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The Ballad of Dingus Magee

David Markson

  David Markson

  The Ballad of Dingus Magee


  The Ballad Of

  Dingus Magee

  Being the Immortal True Saga of

  the Most Notorious and Desperate

  Bad Man of the Olden Days,

  his Blood-Shedding,

  his Ruination of Poor Helpless Females,

  & Cetera;

  also including the Only Reliable Account

  ever offered to the Public

  of his Heroic Gun Battle

  with Sheriff C. L. Hoke Birdsill,

  Yerkey’s Hole, New Mex., 1884,

  and with Additional Commentary on

  the Fateful and Mysterious

  Bordello-Burning of the Same Tear;


  furthermore interspersed with

  Trustworthy and Shamelessly Interesting

  Sketches of “BigBlouse”BelleNops,

  Anna Hot Water, “Horseface” Agnes,

  and Others,

  hardly any Remaining Upright

  at the End.

  Composed in the Finest Modern English

  as taken diligently from

  the Genuine Archives by

  David Markson

  “This is funny.”

  Doc Holliday, Dying Words


  “Pull off my boots.

  I promised my mother

  I’d never die with my boots on!”

  Billy Clanton, The O.K. Corral, Tombstone, 1881


  Turkey Doolan’s crotch itched. His scalp was gamy. Poised in the saddle, with one freckled hand inside his jeans and several stumpy fingers of the other beneath his sombrero, he relieved himself by scratching simultaneously and with vehemence.

  But Turkey’s complaint was also mental. He knew this for a true fact as he shifted his buttocks athwart the hot leather, waiting while his companion emerged from a sheltered turning on the trail behind him. “Because I done rode with him for almost two weeks now,” he reasoned, “and still there ain’t nothing happened. Even accompanied with Mister Dingus Billy Magee hisself, and it ain’t happened yet.”

  Up ahead, where the trail shelved gradually onto a low broad mesa, Turkey had noticed a cavalry patrol approaching in the distance. “But it ain’t about to happen in the middle of no sweaty desert neither,” he knew.

  What he was waiting for made something of a story. He was the only child of an itinerant tinker who died when he, Turkey, was nine, and it might have had its beginnings even before that. Because he seemed ready even then, looking ahead solemnly to the occurrence of some fabulous and unpredicated event of which only he, privately, had any intimation. He waited three years in the fourth grade alone.

  They risked him behind a counter then (he had a stepfather now, a feed merchant), but there was small point in it. The boy couldn’t calculate, or wouldn’t, and weights and measures eluded him like ritual gossip mouthed in Pawnee. “At least if you’d make an error once in my favor,” the stepfather said. The first time they found no alternative to trusting him alone for an afternoon, this on a day in July of 1876, Turkey loaded several hundred-pound sacks of meal onto a stranger’s wagon and accepted payment in Confederate currency.

  They tried in the local smithy next. He was indoctrinated by a recalcitrant mule the first morning, profoundly enough to be unable to sit for a week. Yet after that he seemed to get on, and it even looked that he had a way with horses. “I’m right glad to hear of it,” the stepfather told the blacksmith, “even if he had to be next month to thirteen before I found out.”

  “Found out what?” the blacksmith asked. “That the one lesson he’ll take to is the kind gets drove home with the hind legs of a jackass,” the stepfather said.

  He held the job for more than two years, although he was still waiting. It was part of him wholly now; he confronted mule and man alike with the same vapidly anticipatory dim gaze. “One day,” he would tell himself. “Sure as shootin’, one day it’s gonter happen.”

  Yet he could have remained at the smith’s forever if it had not been for the girl, the farmer’s daughter. They were in the loft when the farmer chanced in, and even then it might have been all right, had the girl not inadvertendy dropped her frock over die side a moment before. The farmer gazed at the garment for perhaps four seconds where it had draped itself across a buckboard wheel, which was long enough for Turkey to deposit a saddle on his head. The man was on his feet again immediately. “But doubtless it weren’t gonter occur around that dull old town anyways,” Turkey had already convinced himself.

  It was scarcely about to happen on the trail either. Home had been Missouri, and Turkey’s last silver was gone before he crossed the Panhandle. He signed on herding sheep.

  That was his first mistake. Not asking why there appeared to be no other hired hands on the ranch was the second. He had been in the pasture less than two hours when a torrent of longhorn steers came bellowing out from beneath a canopy of dust to wreak predictable enough havoc upon sheep and pasture both, if not to say almost upon Turkey himself. But if he galloped clear of the steers he did not escape the horsemen driving them. “This here’s cattle territory, Cousin,” they let him know. A fractured jaw and a sprung rib reiterated the declaration.

