McCluskie swung down off the caboose and stood for a moment surveying the depot. It was painted a dingy green, the same as all Santa Fe depots. Not unlike a hundred others he had seen, it had all the warmth of a freshly scrubbed privy. The only notable difference being that it was newer and bigger. Rails had been laid into Newton less than a week past, and the town had been designated division point. Otherwise, so far as McCluskie could see, there was nothing remarkable about the place. Just another fleabag cowtown that would serve as home base till the end of track shifted west a couple of hundred miles.
Hefting his war-bag, he walked to the end of the platform and paused for a look at Newton. The corners of his mouth quirked and he grunted with surprise. It wasn’t Abilene, but it was damn sure more than he had expected. Especially out in the middle of nowhere, with the rails hardly a week old.
Newton was laid out much on the order of all cowtowns. Main Street spraddled the tracks, with the redlight district on the southside and most of the business establishments on the north. Side streets, none of which were more than a block long, branched off of the dusty main thoroughfare. Nearly every building had the high false-front that had become the trademark of Kansas railheads, and the structures looked as if they had been slapped together with spit and poster glue. What amazed McCluskie was not that Newton existed, but that it had sprung from the earth’s bowels with such dizzying speed.
He dropped the war-bag at his feet and started rolling a smoke. The paper and tobacco took shape in his hands without thought, almost a mechanical ritual born of habit. Searching his vest, he found a sulphurhead and flicked it to life with his thumbnail. Touching flame to cigarette, he took a long draw and let his eyes wander along the street. His inspection was brief, for a well-chucked rock would have hit the town limits in any direction. But little escaped his gaze, and except for the hodge-podge of buildings, there wasn’t much to stir his interest.
Whatever Newton had to offer wouldn’t be all that different. He’d seen the elephant too many times to expect otherwise. Cards and shady ladies and railhead saloons were the same wherever a man hung his hat. Such things didn’t change, they just shifted operations whenever the end of track changed. Most times it seemed they had even hauled along the same batch of customers.
McCluskie stuck the cigarette in his mouth, again hefted the war-bag, and started down the platform steps. Somewhere behind him he heard his name called and turned to find Newt Hansberry, the station master, bearing down on him. He didn’t care much for Hansberry and had purposely avoided the depot for just that reason. But then, he was sort of standoffish about people in general, so it wasn’t as if he had anything personal against the man.
“Mike, you ol’ scutter!” Hansberry rushed up and commenced pumping his hand like he was trying to raise water. “Where the hell did you spring from?”
“Just pulled in on the cowtown express.” McCluskie retrieved his hand and wiped it along the side of his pants.
The station master shot a puzzled glance at the cattle cars, then barfed up an oily chuckle. “Cowtown express! That’s rich, Mike. Wait’ll I try that on the boys.” The laughter slacked off and his brow puckered in an owlish frown. “Say, what’s a big muckamuck like you doing in Newton, anyway? The head office didn’t tell me you was comin’ out here.”
McCluskie’s look was wooden, revealing nothing. “Why, Newt, you know how the brass are. They’re so busy shufflin’ people and trains they don’t tell nobody nothin’.”
“Yeh, but they don’t send the top bull to end of track just for exercise.” Hansberry cocked one eyebrow in a crafty smirk. “C‘mon, Mike, ’fess up. They sent you out here on some kinda job, didn’t they? Something hush-hush.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, Newt. They just wanted me to have a looksee. Sorta make sure the division has got all the kinks ironed out. Y’know what I mean?”
Hansberry blinked and nodded, swallowing his next question. What with him being station master, that last part had struck a little close to home. “Sure, Mike. I get your drift. But don’t worry, I run a tight operation. Always have.”
“Never thought you didn’t.” McCluskie let it drop there and jerked his thumb back toward the main part of town. “What’s the low-down on this dump? Anything happened I ought to know about?”
“Well I ain’t seen Jesse James around town if that’s what you mean. Course, I don’t guess the likes of him would go in for robbin’ cattle cars anyways.”
