Once, years before, Federal Marshall Pickett Boone had met a man in Des Moines who told a tale as strange as any he’d ever heard.
This man had admitted to being a consummate liar and fraud. It had been his trade, and one in which he took a certain kind of pride. In the years after the war, this man (whose name Pick Boone could not later recall) had toured down through the ranging roads of the South, selling blessings and magics and tonics to the broken folk of the country. For the mothers of the dead he bridged the kingdoms of earth and of heaven, and lent his lips to sons brought down by Northern bullets, and gave to their loved ones final words of hope and redemption from a distant land of angel-song and light.
To the rangy men of the mountains he gave magic stones which could be cast upon the earth, and by the pattern of their falling would show the way to veins of silver. To the sick and the mangled he sold bottles of holy water drawn from the river, infused with liquors and perfumes, and with the power to return to the crippled their sight, or their fingers, or to banish dreams of cannon fire from the elsewise silent nights.
Many times this man made a great show of checking the time, which he kept by way of a silver pocket watch, enamelled in mother-of-pearl. He swore up and down the watch had been owned by Napoleon, and given the liar by a once-great Massachusettes family in trade for a seerstone.
The charlatan chuckled and drunk deep from his mug, and breath from his nose whorled cold and grey into the air. He set down his mug and pulled his coat tighter about his shoulders, and after a moment spoke again.
“Now I found myself in Louisiana, and was boarding with the most horrible old widow you can well imagine. It seemed as if every week the rent was higher than the the week before, and when I told her so, when I told her she was robbing me blind, do you know what it is she said to me? She said to me, ‘Now sir, you know well that t’isn’t true, and if you keep up with lying to me, it’ll be my son who’ll come asking for tomorrow,’ and that would have been a bad thing because her son was this great bear of man who spent all day out in the swamps, doing what I couldn’t tell you. He was as big a man as any I’ve seen, but he had the mind of child. And sometimes a terrible rage would take him. I know that on one day I was sitting out on the porch, and the widow’s son came out from around the side of the house holding this great bull frog in his hands.
“He looked very pleased with himself. Don’t know why, if God put a more useless and ugly animal on Earth than a bull frog I’ve never heard of it, but the widow’s son seemed to like it very much, and he sat down on the ground a little way off from where I myself was sitting, and started to try to play with it, like a little girl with a doll.
“And that went on for a while, and I went back into the house, and not a moment passed before I heard the widow’s son beginning to rage. I rushed back outside, thinking perhaps it was some kind of animal, because the sounds he made when his ire was up were like nothing else I’ve ever heard. I don’t know what happened, I think maybe he hurt the frog without meaning to, or maybe the frog wouldn’t do what he wanted of it, but as soon as I was back out onto the porch, I heard this awful sound very close to me and felt something splash across my face. Do you know what he’d done?”
Pickett did not, and the charlatan went on.
“He’d thrown the frog, straight at the house, as hard as he could. It had hit the wall not a foot from my head, and positively exploded. There was frog gut all down my whole side. And so I stood there, confused as one might be, and when I turned to see where the widow’s son had gone I saw him not ten yards off, throwing his whole body at this great willow tree that grew in the yard, and making those horrible sounds.
“Now, this tree was a very big one, and very sturdy. If I’d gone to attack it as he was, it wouldn’t have moved a whit. But there he is, this enormous bull of a man, and the whole tree is shaking. I thought for a moment he’d tear the whole thing down, tear it up roots and all out of the ground. But after a moment or two I think he got tired of the tree, and instead contented himself with tearing a whole great branch off with one hand and smashing it to kindling. And then he wandered away, as if nothing were the matter at all.
“So you see, I paid the rent, whatever it was, because if it was the great simpleton who came for it, I wouldn’t be here now to tell you or anyone else about it. I stayed another week, or a little bit more, before the old woman and her idiot son were too much to bear and I picked up my things went to leave.
“As I was going out, the old hag accosted me, and had the gall to say that I was in debt – that I’d shorted her for the week! And I’d done no such thing you understand, and I told her so, and I went to leave for Fayetteville.”
