Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Chapter Twenty One, addendum

(Last week I neglected to add the final two pages to chapter Twenty One. These are the missing pages.)

Burke lay his head back on an uncased pillow, piping dark with the sweat from his head. His eyes closed, and I stood and watched for a minute, thinking that he might have fallen asleep again. I scraped my soles on the gritty floor, and he stirred again.

"You still here?" he asked.

"Do you still track people for Barnum?" I asked.

"Fish for freaks?" he laughed a laugh which avalanched into a phlegmy cough. "Barum fired me months ago when I made a set of Siamese twins pregnant on the trip back from the Ukraine. I told him they'd be an even bigger attraction. He made me bring them back to their country. I sailed for Europe, but I sold them to a circus in Milan. The Circus de Santo Paulo."

He laughed again.

"How do you track people, people like that?"

"Freaks. Sideshow freaks, kid. Don't be afraid to call them what they are. They know what they are. Freaks of nature," with this his head fell with a greasy flop to his pillow again. This last pronouncement seemed to drain him of the last of his energy.

I waited to see if he would raise his head again of his own volition, and when he did not, I opened my mouth once more.

"How do you convince them to come with you?" I asked.

He looked up, as he did before, and I was sure he was going to ask again if I was still here, but he grunted and gave me a look that begged the same answer.

"Money brings lots of them. Promise of money. Most of these freaks are poor. Stone poor. So money gets them most of the time. Money in their own pockets, or money in the pockets of starving parents. They give up these kids because they know they'd never make it in their own world. They take their money and buy some chickens, or a cow, or a plot of land, and make life better for the rest of the little wogs. Everybody's happy."

I looked at him hard, not saying a word, but he knew he hadn't given me a complete answer. And for a moment, his head swung on his neck like a cowbird on the end of a cattail, I thought he would drop to the pillow once more to evade a response.

"The rest we take. If they're good. A live, two-headed animal, or some extremely small dwarve. We take them. We always leave the money. Hell, with Barnum, the money's never a problem, but sometimes the owner just won't give up what rightfully don't belong to him alone. 'Belongs to the world,' Mr. Barnum says. And I say he's right.

"So we take them in the name of the rest of the world. It's only fair. It's only right. Do you think that old dog-faced boy ought to be kept from the world? Course you don't. So we got the right to take them. We do. And, besides, we always leave the money."

This time I lost him to the pillow. His collapse sent a storm of dust motes through a shaft of sunlight that burned through the morning haze and lit the room in all its impoverished despair. I left.

McDonough won his case, and he seemed to sense this when I returned to give him the news that I would be leaving the next day to track down the Leatherman.

"Why leave?" he asked. "He'll show up in town someday soon, just follow him once he gets here.”

"What am I supposed to offer him? A salary. Clean bedding, food, what?" I asked.

McDonough outlined a plan of compensation that put my own to shame. He obviously envisioned the Leatherman as a big attraction for the theatre. He was prepared to offer him a salary of fifteen dollars a week, a room at the Riverview Hotel, and one meal a day in the hotel dining room, for as long as the engagement drew people.

"I know this won't be an easy job," McDonough advised. "So, you take as long as you like. Don't force him into anything. Make sure we meet his needs. Take as long as you like, but bring him back alive, Jack."

I wouldn't have it any other way," I insisted.

I spent the next two days puting together provisions for my tracking. I knew I'd be following old man Leather from town to town, and so the need for victuals each day was diminished. But I did buy myself a good mule, a sleeping role, a waxed canvas ground sheet, and an umbrella. It was early September, so I also bought a new woolen union suit, a thick wool parka, and two pairs of Levi Strauss dungarees.

This along with a knife, hatchet and cook set was all I needed. I
packed it in bags attached to my mule. Miverva was her name, and she was kept at the ready at a livery two doors down from the Palace. Word was out I wanted to know the first someone spotted old man Leather in or around town.

I settled in to wait.

And it was a waiting game. Though I hadn't been officially dismissed from the theatre staff, or from the cast of McDonough's shows, for that matter, I didn't turn up at the theatre every day. I stayed out of McDonough's way. I found a place on a bench in front of the sundries store that VanRediger owned on Main St. Though I knew old man Leather never passed this close to civilization, I also knew that the latest word of gossip, of any kind, was dropped as thoughtlessly and unkindly as a road apple at the crossroads in front of VanRedigers.

I held court with the old men, who told me tales of old man Leather from when they were youngsters, twenty years before. Though they were all past fourscore years, youth appeared in the haze of their memory as only twenty years distant.

They told me of his regularity. They told me his name, or I should say names: LeClerc, and Bonhomme, and Poitin, and Bourglay and Tournoir.

But they took the greatest joy in telling me of his crimes. Of the farmer's wives he had seduced, of the farm children he had abducted, and eventually eaten, of the farmhouses he had plundered, and of the farm animals that he is reputed to have rustled, killed, maimed and buggered, though not all four to any one animal.

I listened with a certain dispassionate interest, for I knew, that these men, like the reporter for The Middletown Herald, gathered all of their information by staying in one place, and awaiting for it to arrive on their doorstep like the mail. I knew the truth didn't arrive in the mail.

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