“Not likely. That wasn’t what I was drivin’ at, though. Anybody tried to set himself up as the king-fish yet?”
“Hell, ain’t nobody had time. They been too busy gettin’ this place built. ’Sides, Newton’s not rightly a town anyway. Wichita’s the county seat and this here is just a township. Won’t never be nothin’ else, neither. Leastways till somebody proves it’s on the map to stay.”
“So I heard.”
The station master gave him a guarded look. “Yeh, I guess you would’ve. Don’t s’pose there’s much that gets past you boys at the head office.”
McCluskie let the question slip past. “What about law? They got anybody ridin’ herd on the trailhands?”
“Oh, sure. Some of the sportin’ crowd and a few of the storekeepers got themselves appointed to the town board and they pestered Wichita into sendin’ a deputy up here permanent. Good thing they did, too. Otherwise them Texans would’ve hoorawed this place clean down to the ground.”
“This lawdog, he anybody I know?”
“Sorta doubt it. Name’s Tonk Hazeltine. Some folks says he’s a breed, but he don’t look like no Injun I ever saw. Queer kind o’ bird, though. Acts like he just drunk some green rotgut and didn’t care much for the taste.”
“Don’t think I ever heard of him. How’s he handle himself? Been keepin’ the drovers in line?”
“Yeh, what there is of ‘em. Y’know the stockyards have only been built a couple of weeks. We’re just now startin’ to steal a few herds away from Abilene.”
“They’ll come, don’t worry yourself about that. Before the summer’s out we’ll have the K&P stewin’ in their own juice.”
“I ’spect you’re right. Leastways I ain’t never known the Sante Fe to make no foolish bets.”
McCluskie merely nodded, his eyes again drifting to the street. “Understand Belle Siddons is in town.”
“Sure is. Got herself a house down on Third Street. I seem to recollect you and her was sorta thick in Abilene.”
“You oughtn’t to listen so good, Newt.” McCluskie flicked his cigarette stub onto the tracks and started down the platform steps. When he reached the bottom, he stopped and looked back. “What’s the best hotel in town?”
“Why, I guess that’d be the Newton House. Fanciest digs this side of Kansas City. Just turn north across the tracks and keep goin’. You can’t miss it.”
McCluskie turned south and headed down the street, walking toward a ramshackle affair that proclaimed itself the National Hotel.
Hansberry watched after him, cursing softly under his breath. There was something about McCluskie that rubbed a man the wrong way. Even if he was head of security for the line. But it wasn’t the kind of thing a fellow could put into words. Not out loud anyway.
McCluskie had a certain Gaelic charm about him, with a square jaw and a humorous mouth that was about half covered with a brushy mustache. Yet he was also something of a lone wolf, and damn few men had ever gotten close enough to say they really knew him well. Not that he threw his weight around, or for that matter, even raised his voice. He didn’t have to. Most folks just figured he preferred his own company, and they let it go at that.
Part of it, perhaps, had to do with his size. He was a tall man—over six feet—and compactly built. Sledge-shouldered and lean through the hips, he had the look of a prizefighter. Which he might have been at some time in the past. Little was known about him before he showed up in Abilene back in ’69. There, working for the Kansas & Pacific, he had killed one man with his fists and a couple more with a gun. After that nobody felt the urge to ask questions.
Yet, as he thought on it, Hansberry was struck by something else entirely. The queer way the Irishman had of looking at a man. Not just cold and unfeeling, but the practiced eyes of a man who stayed alive by making quick estimates. It was sort of unsettling.
The station master watched McCluskie disappear through the door of the hotel, then turned away, muttering to himself. Somehow the day didn’t seem so bright any more, but a quick glance at the sky merely confirmed his misgivings. There wasn’t a cloud in sight.
McCluskie came down the hall from his room and entered the lobby. He had shaved, changed to a fresh shirt, and brushed the dust from his suit. His face glowed with a ruddy, weathered vitality, and he was whistling a tuneless ditty to himself. Except for his size and bearing, and the bulge on his right hip, he might have been a spiffy drummer out to sweet-talk the local merchants. As he approached the desk, the room clerk brightened and gave him a flaccid smile.
