Published on Wednesday, November 21, 2012
By D. M. Harrison
"We could have ourselves a bit of fun," Quinn said.
"I dunno," Barney said. The two drifted around together and generally got up to no good. "Remember what happened last month?"
Their recent fiasco had ended when Barney got peppered with buckshot. He rubbed his backside as if sure all the pellets hadn't been removed.
"How's a blind man got all that gold?"
"Well he weren't blind then - story is he got caught in a rock fall in his mine and lost his sight," Quinn said.
"How come you know so much?" Barney asked. "Cause I ain't got a ten dollar hat on a five cents head," Quinn said. "I don't just bend my elbow at the bar, I listen to folks talk and pick up some interesting things."
"Maybe, but if I get pumped full a bullets again, you gotta promise to pick 'em right out!"
Blind Jack made a living by bottling dreams.
The land he'd staked to mine was covered in sticky black oil. The locals believed it to be a 'cure-all', and even before he lost his sight, he'd bottled the crude oil. They bought the potion that cured anything by drinking it or pouring it onto the body. When he told a lady it would make her skin as soft as a shaver's ass, and her friends rushed to buy the 'elixir' too.
He garnered it from the shale ground that made everything but mining impossible on the small piece of land he owned near Hot Springs California. When mining had let him down, and he found only enough gold to fill a sock before the mine caved in and left him as blind as a bat, he had something to barter for sustenance.
As he stood at the table unpacking the glass bottles he'd fetched from Hot Springs general store he recalled the doc's words, "Just a bit of dust, I guess," doc said. "Wash out soon enough."
Trouble was the doc guessed wrong and although he'd fell in the stream that flowed too near his home often enough, after six years he still couldn't see a darn thing.
Yet Blind Jack knew his surroundings like the back of his hand. After he lost his sight he crawled round every inch to get to know it. His bruised shins were a testament to his doggedness at learning the layout of the house and a wobbly structure he called a barn. He'd lost his way a couple of times at first when he'd explored further and ended up out all night. Luckily, a pa who instilled toughness into his sons had nurtured Blind Jack, and made him strong. He'd survived the freezing winter night through sheer bloody mindedness. Taught him a lesson; he always carried a ball of string in his pocket to avoid going round in circles.
He was grateful he didn't have a family to provide for, although the company might have been good in the black lonely nights, it would've proved too much trouble. He could get company. A smile spread across his leathered skin and it crinkled into lines at the corners of his mouth and eyes. Yes, the ladies at the Cribs took a shine to him, charged him nothing for their hugs and kisses. About one of the only advantages of blindness, he reckoned.
Darkness didn't bring an end to his day. He could find oil and pour it into the 'medicine' bottles whatever time it was. He could remove and then replace the hay for his horse and mule at first or last light. The day only ended for him when it was too cold, or he was too tired, to work.
He lit the oil lamp on the table. Although blind, he could make out the intense spot of light and he enjoyed remembering what it was like to see. He couldn't see the spark of the Lucifer against the heel of his boot but heard the scraping of phosphorous and metal together. It was like the sound of a gunshot as it ignited. He could smell the initial brief odor as kerosene mixed with the air when the lamp flamed into life.
Now he sat with his guitar and strummed and hummed a tune.
Whether it was day or night, Blind Jack saw more than most people did with their eyes wide open. There were the predictable changes in the seasons. It was cold in winter and hot in summer. But he knew the direction of the wind by the feel of the breeze against his face. He could smell the moisture in the air before it rained or snowed. He knew the time of day instinctively.
There were always signs that signified change.
At dawn in springtime the dew gathered on the outside porch and squelched underneath his feet when he walked. In summer, at dusk the insects swarmed and he squatted them with his hands as they tried to bite. Fall brought a chill that iced his breath on his lips in the morning. In winter the warmest time of the day was noon. The high sun struggled to heat the earth and when it did it helped make pools of water that froze into hazardous icy patches.
