by Dominique Scali
translated by W. Donald Wilson
Eldorado Canyon could have been a mining town like any other, afflicted since birth by picks and mattocks and abandoned at the first indication that the ore was exhausted. But there was something else about it, strewn as it was with signs left behind by unreasonable folk – folk for whom fate was an adversary to be provoked.
It was early morning, just after the revellers had gone to bed and before the early risers were up. The Reverend Aaron arrived at the camp and made for the river, leading his horse by the bridle along the pebble-strewn dirt road. He passed an abandoned barn, an enormous wooden structure, all of four storeys high, with a sloping roof. Only its walls and roof remained. All the doors were gone. Through the openings, little red and grey piles of rock could be seen, and farther back, the miners’ shacks. At the very the top, from the empty little window on the facade, a baby puma had been hanged by the neck. It was only a wild cat, but it gave the Reverend goosebumps, precisely because it was just a cat. Who could possibly bear such a grudge against this feline that they were prepared to climb a ruined building and create such a gallows? Perhaps the Reverend had heard an animal caterwauling the night before but hadn’t paid any attention. And anyway, who can claim to tell the cry of a cat that’s fighting from one being hanged?
Neither Charles Teasdale nor the Reverend Aaron had a specific destination. Each believed himself to be free, but both were looking for the same mining towns. The men would lose sight of each other for weeks, but then chance would put them side by side at the bar in some saloon, or lining up outside a public bathhouse.
The Reverend entered the makeshift saloon during the midday rush hour. The hubbub of miners, part-time bandits, and other fugitives could be heard from well outside the long cabin, whose thatched roof rested on uneven tree trunks. It served no food. In Eldorado, corn liquor and cheap brandy replaced the main meal. In the corner across from the entrance, Charles Teasdale dozed, his head leaned back against the wall and his mouth open, his saddle sitting on the other chair as his only companion. His hat was jammed between the wall and the back of his head. His hair was growing back and beginning to cover his scalp. Around him, men in soft-felt hats, some bare-chested beneath their suspenders, were drinking and playing cards; a man wearing goatskin chaps had removed his boots and was filing his toenails; another was polishing his gun, a long rifle with notches showing how many he had killed – all of them ordinary living beings who had grown up far from any concern for hygiene or from a mother’s love.
At one time soldiers had been stationed in this hamlet to ensure the miners’ safety, but later they were recalled to serve in the war. Indeed, numerous deserters remained among the civilians. Those who stayed behind had to learn to defend themselves against repeated attacks by the Paiute – avoiding one war only to be caught up in another. In a place like this, surrounded by men equally familiar with the precise colour of blood-soaked sand, Teasdale didn’t allow anyone to bother him. These were men without ties except to the spirits of those they had killed, men who could all compete for the title of freest man between Santa Cruz and Santa Fe.
Early in the afternoon Teasdale rose, picked up his saddle, and left the saloon. The Reverend found him again a few hours later in a gambling den. All evening, he watched Teasdale knock back drink after drink as he moved from one game of faro to another, losing his stake and then winning it back. Later, Teasdale disappeared for an hour, probably to pay a visit to the brothel. Then he returned to play one last game before ordering a bottle of whiskey and pulling up an isolated chair, which he placed with its back to the Reverend. Teasdale took a swig. The Reverend pretended to read his Bible. Teasdale took another swig; the Reverend turned a page. This ploy continued until Teasdale rose and came toward the Reverend. Placing his two fists on the table in front of him, he leaned forward. “Had enough of watching me sleep?” he asked in a low voice, so that the other gamblers couldn’t hear.
“What makes you think I’m watching you?”
“I can’t sleep if you stay here.”
“Well then, go somewhere else.”
“I was here first.”
“So? Do like everyone else and rent a room.”
Teasdale gripped the back of the chair in front of him and leaned his weight on it. “Let’s make a deal, me and you. In future, whenever we cross paths, the first to arrive has the right to stay where he is, and the other has to leave.”
“But I couldn’t care less if you’re in the same place as me. It’s your problem, not mine.”
“You keep followin’ me wherever I go. I could make it a problem for you too.”
“I’m a man of God, and you’re an outlaw. No one will defend you.”
“You ain’t even a real preacher. I ain’t never seen you preach.”
“And I’ve never seen you prospecting.”
“You’ve got a nerve for a guy that don’t carry a gun.”
“Unlike you, I have no need of a weapon.”
“The day I’ve had enough of feelin’ you’re always on my heels, mebbe then you’ll need one.”
The Reverend laid down his Bible and crossed his arms. “I saved your life, and that’s all the thanks I get?”
“I never asked you for nothin’.”
“But you’re alive, and a free man. And I’ve never asked you for anything either. You can do what you like, but I’m not budging.”
Teasdale turned on his heel and threw his saddle over his shoulder. He turned around, stared at the Reverend, then picked up his hat and bottle. He backed out of the room, never taking his eyes off the preacher.
Three weeks passed before they met again.
Translation by W. Donald Wilson
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