
With the lethal derringer
That had killed Bill Longtree,
Or so it was said.

And then our rambling tale
Produced three endings,
Although death only kissed
One on the mouth.

The miners put out the church fire,
And in an odd way,
Produced a new beginning,
A sense of community;
Saving a church
That no one had ever attended,
Now just a building full of char,
Sans minister, sans hosannas.

Constance lies prone on a slab
In Chinatown,
Puffing on her opium pipe
And staring serenely at a small ceramic pot
Shaped like a golden egg—
Her tiny smile revealed
That she knew the way of things,
And still
Shed no tears.

McCabe was mortally wounded,
After dispatching the killers three,
And he did not have the stamina left
To propel himself to safety
Inside a building,
To a fire and freedom.
He went to his knees
And the merciless snow buried him
Up to his shoulders
And then his neck,
As the wind piled ice crystals
Onto his blue lips and closed clenched eyes.
He was so cold
That he couldn’t stop shivering,
Until he wasn’t cold anymore,
And he thought he could see
A dark figure coming for him,
Calling his name.

Glenn A. Buttkus 2006

Listed as #

Would you like to hear the author read this opus?


Anonymous said...

Bloody thrilling, poem, if people read it aloud, it recites fluidly, building momentum and speed in conjunction with the plot tension and impending sense of a showdown, the recitation races when McCabe darts like a woodchuck, then unwinds and comes to rest during the last two verslets/sentences.

Now I have to see the movie. Never had the interest but now I do.

Pat Hatt said...

A movie I have never seen, but you truly bring it to life with your poem, making your verse a film like in and of itself.

Brian Miller said...

glenn...i wont lie...this is a beast of a poem...ha...i was intimidated...but you most cartainly keep it interesting through out...i will come back in a bit and listen to your recitation of it as i know it will be wonderful...

Anonymous said...

LOL indeed, a beast of a poem that pays tribute to a beast of a man and a beast of a world...

Charles Miller said...

I love this movie, and you've reminded me so well of it in your poem that it came back with vivid power. You've added some really goid poetic panache of your own to make it worth reading, though I've seen the movie.

I especially liked how you were able to characterize Mrs. Miller in such a way as to make her more understandable though no less mysterious.

Nice line:

But who would turn out to be as unstable
As an unbroken filly.