  Haifa day later, on a back road to nowhere except away, three nondescript men in a flat-bottom wagon pulled up beside him. This was when he began to get the idea that if and when it ever did come to pass, whatever it was, he wasn’t going to have much luck with it. “Sheep or cattle, Brother?” one of the riders asked. Turkey had an ache in his face, another in his kidney. “Sure, boys,” he said. “Cattle, boys, all down the line.” No one had told him how protractile the war was, or how various its minions. When he hit the roadbed the sheepmen took turns walking on him.

  Some hours later he ventured toward a farmhouse to ask a meal. He was shown eight inches of open slat in a Comanche shooting blind and the muzzle of a twelve-gauge shotgun. “State your allegiance, Uncle,” a female voice demanded.

  “Aw, lady,” Turkey pleaded, already backing off, “you say first, huh?”

  This set the tone. Once in a while he worked at a forge again, which seemed safe enough, but the jobs would never last. They couldn’t, because he was still waiting. So when he took to theft it wasn’t out of greed, or any motive other than the prosaic demands of necessity, of survival. He never became fully adept, never professional. Chickens were his strong suit, sometimes calves young enough to be lashed across a pommel. Perhaps once a year in some isolated back-trail town he would discover a cashbox that was not being watched too closely, or by anyone too acute.

  But still it failed to happen, and after four long, unregenerate years he began to sense a certain disillusionment, even something of annoyance. One day he found himself deep in the New Mexico territory without even chickory for his coffee. “All right, then,” he said. “So I reckon it’s about time I made it happen on my own.”

  So when he chanced upon his next wayside cantina he paid no attention at all to the handsome, well-combed gelding tethered without. The cantina’s door was open, and when he stepped into the gloom a rusted, secondhand 1873 Colt Peacemaker was at the operative position in his fist. “All right, boys,” he growled, “let’s do the business, everybody’s hands up and I’ll take whatever you’re holding, cash money and don’t omit the watches neither!”

  There were two people in the cool windowless dusk. The pigtailed Chinaman behind the bar gazed at him incredulously, without other response. The young man reclining with his boots on the lone table and with a tankard of beer in his hand did not raise the beer, nor did he lower his boots. “Durn it, now,” Turkey grunted, “dint you hear me, b
oys? I’m riled and I’m luckless, and that can make a man mighty mean.”

  “Sure can,” the young man with the beer said.

  “You’re jest asking me for trouble, boys,” Turkey said.

  “Who says, now?”

  Turkey finally got around to considering him. He was probably Turkey’s own age, which was nineteen. He was slight, and his boots against the tabletop evidenced their newness and their cost. He wore a fringed red-and-yellow Mexican wool vest. And he smiled and smiled, from under fair unruly hair and a memorable sombrero.

  But Turkey was looking at the weapons now also. The youth bore a gleaming sheathed revolver on each hip, slung low and almost plumbing the floor where his chair was tilted backward, and a third revolver lay between his heels on the table, evidently removed there from his waistband. Behind his chair a repeating Winchester rifle slanted against the peeling adobe. Next to that a shotgun reposed.

  And something was happening to Turkey now at that, at last it truly was. “You got aholt of yourself yet?” the seated youth asked.

  “Aw, now,” Turkey said.

  “Have a cerveza” the youth said.

  Turkey had begun to scratch himself. “I seen your pitcher,” he pronounced, “drawed on a ‘Wanted’ poster. You’re Mister Dingus Billy Magee.”

  “Have a cerveza, seeing as how you got holt of yourself.”

  “Aw, now,” Turkey said. “Aw, now, I dint mean nothing.”

  “Ain’t nobody said otherwise.”

  Turkey shuffled toward the table, tickled pink. Already he could hear himself talking about it. “Boys, yes sir, one day over there to the New Mex, I had me a drink with Mister Dingus Billy Magee hisself.”

  He finally got close enough, still scratching, when Mister Dingus Billy Magee, desperado whom Turkey had long since cherished as a paradigm, reached up and clobbered him back of the ear with a fourth revolver that had been concealed below the chair in his other hand.

  So the sense of expectation was greater than ever now. Because that was almost two weeks ago, and a man could not ride with Dingus Billy Magee for two weeks without something extraordinary coming to pass; Turkey surmised this for a fact. Dingus had magnanimously dismissed the circumstances of their meeting, this after Turkey had awakened beneath the table the following morning, and a few days later had even made Turkey a gift of the gaudy red-and-yellow Mexican vest. Turkey had discovered several bullet holes in the garment.