As Blind Jack sat plinking at the catgut strips across the guitar, he felt the presence of others about the place. He continued to play but the notes were softer as he concentrated. There were two people outside door. Both male; one had smelly feet and an odor of farts. One was fat, because Blind Jack heard the floorboards creak and only stout Marshal Keene made the boards squeal under his weight when he visited. The other was skinny, his feet whispered across the boards, and he oozed a scent of lye soap perhaps from a wash and shave earlier in the day.
He knew them to be foe, not friends, why else would they stand on the porch without knocking the door or calling out their names?
"I can hear someone singin' an' strummin' a gitar," Barney said. "I thought you said he lived alone?"
"Just 'cause he's blind don't mean he's deaf or mute."
Quinn and Barney had watched the man for a while. They'd hitched their horses and walked near to the house. It wasn't much to speak of, merely a tumbledown wood cabin fronted by a rickety porch, a sod roof, and its rear wall probably fashioned from the rocks it stood against. A similar place next to it housed a knock-kneed horse and a grumpy looking mule.
Barney had been surprised by Blind Jack's agility as he strode about the place and asked Quinn if the man really had lost his sight.
"He's used to walking about his own place," Quinn answered.
Barney considered Quinn's reply.
"I suppose that's right," he said. He chewed on a piece of grass and asked thoughtfully, "Are we gonna wait 'til it's really dark an' we'll creep up and surprise him."
Quinn stared at his friend, then clipped Barney's hat so it fell over his friend's eyes. "Don't make no difference whether it's day or night to him," he said. "He sees as much as you do now, which is nothing at all."
Blind Jack put down the guitar. It wouldn't be the first time unfriendly folks came calling and he knew it wouldn't be the last. But he wasn't going to sit and wait to find out what they'd do. He reckoned he was more prepared than they were and stepped right up to the door.
Blind Jack pulled it open wide.
"Can I help you fellers?"
The men's reaction painted a picture for him. He visualized the look on their faces as he heard gasps of surprise and the clunk of heels as the two stepped away from the shotgun he held.
"I didn't think anyone was here, Mister." The one who stunk of lye soap said.
"There ain't many uninhabited places that house a horse and mule, son. Best make a whoop and a holler when you approach a place," Blind Jack said. "Most folks don't take kindly to those who think it's all right to Indian up. You could end up as full of holes as a miner's sieve."
"Didn't mean no harm. Looking for a place to stay over and water the horses. Name's Quinn, an' this ere's Barney."
He didn't lower the shotgun but he nodded to both in acknowledgement. "I'm Jack," he said. He looked towards Quinn. "You're welcome water your horses in the stream and you can stay in the barn overnight." Blind Jack picked up the movement of air and the whiff of smelly feet, as Barney stepped silently sideways. "Better watch you don't fall through the porch, Barney. There's a bit of dry rot right under your feet."
It was all he could do to stop laughing as Barney did a dance and jumped away from the rotten wood.
"Got a pot of bean stew on the stove, 'bout all I can offer, but you're welcome to share my supper. But you put your guns on the floor there. I don't want any weapons indoors."
"Thanks, Jack. We'll join you for that stew," Quinn said. He heard belts unbuckled and two lots of guns placed on the floor. "We'll look after our horses first."
Barney moaned as they walked away towards the stream.
"Thought you said he were 'Blind Jack'. Sees better than my ma an' she got eyes in the back of 'er head.""Well, that's the story I heard at the bar." Quinn looked puzzled. It seemed he'd misunderstood the men's conversation. "Anyways, we're here now, we might as well take him up on his offer of grub and rest. You could always take a peek under the bed if I distract him, just in case he's got some gold."
Blind Jack lowered the wick in the kerosene lamp and placed it on a small dresser. He didn't need the light but reckoned it'd look odd to put it out completely.
He stirred the beans, moved his guitar to the side of his fireside chair and then got out three bowls and spoons. He had some whiskey but he put out a pot of coffee and a jug of water; he didn't want the unwelcome guests fired up with liquor. His shotgun he placed in a niche by his chair.
He heard the scraping of chairs as the two men sat down at the table.
