hollidayandbowler“Is this the feller you were talking about? He don’t look like much to me.”
“He’s looked better, I allow.”
The words come from far away and through a haze of pain. My head feels like a team of men have been at work inside it with pickaxes. I try to swallow, but my tongue is bigger than my mouth and it feels like my cheeks are full of sawdust.
“Come on, Ace. Get up. I got you a job.” It’s Doc.
“Graaagh,” I say. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean. I don’t think there’s a word in Apache or English for how I feel.
“I don’t believe I need a shotgun that bad.” It’s the first speaker. The voice is rough and gravelly, not someone I know.
I risk a peek. Sunlight stabs me in the eye and the pain in my head doubles. I close my eye again.
“Now don’t give up on him so soon, Lou,” Doc says. “Ace is a fine gunman and a fine man. You need him. You told me yourself this run is dangerous, what with the outlaw gangs and renegade Indians and all.”
“He might be able to handle a gun, but he clearly can’t handle his liquor.” Lou sounds disgusted. Worse than that, he sounds doubtful. I decide I’ve had enough.
“Hold on a minute,” I say, rolling over onto my side. At least, that’s what I mean to say. My tongue’s so swollen I can’t get any of the words out and it ends up sounding like someone is choking a cat.
I hold my hand up and Doc grabs on and pulls me to my feet. Blinking, I look around. I’m out in the street in front of the saloon. The sun has recently risen. Behind Doc I see a woman walking by, holding her skirts up to keep them out of the mud. The look she gives me speaks loudly about how she feels about drunks who pass out in the street.
“What happened?” I ask.
“You were a star,” Doc replies. “You forgot to say no to that last glass of whiskey.”
I see my hat lying on the ground. It’s not easy to pick it up. I almost fall down twice. The hat’s looking fairly disreputable this morning. I slap some of the dust off it, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference.
Once it’s on my head, I look at Lou. His hat’s huge and brown and the front brim is folded up tight against the crown. I never understood why someone would do that to a hat. Why turn the brim up like that, where it won’t do a thing to protect against sun or rain?
Lou himself is a few inches shorter than me and probably twenty pounds heavier. A permanent tobacco stain runs from one corner of his mouth down to his chin. He has no beard or facial hair at all, not even any stubble, which is unusual out here where razors are scarce. His brown hair is thick and curly and streaked with gray. He’s wearing a black eye patch and the look I see in the other eye is not a friendly one.
“Lou, meet Ace. Ace, meet Lou.”
I stick out my hand in the white man fashion and Lou takes it. His hand is coarse and thick and his grip is strong.
“Doc says you can shoot. Is this true?”
I nod. The motion makes me feel like throwing up.
“You get drunk like that every night?”
“I hope not.”
“You’re not going to jabber on all day, are you? I can’t stand a man who can’t shut up.”
“Ace here is more the strong, silent type,” Doc says.
“I’ve got a wagonload of cargo to haul north,” Lou says. “Could be someone riding shotgun would come in handy. You think you’re up to the job?”
Right now I don’t feel up to anything. Even falling down seems like too much work.
“Just say yes, Ace,” Doc says. “You said you need a job.”
“Okay. I’ll do it.”
“We’re leaving in twenty minutes. Grab your gear and be at the OK Corral.” Lou turns and stumps off.
Doc stares after him, then turns back to me. “A magnificent woman, don’t you think?”
It takes a moment for the words to penetrate. “Why’d you call Lou a woman?”
“Because that’s what she is. I take it this means you didn’t notice.”
I still feel pretty fogged up. All I can manage is “What?”
“Don’t feel too bad. I imagine not very many people notice. People see what they expect to see. Someone who dresses like that, who’s also an accomplished mule skinner, well, he must be a man. That’s what they expect, and that’s what they see.”
I’m still stuck. “Lou’s a woman?”
“Ace, Ace, you’re a little slow this morning, aren’t you?” he chides me.
I peer after the receding figure. Sure looks like a man to me. “I still don’t know…”
“Trust me. I’m an expert on these things.”
“An expert on telling men from women? You’ve seen this before?”
“It’s not a common thing, I’ll grant that. But it happens.”
“You’re having fun with me, aren’t you? This is some kind of white man humor that I don’t understand.”
Doc claps me on the shoulder and laughs. “It’s funny, all right. Just not for the reason you think. Don’t worry. You and Lou are going to get along just fine. Lou’s quite the character, once you crack through the shell.”
I raise an eyebrow at him. “Are we talking about the same person?” I’m thinking there’s nothing but shell to Lou.
“I’m sure you’ll have quite the stories to tell when you get back.” He takes my elbow and starts moving me down the street. “Let’s move along now. Lou hates waiting and I’m sure you don’t want to make a bad impression your first day on the job.”
Partway there he look at me. “Don’t let on though, okay? Clearly Lou doesn’t want people to know, so let us not be the ones who spill the proverbial beans.”
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