“Yessir, Mr. McCluskie. What can we do for you? Hope that room met with your satisfaction. We don’t often get folks like yourself in here. Railroad men, I mean. Mostly the rougher crowd. Y’know, trailhands and muleskinners and the like.”
McCluskie simply ignored the chatter. He took out the makings and started building a smoke. “Need some directions. Belle Siddons’ house on Third Street.”
The clerk’s smile widened into a sly, dirty grin. “You sure know how to pick ‘em, Mr. McCluskie. Belle’s got the best sportin’ house in town. Oughta warn you, though, it’s awful expensive.”
McCluskie nailed him with a flat, dull stare. “Something tickle your funny bone?”
The man blinked a couple of times and looked a little closer. What he saw was a face that sobered anyone with the savvy to read it. His grin dissolved into a waxen smile.
“No offense, Mr. McCluskie. Just tryin’ to be friendly. Service of the house.”
“Forget it. What about the directions?”
“Sure thing. Belle’s house is just this side of Hide Park. Big yellow house right on the corner of Third. You won’t have no trouble recognizing it.”
“What’s Hide Park?”
“Why, the—uh—y’know. The sportin’ district. The parlor houses are on Third and down below that are the dancehalls and the cribs. That’s why they call it Hide Park. Nothin’ but bare skin and lots of it.”
McCluskie just stared at him for a moment, then turned and walked from the hotel.
Striding down South Main, the Irishman found it about as he had expected. Within the first block there was a grocery, two hotels, a mercantile, and a hardware store. Then for the next couple of blocks both sides of the street were lined with saloons and gambling dens. Evidently everything below that was Hide Park.
The more he saw, the better he liked it. Plainly the townspeople had been at some pains to lay it out properly. Newton straddled the Chisholm Trail and was sixty-five miles south of Abilene. Which meant that its future as a cowtown was pretty well assured. At least for a couple of seasons, anyway. Once track was laid into Wichita, some twenty miles farther south, Newton’s bubble would burst like a dead toad in a hot sun. But that was for him to know and them to find out. There was nothing to be gained in letting it get around that the Santa Fe had a finger in the pie. Right now it was enough to wean the Texans away from Abilene. The next step would come in its own good time.
Late afternoon shadows splayed over the town, and already the street was crowded with Texans. Watching them as he strolled along, McCluskie marveled again at the cowhands’ childlike antics. Somehow they never seemed to change. After two months on the trail, eating dust and beans and working themselves to a frazzle, they couldn’t wait to scatter their money to the winds. Painted women, watered-down whiskey, and rigged card games. That was about their speed. Almost as if they had some perverse craving to be flimflammed out of the dollar a day they earned wet-nursing longhorns. It just went to prove what most sensible folks already knew. Texans, give or take a handful, weren’t much brighter than the cows they drove to railhead.
Still, a man had to give the devil his due. Without the Texans and their longhorns, the Santa Fe would be hard pushed to pull off the scheme that brought him to Newton. The thought triggered another, and he reminded himself to have a look at North Main before dark. Might even be well to introduce himself to some of the town fathers. Let them know he was around if they needed a hand with anything. Texans or otherwise. Never hurt to have a foot in the door with the uptown crowd. Especially the ones who fancied themselves as politicians.
Nearing Third, he spotted the yellow house on the northeast corner and angled across the street. Inspecting it closer, he decided the room clerk had been right after all. Upside the drab buildings surrounding it, the yellow house stuck out like a diamond in an ash heap.
McCluskie went through the door without bothering to knock and found himself in a small vestibule. The layout was as familiar as an old shoe and he proceeded immediately to the parlor. There he came on a black maid, humming softly to herself as she set things in order for the evening rush. She straightened up and gave him a toothy smile.
“Mistah, you’re gonna hafta come back. I knows you got the misery jest from lookin’ at you, but we ain’t open till aftah suppahtime.”