"Bit dark in here," Barney said. "You wanna turn up the lamp?"
"I can't afford to waste the oil."
He'd put the pot in the centre of the table so they could help themselves. Silently they ate the bean stew, which was soft, inclining towards mush.
"I keep it cooking over the fire all the time," he explained, "and just throw in new stuff as it comes along."
Quinn nearly choked as he spat out a couple of small bones.
Blind Jack couldn't see his expression but from the sound of the reaction he reckoned Quinn wondered whether the animal had been added, or fell in the pot as it made its way along the fireplace.
"Tastes good," Barney said. He cleared the last bits of food from his plate with his spoon. "But then again nothing could be worse than eating jerky an' drinkin' acorn coffee on the trail."
Blind Jack poured another coffee and heard the dishes being collected together.
"Leave everything on the table. I'll do it later," he said.
"It's no trouble to gather a few things together, Jack," Quinn said. "I was wondering whether you could strum a few tunes on your guitar for us?"
"Yeah," Barney said. "We heard you playing when we was about to knock on the door."
Blind Jack just wanted them to leave. He didn't like the two men. Their speech and movements didn't have the ease and surety about them that he associated with honest men.
"I'll play a couple of songs," he said. "Then I'm off to sleep. I'm all tuckered out. Old age and creaky bones I guess."
Blind Jack couldn't see that when Barney collected the dishes, and stacked them at the end of the table, Quinn moved his guitar. He sensed a disturbance in the air around him, and the smell of lye soap wafted by so quickly, he thought he'd imagined it. He reached out to get his guitar. It wasn't there.
Then a nasty laugh, cut short by a gasp, warned him he was right to be cautious.
"You hand me that guitar, son. I'm too old to be fetching and carrying things."
"I'm gonna wipe the table first, Blind Jack. You spooned a whole load of beans on the table when you dished out that stew."
Blind Jack knew they'd tested him and he'd failed.
"What is it you want?"
"We heard you got a pile of gold here," Quinn said. His abrupt manner told Jack he wasn't playing along with the game anymore.
"Me an' Quinn want a little of it," Barney said.
"Barney, you're full grown in body only - you're brain ain't caught up yet." Quinn turned towards Blind Jack, "we want all of it."
"I ain't got nothing here above a few dollars and some beads I trade with the Indians."
"I don't believe you," Quinn said. Blind Jack felt cold steel across his throat and the smell of unclean breath on his face. "I want you to get your gold, or, I'm gonna kill you."
Barney gasped. "You are?" he asked.
"I reckon someone tipped God's elbow when he was filling that space in your head with brains," Quinn said.
Blind Jack took advantage of the momentary distraction and the sight ease in pressure as Quinn berated Barney. He decided to make things equal between the three of them. He reached across to the dresser and snuffed out the kerosene lamp and then threw the water from the jug over the fire. All of a sudden it was both pitch black and smoky and seconds later Quinn and Barney were both coughin' up and airing their lungs at the same time.
As soon as the water hit the fire, Blind Jack disappeared.
After he'd lost his sight he'd thought of all the situations he'd have to deal with to survive. The West was a hard and unforgiving place if you weren't prepared. He'd lived in the dark for six years and could 'see' as well as any sighted man but this was a bad situation. Barney and Quinn were a couple of chancers who thought nothing about stealing from a blind man. As far as Jack was concerned they deserved all they got. And he was going to give them plenty.
Quinn stumbled toward the door to get out and lunged head first into it as he tripped over a chair. Barney followed him and they ended up in a tangle of legs and arms. The pair looked like a spider with a bad case of hiccups as the door swung open and they rolled through it. Quinn was the first to get back on his feet. Barney hung over the porch rail and said hello to his supper again. Quinn grabbed hold of the back of his coat and pulled him up. Barney wiped the pink colored stew from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand.
"Let's ride outta here," he moaned.
"An' let a blind man win over us?" Quinn shook his head. "He's running scared now. We could go back in and take the gold now."