Pickett Boone had met a great number of liars in his time, and knew their like and kind. He knew, or suspected he knew, that the charlatan had indeed shorted the landlady on her rent.
“Now, in Fayettville, some three weeks after, I was sitting in a saloon as we are now, and I look up to the doorway, and who should it be that enters, just at that moment?”
“No! The idiot son! He was there, big as anything, and he stands in the doorway for a moment, and as soon as he spots me, he makes his way over. Now I guess I should have run, but I was shocked, shocked you understand, and didn’t move at all. This is a man who could scarce put on his boots by his lonesome, and here he is, tracked me miles and miles to collect an imagined debt!”
And here was the curious thing that remained with Boone years later. He’d taken a measure of the charlatan over the course of the evening, and thought to himself that he knew what was truth and what wasn’t. It seemed to Boone then that the charlatan was speaking truthfully, or at least speaking what he believed to be truth. There had been a change in the other man’s eyes, and even though his voice never wavered, Boone fancied that the liar was afraid. His shoulders had hunched, and he bent across the table very slightly, and it was the strangest sensation Boone had the this man wanted desperately to be believed.
“He comes right up to the table, and pulls out the chair, and sits himself down as if we’d arranged a meeting! Now, for all the time I’d stayed at that boarding house, I’d never heard the dolt say more than two words at once, but as he sits before me, he begins to speak.
“It was like no tongue I’d ever heard. I’ve heard the Indians speaking, and it wasn’t that. Certainly wasn’t English or French. But he spoke to me, for a little while, and this is the strangest thing, and the part of the story you will not believe, because I had the sense that I knew what he was saying! I can’t tell you how, but even though I knew not a word, his meaning was very clear to me. He meant: you owe a debt to my mother, and it will be paid!
“And he went on, saying how I was to pay him, and that if I didn’t he was going to kill me! He talked for a long time about that, in that weird language of his, and at the end he told me to pay him again. And I was shocked, understand, and try as I might I couldn’t get out a word, and he got up from the table and left!”
And if nothing else had served to endear the tale to Boone, it was this: that it’s ending was a disappointment. Men who tell tales know full well to end on a high note, to leave the listener satisfied, and yet the charlatan had not. If the whole thing had been a lie (and Boone suspected at least some of it was), he reckoned that the charlatan would have concluded it with a daring fight with the strange giant, or the final settling of the debt, or something else altogether. He had done no such thing, and the tale, as was the fashion of true life, wandered here and there and ended up at nowhere in particular.
So perhaps, Boone thought later, there had been a grain of truth in it after all.
In another two weeks there came a hard rapping on the door late in the half-lit hour before dawn. Boone got out of bed in his long-johns, and cursed aloud the pissing, shitting, awful cold of the great plains country, and pulled open the door to see a boy outside.
Through chattering teeth, the boy let out a confused jumble of explanation, that he was a shopkeeper’s son sent out to get oats from the store’s stock for breakfast, that his father had given him the key and told him to be quick about the errand and if he wasn’t he’d have his hide whipped, and that there was a dead man in the street and already he was late back home.
Boone left the door open, pulled on his shirt and thin, cotton pants, put on his boots, took his coat and his gun and his badge, and followed the boy down to where the dead man was.
Their boots made hard thuds on the frozen ground as they made their way. Under awnings around them the day’s first stirrings came, with men opening doors and lighting lanterns, chipping away at the ice on front porches. Together, the shopkeep’s boy and the Federal Marshall walked without speaking, their breath frosting in the air around them, ice already touching the ends of Boone’s mustache.
Neither spoke on the way.
In time they turned a corner, and up ahead they saw where a small crowd of three or four men had gathered, and were staring down at the body and talking. Boone sent the boy on his way and thanked him on behalf of the Union for his services as messenger, and went to stand among the men himself.
The head had been staved in with a rock, which sat some few feet away. The body lay face down in the street, and they could not lift and turn it to see whatever was left of the face until midday, for the pooling blood and brain had frozen him to the dirt. Of note to Boone particularly was the silver pocket watch, enameled in mother of pearl and worthy of Napoleon himself, frozen fast in one blue fist.
They never did find out who’d done it.