After his brilliant short story series ‘Dogbite’, Chris Adam-Smith has written a new series featuring the adventures of The Guitar Man.
Part one :
Madge Brody and Me
Madge’s Boarding House was the cheapest I could find in the township of Seldom. Six bits a night with breakfast an extra two bits making it a dollar a night. Four men to a room stinking of workday sweat and passing wind. I sat as near to the door as I could and managed to get a bunk by the window but, in truth, I would rather have been sleeping out under the stars were there any visible in the snow laden sky above my South Texas resting place. It was either Madge’s or a store doorway. Joe Bright, the owner of the livery where my hocked horse was standing idle along with my trappings, had a dog that was even meaner than it looked so even a hay loft was out of reach.
The man next to me belched loudly and the cook moved around the crowded shack that passed as a dining room, slopping bran mash on to the tin plates and slapping a matching tin jug of turned milk on the centre of the table. The coffee was grey and had been boiled too many times before reaching the table. It would keep out the cold of the day for a while at least and it was Saturday. I still had my guitar and with any luck I could turn a few dollars in one or other of the three saloons in Seldom. Certainly, enough to get me a better lodging and a bath but not enough to get my pony out of the stable. Why, oh why was I so sure that damn stable owner was bluffing with a no-account hole card?
I was about to leave and make my way to be one of the first at the outside cold water tap and the four holed crapper when the big man blocked out the doorway’s morning light. He was a little overdressed for Madge’s in a town suit with a long open fronted fleece lined jacket to keep out the winter’s cold and a shield on his blue flannel shirt. He studied the room, locked his pale eyes onto me and nodded. ‘You the one they call the Guitar Man?’
I looked around the room and pointed to my chest. ‘You mean me?’
He sighed. ‘Don’t give me a hard time, son.’
‘Yes, I said, ‘I am sometimes called that.’
‘Okay, come with me. Madge wants to see you.’
‘Now?’ I said.
‘Now would be a good time unless you want to sit in this shithole until you feel able to travel all the way across the yard to the big house for a decent cup of Joe.’
I grabbed my coat, guitar and hat off of the peg and followed him across the frozen yard to the wide steps of Madge’s white-boarded house. We stopped at the bottom step and he nodded, turned away saying over his shoulder, his soft words clouded in winter steam, ‘Madge is waiting for you, don’t give her any trouble, my cells aren’t any better than the boarding house and breakfast isn’t included.’
I watched him walk clear of the yard and thought about making a run for it then, remembering I was afoot, decided to see the woman so respected as to have the town marshal as her errand boy. I turned and banged the bull-headed iron door knocker. The door opened almost immediately and an attractive young woman, a warm smile, bright blue eyes and lovely auburn hair the colour of a pony I was, as a kid, so pleased to own. She ushered me inside closed the door behind me and told to me to wait. Her voice was as soft and gentle as her appearance- all lady. Seconds later she returned and led the way into a warm lamplit lounge and left me standing there. I moved towards the welcoming glowing logs but never made it as, moments later, Madge waltzed into the room and parked her ample backside in front it.
Madge was a big woman. She was fat, red-faced and beady-eyed and with long straggly grey hair some of which I fancied I had found in my bran that very morning.
I touched the brim of my hat as was the common winter gesture not wishing any warm air to escape from under it and let the cold air get into my brain, which although small, was very prone to the cold.
She was the long-time owner of the boarding house and was renowned for her smile which all knew hid a heart of iron. She was said to be tighter fisted than a badger’s back side which is rumoured to be so tight you could not bang a peanut up it with a ten-pound hammer. How that saying ever came into being, I dread to think. She did most of the chores around the boarding house herself in including the cooking such as it was.
‘Remove your hat, young man.’ Her voice was rasping, cutting its way into the air and almost hanging there with an imagined, ominous echo.
I removed my high-crowned, sweat-stained Stetson with one hand and smoothed my long hair down with the other.
‘You need a haircut and a shave wouldn’t do you any harm either.’ She wrinkled her nose. ‘Have you been sleeping in the barn?’
‘No ma’am I have been sleeping in a bedroom with five other men of dubious hygiene’
‘Down on your luck, a foolish move thing trying to out bluff our livery owner, never known him to bluff in my life, were you local you would have known that.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ I said, ‘That would have been nice to know.’
‘Sarcasm does not become you. You live you learn. Maybe I can change your luck a little for you this day.’
I listened. Any change of luck would be good.
‘It is said you endlessly travel the length and breadth of this fair county. You are a troubadour of sorts. You sing well and play a fair guitar. You are popular and the ladies like you when you have a dollar or two in your pants pocket. You meet people, they find you trustworthy. A valuable trait out here in the border country.’
‘It’s usually more than a dollar or two nowadays and…’
‘Do not interrupt, please, young man, just listen to what I have to say.’
‘Yes, ma’am.’ I felt as if I was back in the third grade. I bowed my head a little, I am quite a performer.