  “I shouldn’t oughter accept it, Dingus,” he protested. “Duds a feller’s been shot at in, it’s sort of sentimental.”

  But if he rode with pride and assurance now, it was also with a certain bafflement. Because they had been moving undeviatingly across the flat, hot, seemingly endless mesa since that first morning, yet with neither aim nor object that Turkey could perceive. They were headed generally west; he fathomed that much without difficulty, because the mountains of Old Mexico remained always at their left. But not once had Dingus offered a word about what was in his mind.

  So Turkey kept on waiting. That was what he was doing now, after the two weeks, scratching his groin on an otherwise unstimulating sultry afternoon as Dingus moved up from behind him to contemplate the cavalry patrol approaching slowly along the ragged trail. There were some dozen troopers, led by a captain whose braid they could discern from a considerable remove. Dingus greeted the sight with contempt. “Bunch of Fettermans,” he snorted.

  “What’s a fetterman?” Turkey wanted to know.

  “You never heard of Fetterman?”

  “Don’t reckon.”

  Dingus grimaced. “Fetterman was this brave captain they had somewheres—up to Fort Phil Kearny—used to brag he could take eighty men and ride smack through the whole Sioux nation. So comes one time they have to rescue this wagon train, and off goes Fetterman with jest the eighty men he always bragged on. Ptheww! Ptheww! Sioux and Cheyenne and Arapahoes under every bush. And this brave Fettermen, not only is he mortally shot hisself, but all the rest of them soljers get mortally shot likewise. The complete eighty.”

  “They wasn’t all killed, was they?”

  But the troopers were almost abreast of them now, pacing their mounts at a walk. It became evident that they had been in the field for some time, since both horses and men were grime-streaked and dusty.

  “You think it’s okay if’n they see you?” Turkey thought abruptly to whisper. “I mean, suppose they read some posters like I done?”

  “Who, them Fettermans? They’re too busy keeping their heads down, smelling out Apache ponyshit along the trails.”

  “Apaches? I ain’t heard tell of Apaches lately a-tall.”

  “ ‘Course not. They’re all down to Old Mex, pausing for springtime papoose-producing. That’s what makes these Fettermans so brave.”

  The troopers were wearily passing them then, not halting, however, with the exception of the captain, who reined to one side. He was quite young, and mud had caked at the yellow stripe of his right thigh. His name, Fiedler, was etched into his tooled saddle.

  “Morning, Captain Fetterman, sir,” Dingus said affably.

  The captain spun toward them.

  Dingus was innocent. “Handsome-looking troop. I said you can’t get any better men, indeed. Reminds me, my chum and me, here, we cut some Apache sign this morning.’’

  Lifting his unshaven jaw, the captain scowled. “Mescalero? Near here?”

  “Them or Chiricahuas. Right shameful, the way that Geronimo’s still running loose. Burning folks’ homes, looting and pillaging. Why, them two wagons never had a chance.”

  “Wagons?” The captain was open-eyed now. “What wagons? You saw two wagons that—”

  “ ‘Bout six hours’ lazy walk, the way we jest come.” Dingus gestured gravely. “My chum and me, we buried the men, poor devils, it appeared the Christian thing to do. But there was lady’s clothing all scattered, so I reckon old Gee’mo done appropriated the womenfolk. Must be all raped bow-legged by now. You can pick up the trail, most like, if you—”

  But the captain, ashen, had already spurred his mount. He shouted a command and the troopers fell into a gallop, skittering off.

  —And that was Dingus Billy Magee. “Oh, you’re a belly-busting caution, you are,” Turkey told him as they stepped out. He rode now grinning from ear to ear.

  But Dingus fell behind him almost at once, as was his curious habit. He rode huddled low in the saddle also, another characteristic, sitting slope-shouldered as if resigned to an incessant rain. “Tell me somethin’,” Turkey asked idly after a period. “There any special reason, we jest keep roaming on west like we been?”

  For a time Dingus did not answer, coming ahead in that hunched way, and Turkey himself was still preoccupied enough with the recent prank so that another minute passed before he finally became sensible of the other’s expression. And then it was too late. “You ever wondered what kind of a commotion it would make,” Dingus was asking, “if’n a feller went and stuck a gun into each of your ears, and then squeezed off both triggers at the same time? What do you reckon them shots would sound like from inside your head?”

  And this too, this abruptly, was Dingus. Hardly amused now, Turkey flopped limply about in the saddle. “Aw, now why do you want to go talking about a thing like that?”

  “You reckon you’d hear two sounds, maybe? One when you was shot, and again when them two bullets met head-on inside there?”