"You forget 'that blind man' still has his shotgun."
"Yeah, but we'll go in with our guns blazing. I reckon we'll see him first!"
They had a surprise when they rushed in. Their feet hit beads, scattered all over the place and they both sailed across the room, again in a tangle of limbs.
The edge of the table brought Barney's slide to a halt. He sat dazed and moaned about stars flashing round his head. Quinn kept tumbling until his backside rested against the hot ashes. He screamed in pain as he scrambled to remove the seat of his pants from the fire and beat the smoldering material with the palms of his hands.
"What in tarnation!"
Quinn felt around for the kerosene lamp and tried to get the wick burning by putting it near the hot ashes. A spark ignited the kerosene and the lamp flamed and burnt his hand. When he dropped the lamp it started to burn on the floor and Quinn danced a jig in the flames.
In less than five minutes the two men had ended up with cuts, bruises and burns. Then, to add to their consternation, they heard the clatter of hooves.
"We ain't got no choice but to find Blind Jack and his gold," Quinn said. "He's let go our horses and left us without a darn thing."
Barney had to agree with Quinn. They had a five-mile walk back to town. No money. No horses. At least if they had a bag of gold they could replace the horses and the walk wouldn't seem quite as long.
"How did he get out to the barn?" Barney asked.
"Probably slipped past us when you were busy emptying your paunch of that wonderful stew."
Barney paled. "Don't remind me. I recall it was fine going down but..."
"Come on. Let's get on with this. He's won this round but what else could a blind man do?"
Quinn motioned to Barney to follow him. He'd already told him to keep quiet as a mouse and they'd taken their boots off because Blind Jack would hear them if they made a noise.
They were right about that. Blind Jack's other senses were as sharp as any creature. He could smell the odor of Barney's farts and heard him grumble about the bean stew not agreeing with him. He heard Quinn give Barney a slap on the back and tell him to 'hush'.
Blind Jack had escaped from the cabin by means of a discreet back door. The cabin, built almost against the rocks, had an area behind both for storage and to enable him to get to the barn sheltered from the bad weather. He slapped the rumps of Barney and Quinn's horses and heard the satisfying sound of hoofs galloping away. With that act, he'd left the two men as helpless as him. His knock-kneed old horse wouldn't take kindly to another rider. And his bad tempered mule was exactly that - mighty bad tempered.
He reckoned they'd try the barn next. He got his shotgun but rather than risk missing them he decided he'd use another way to stop them in their tracks. He took out the string he always carried with him. He pulled the barn door open and tied it across the doorway from waist height down. He placed a couple of things by the door and waited.
He didn't have to wait long. He heard Quinn thoughtlessly shout out to Barney as they stood a few feet away from the barn doorway.
"That's him there! Come on Barney, let's go."
Both men fell over the string at the same time. Barney, the heavier of the two, went down with a bang. Quinn shot over and his foot landed on a carelessly place hoe. The handle thumped on the forehead and he fell helplessly to the floor. Barney struggled to his feet and went racing across to where he thought Quinn had seen Blind Jack. He ran straight into the mule. The mule bucked and Jack heard the crack of a jawbone.
Blind Jack threw a bucket of his crude oil, which was ready to pour into bottles, all over them. It broke whatever was left of their fighting spirit.
Barney rolled over into a small passel of chicken feathers and ended up looking like an old rooster. Quinn shrieked loudly as if all the devils in Hell were after him.
The journey to town was an ignoble one for Barney and Quinn. Tied on to the back of the mule that brayed hee-haw, hee-haw and bucked all the way to Marshal Keene's law office; they had plenty of time to regret trying to steal from Blind Jack.
And he needed to buy some more beads to barter with the Indians. Although he reckoned the tale he could tell would keep them entertained round the campfire for a long time.
D. M. Harrison is a published Black Horse Western writer, 'Robbery in Savage Pass', 'Kato's Army' and 'The Comanche's Revenge' and is also published by Solstice Publishers 'The Buffalo Soldier' and 'Going to see the Elephant'.