‘And don’t sulk.’
‘No, ma’am.’ I raised my head and looked her straight in the eye.
She smiled a cold-hearted smile. ‘I fancy you do not care for me, Guitar Man, but that matters not. I have a task for you, it will earn you good money and get your horse back, if you are interested then please nod is all.’
‘Who do I have to kill?’
She sighed. ‘Not much of a listener are you.’
It wasn’t a question so I did not answer. I just gave her the requested nod.
She walked past me, sniffed disdainfully, and took two envelopes from the top of the large mahogany desk. She held one envelope high and the other low. ‘In this envelope is a bill of sale and 150 dollars and yes, you heard correctly, 150 dollars. The bill of sale is for the return to you of your horse and the money is for expenses the first of which I might suggest is to get some clean clothes, a bath and a haircut but that is up to you. In this envelope,’ she flapped the low one in the air. ‘Is a photograph of a young man named Harry Coen. I want you to find him for me.’
Now, I can make my mind up very quickly in most situations, poker playing being the exception, and the thought of getting my pony back and moving out of the boarding house which I would likely have to have done anyway, was almost too good to be true. I haven’t seen that kind of money in years, and yet still, I hesitated.
She sighed. ‘If you are wondering why and is harm coming to him you can forget it, it is merely an affair of the heart and that is all you need to know. If you have not located him within one month then you will be released from your contract.’
‘Yes, a legally binding contract to undertake one month’s work for me for sum of 150 dollars and the return of your pony.’
‘Ok. I said, ‘where should I start?’
‘That is up to you, I can only tell you he is still in the county, something is keeping him here. He does not stay in any one place long. He also plays a guitar is why I chose you. Find him, follow him. Telegraph me and I will take over. This is all strictly between you and I. The marshal, Joe Bright or my daughter Georgiana whom you have just met, are not to be involved in this matter in any way. Is that clear?’
‘Where’s the contract?’
She opened a desk drawer and set the paper, a pen and inkwell beside it. ‘I will of course need your given name.’
I smiled to myself, today was my big-time lucky day, happy to sign, no witness to the signing so it was not binding but I guess she already knew that. It was the best day for a long while
I did not know why Harry Coen was on the run from Madge Brody but I did know Harry Coen very well, we were long-time friends, we often played duets and sang together in barrooms and honkytonks all over Maybell County.
I took Madge Brody’s money and unasked for advice. After setting things straight with Joe Bright and making sure the pony was ready to ride south, I took me a bath, bought some new duds, dumped the dirty ones and got myself a shave and a haircut for six bits. I kept the moustache; it had kind of grown on me.
I frittered around the county for a week or so making it look good to anyone who knew me that I was busy looking for someone. The news would get back to Madge and the month would soon pass.
I met Harry Coen at The Black Crow a small but popular saloon in the border township of Harper’s Crossing, a regular monthly haunt for us and I knew he would be there. We played and sang a couple of sets together, the mainly townsfolk audience were appreciative and generous and we got a little drunk. Around midnight the crowd dispersed and we jammed some old familiar songs in the corner finishing in pretty well perfect harmony with the lovely Lorena, the Civil War song much loved back in the day by both the North and the South. The bartender locked the doors, turned down the lamps and placed a bottle of Scotch and two clean glasses in front of us. ‘That’s the good stuff boys, not the forty rod others may give you. A great evening, they spent well. Two bunks made up for you the storeroom, if you are gone by morning, we’ll see you next month I hope.’
I waited for the right moment, hoping I made the right choice. ‘I’ve been hired to find you, Harry, good money.’
‘I know,’ he smiled. ‘Wondered if you were going to tell me, knew you would.’
I chuckled, took out the makings, rolled one and passed the sack to Harry. ‘It was a bum contract; I took it out of desperation. I’m not turning you in but I am keeping the money selling the horse and heading for Tennessee, it’s a damn sight warmer there and I hear they like good music. Why don’t you join me, we work good together?’
Harry sighed a very long sigh. ‘Poor old Madge, she sure enough picked a wrong one in you.’
‘And in you?’
‘She will get over it. All we ever were was friends for a while until she got a little possessive, wanted to set me up in a saloon of my own, quit singing and be a regular guy. I told her nothing was ever going to happen between us and she got a little nasty backed up by that damned pet marshal of hers and I got out of Dodge.’
‘Thinking back, I wondered why we never played Seldom together.’
‘I found me a good woman; she’s joining me tomorrow. Coming in on the noon stage, ride with us, she sings, we’ll go to Memphis, the three of us, we’ll do it right.’
‘Why not’ I said, ‘why the hell not? I still have 120 bucks in my poke and a few spare Black Diamond strings. What is the lucky lady’s name?’
‘Georgiana Brody,’ He said.
‘Well I’ll be damned,’ I said.
‘More than likely, old friend, more than likely we both will.’