That was something he had always admired about Belle. She taught the help how to diddle a man and make him like it. Even maids.
“Tell Miss Belle she’s got a gentleman caller.”
Apparently that was a new one on the black woman. Her sloe eyes batted furiously for a moment, then she hitched around and scurried from the room. As she went through a door to the back part of the house, she muttered something unintelligible. From the little he could make out, it was a fairly one-sided conversation.
Left to himself, McCluskie examined the parlor with a critical eye. It was nothing less than he would have expected of Belle Siddons. She had a reputation for running an elegant house. Not at all like the two-bit cribs and dollar-a-dance palaces down the street. Plainly, from the looks of the parlor, she hadn’t lost her touch. Grunting, he silently gave the room his stamp of approval.
“Well as I live and breathe! If it’s not the big Mick himself.”
Turning, he saw Belle standing in the doorway, smiling that same soft smile he remembered so well. Outwardly she seemed to have changed not at all, though it was something over a year since he had last seen her.
She wasn’t a small woman, yet there was a delicacy to her that somehow belied the shapely hips and full bust. Her hair was the color of a raven’s wing, glinted through with specks of rust when the light struck it just right, and her eyes had always reminded him of an emerald stickpin he once saw on a riverboat gambler. But it was her face that stopped most men. Not hard or worn, like what a fellow who frequented sporting houses would expect to find on a madam. It was an easy face to look at, pleasurable. Maybe something short of beautiful, but with a devilish witchery that made a man sit up and do tricks just so he could watch it smile.
“Belle, you look nifty as ever.” McCluskie was hard put to keep from licking his mustache. “Appears life’s been treatin’ you with style.”
“I can’t complain.” She walked toward him, airily waving her hand around the parlor. “What’s the verdict? Think it’ll pass muster?”
McCluskie caught a whiff of jasmine scent as she stopped before him, and for a moment he couldn’t get his tongue untracked. “The house? Why, sure. Even classier than the place you had in Abilene.”
“Yes, good old Abilene. Every now and then I think back on it and have myself a real laugh.” A curious light flickered in her eyes. Somehow it put him in mind of a tiny flame bouncing off of alabaster. “But that’s water under the bridge. Tell me about yourself, Mike. What have you been doing since the good old days?”
The way she was looking at him made him uncomfortable as hell. Almost as if he should be scuffling his toe in the dirt and apologizing for some fool thing he’d done.
“Nothin’ much. Just pickin’ up a dollar here and a dollar there.”
“I do declare, a modest Irishman. Never thought I’d live to see the day.”
“Well, you know me, Belle. I never was one to toot my own horn.”
“Don’t be bashful, honey. You’re among friends. Why, everybody in Kansas has heard about Mike McCluskie. Some folks say the Santa Fe would fall apart without him to fend off those big, bad train robbers.”
The conversation wasn’t going quite the way McCluskie had expected. In fact, it seemed to be all uphill, with him pulling the load. He decided to try another tack.
“I just got in this afternoon. Thought I’d come down and invite you out for a bite to eat after you close up tonight.”
“Then we could go up to your room for a drink and talk about old times.”
McCluskie grinned. “Well, something like that had crossed my mind.”
Fire flashed in Belle’s eyes, and it was no longer a tiny flame. “Listen you thick-headed Mick, forget the sweet talk and trot yourself out of here. You left me high and dry in Abilene, and once burned is twice beware. So just scoot!”
“Aw, hell, Belle. It wasn’t like—”
“Don’t ‘aw, Belle’ me, you big baboon! Waltz on down the street and find yourself another sucker. They’re a dime a dozen and standing in line.”
Singed around the ears and smoking hot, he headed for the vestibule. “Well, don’t say I never asked you. If you change your mind I’m stayin’ at the National.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” she fired back. “And don’t let the door hit you in the keester on the way out!”
McCluskie didn’t. But he came near jarring it off the hinges when it slammed shut behind him.
Copyright © 1975 by Matthew Braun.