  “Aw, Dingus—”

  “A feller don’t like persons to go questioning his private intentions,” Dingus said.

  “Aw, Dingus—”

  “Git on along,” Dingus said.

  Turkey sighed as he shifted forward again, heeling up a slight incline. He rode sullenly.

  So when Dingus decided to speak once more, an hour or so later, it was only to disconcert him further. “Turkey,” he asked, “now where in the copulating damn did you come by that there chapeau?”

  Turkey eyed him tentatively.

  “I wouldn’t give away a
hat like that to a pee-drinking Injun. Shames a man to be seed riding with you. Here now, you take mine—”

  Confused and overcome at once, Turkey commenced to scratch himself. “But that there’s your ‘spensive sombrero—”

  “Gonter grab me up a new one right soon anyways.”

  “Right soon—?”

  But again Dingus did not elaborate. Content once more nonetheless, Turkey pridefully inspected the bullet hole in the sombrero’s brim, failing to realize that the trail had forked into an actual wagon road that Dingus was indicating they should follow. Then, startled, Turkey pulled up short.

  “Say, this here direction—ain’t this the direction on into Yerkey’s Hole?”

  “Looks that way.”

  “And ain’t Yerkey’s Hole the town where Mister Hoke Birdsill is sheriff?”

  “Last I heard,” Dingus agreed.

  So Turkey paused to consider that. And then he commenced to get it again, that old indomitable feeling.

  “You fretted over something?” Dingus wanted to know.

  “Jest over that Hoke Birdsill, is all. I reckon he sure makes it his business to know your face, even if them soljers never done—especially since he were forced to study on it every day when you was his prisoner that once, until you escaped on him and he vowed he’d git you.”

  “Aw, that’s only old Hoke.”

  “That mean it’s true what they say?”

  “Depends what they say, most like.”

  “That you and Hoke Birdsill was supposed to be real tender poontang-sharing chums but then he turned to being a lawman and you turned to being a desperado and so he’s gonter gun you down because it don’t look right, a lawman having a feller like Dingus Billy Magee for a old poontang-sharing chum—that true?”

  “Hoke still says that, that him and me was fond chums?”

  “What I hear,” Turkey said.

  “Me and Hoke Birdsill,” Dingus considered. “Well now, you mean to say I dint never tell you how it come about that Hoke got to telling folks what dear chums we was?”

  Turkey said nothing, but he had brought his horse almost to a standstill. For a moment Dingus gazed off into space, privately amused. “Old Hoke,” he said then. “Oh, I knowed him a little, here and yon, I reckon, but never no more than saying howdy, you understand? And then some time goes by, and there was a couple of them piddling rewards on me by then—back a spell, hardly nothing much more than several thousand dollars all told, maybe—and Hoke had got hisself a badge by then likewise. So one day I’m on the prod over this way, and I break a cinch on my saddle. Weren’t nothing, but while I’m getting her fixed I hear this other horse, and when I look up, darned if’n it ain’t old Hoke. Well, now. So he sits there a time, and I stand there a time, and then he says, ‘Howdy, Dingus,’ and so I say, ‘Howdy, Hoke.’ And then he says, ‘I got to arrest you, I reckon.’ Well, that were his poor misunderstanding, you see, only he dint know that yet, because there was the small matter of I’d heard him before he’d seed me—so what am I holding onto behind my horse but this here difficulty-equalizing old shotgun.” Dingus stroked the weapon as they moved, chuckling. “Well, old Hoke. He gets around to where he notices that, finally, and he turns the color of a shoat’s belly, I reckon. ‘Now, Hoke,’ I say then, ‘you wasn’t truly gonter arrest me, was you?’ ‘Now, Dingus,’ Hoke says. ‘You was jest tasting that there reward money, wasn’t you, Hoke?’ I ask him; ‘you was right hungry for it, wasn’t you?’ ‘Now, Dingus,’ Hoke says. Then round about that time I notice that jest under where Hoke is sitting his horse, there’s a mule or a burro been there first, you see, and it’s left a reminder. All heaped up higher’n a small boy’s first arising, and right fresh too. So I inform old Hoke, ‘Hoke, I’ll tell you what. You being so hungry, you climb on down and eat, then.’ Well, poor Hoke. A man’d do pretty near anything in this old world to stop a shotgun from going offin the very nearby vicinity of his stomach, I reckon. But wouldn’t you know—right about then, darned if’n that weren’t when the loopy-nozzled critter took to informing folks how good he knowed me. Yep. ‘Do I know Dingus Billy Magee?’ old Hoke would say,’—whyjest a short spell back, Dingus and me, we ate chow together—’”