"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Art, a short story by Jeff Arnold


Howdy, e-pards. I thought you might like a short story.




Art

by Jeff Arnold

 

 

“It’s awful.”

“It’s not very good, I suppose.”

“No, it’s awful.  Truly dreadful.”

“Well, I don’t know much about art.”

“Come on, Jake.  You don’t have to know much about art – in fact you don’t have to know anything about art - to see that it is an offence.  If that is a true representation of a person’s artistic talent, he would do well to take up woodwork.”

“What is it, do you suppose?”

“Well, I think it is meant to be up there at Taos, the view from the village over east towards the valley.  I guess anyway.  But I only know that because that’s what he always paints.”

“There’s something wrong with…”

“It’s the perspective.  The perspective is all wrong.  That buggy, I guess it is a buggy anyway, is bigger than the barn, yet it’s behind it.”

“Yes, it does appear rather a large buggy.  And the wheels are of different sizes.”

“And those colors!  I mean, they are lurid.  When did you last see a burnt-umber buggy?  My son could do better than that.”

“Yes.”

“And he’s six.”

“Yes.”

“But how dare he?  How dare he impose this on us?  If you had produced a daub like that you would do the decent thing and burn it.  Or at the most hang it in the outhouse.  But he has had it hung here, in the schoolroom, for the whole town to see.  In the schoolroom!  That will likely have a harmful effect on the healthy growth of our town’s youth, that will.  Give them nightmares, probably.”

“Well, he’s kinda proud of his talent and –“

“Talent?  Talent?  There is one reason that this monstrosity is on view in this town and one reason only and it has nothing whatever to do with talent.  It is because it was painted by the…  Oh, hello, Marshal.”

Marshal Billings walked over, stood beside the men with his hands behind his back and his head to one side and waited for a compliment.  Or, given that both Jake Martin and Henry Bradford were there, two.

“Er, we were just looking at your painting, Marshal.  Very, er, original.  And striking.  Um, interesting coloration.  It’s the view up at Taos out over the valley, unless I am mistaken?”

The marshal frowned rather.  This was hardly the fulsome praise he had attended.  Still, they had recognized the view and called the painting interesting.  “Yes, indeed, you could see that, of course.  It is a beautiful view, that, up there at Taos, and I have always admired it.  I wished to capture it in oils for posterity, you might say, and for the whole town to admire without having to ride out there so far.”  He cocked his head to the other side now, as if the picture might improve from this angle.  “Yes, one of my better efforts, I think.”

Henry started coughing and seemed to have some difficulty swallowing.  Jake squeezed his arm, quite tightly in fact, and proffered his handkerchief.  “You got that cough again, Henry?  You ought to get the doc to look at that, you know.  Good day, Marshal.  We look forward to seeing your next magnum opus.”

Chief of Police Thomas Billings reflected.  It was true, he was not a typical artist.  If, that is, you have a rather old-fashioned idea of artists as smock-wearing, long-haired sensitive fellows in berets.  Thos. Billings wasn’t like that.  He wasn’t like that at all.  In fact he was a mean son-of-a-bitch.  In a way this was a good thing, for aesthetic sensitivity was not really the foremost quality required of the leading police officer of a town like Las Vegas, NMT.  It was far more useful to be fast and accurate with a firearm and to have two great hams as fists.  Essential, in fact.  Without these attributes, a lawman in such a wide-open town as Las Vegas, NMT would not last long.  And Thomas Billings (no one called him Tom; no one called him Thomas, come to that) had indeed lasted, lasted over eighteen months.  He had clubbed to the floor or shot to the ground or otherwise rendered unconscious, then prodded, kicked or dragged to jail and locked up in its insalubrious cells enough men (and one woman) to make up a whole church congregation.  Had there been a church.

But he did like to paint.  He knew he was good at it, had a special talent, and it gave him great pleasure to depict nature’s beauty (he stuck to nature’s beauty because he was not quite as proficient at figures) for the benefit of his fellow citizens.  He loved to take a candid canvas and from this pure nothing, create, well, certainly a work of art if not, on occasions, why not, even a masterpiece.  And it made him feel good that people viewed him as not just a damn good lawman – he was that, certainly – but also as a man with other talents.  Gifted, if you like.  And cultured.  Yes.

As far as civic buildings went, they had a court house and a jail, of course, and a white-painted shack that now did duty as a schoolhouse.  They would need a church next, no doubt, a proper Presbyterian one, not the adobe Catholic place the Mexes used, but then after that, why not, an art gallery.

And he felt that the terrain out there around Taos and down here in San Miguel County was truly susceptible to painting.  A landscape like that could inspire a school of art.  Future painters would come and interpret its beauty for the art galleries of the world.  That Louver in Paris.  And the one in Florence, Italy.  And he was the first.  The pioneer.  Apart from those two fellows who came through on Fremont’s expedition back in the forties and painted a bit.  But who remembered them now?

But to work, to work.  He walked back across the plaza, past the windmill, to his office.  He sat at the desk which he had carefully positioned so that as he worked he had the best sight of two early works, ‘Sunset, Taos’ and ‘View from Taos’.

 

***

 

Buffalo John’s parents, a Negro soldier from Georgia and a Chiricahua Apache woman, had not christened him with the name Buffalo John.  They had not in fact christened him at all.  And he had not earned his name because of a career as a buffalo hunter; still less because he resembled in any way the famed Buffalo Bill.  It was because he resembled a buffalo.  He was huge, slightly hump-backed and his head was covered with tight, curly black-brown hair that entirely matched a buffalo’s coat.  There were other similarities: he was rather pungent, extremely strong and dangerous when approached.  He had, although no one in New Mexico Territory knew it, been charged with assault in Texas and skipped bail, drifting north and west along the course of the Rio Grande. He had worked for a stretch as a teamster at Mr. Chisum’s ranch along the Pecos but had been dismissed for one drunken brawl too many, leading to one too many cowboy with a broken head.  He had come north to Las Vegas looking for work.  But he hadn’t found any.  The fact that he was none too bright did not help in his search.  And now Buffalo John was drinking, copiously, in the Flores Saloon on the plaza, looking out morosely through the open door at the windmill in the square.

Buffalo John did not like this windmill.  It stood high upon a square wooden frame that looked disconcertingly like a gallows.  And indeed, it did service as exactly that whenever the vigilantes felt the need to save the local authorities the bother and cost of legal process and deal with malefactors a little more expeditiously.  Put more simply, they hauled men out of the jail and hanged them from the windmill.  The windmill now squeaked as it turned in the warm breeze.  Buffalo John scowled and turned back to the bar, ordering another pint of wine.

Flores’s was not crowded.  Most men at that hour were working.  But Cesar Romero and Jesus Martinez were standing at the bar, discussing the price of ten head of cattle that Martinez thought to be worth eight dollars a head less than Romero did. The discussion was oblique, polite and punctuated by a not infrequent raising of a rough glass to the lips but both parties were very determined nevertheless and final agreement on the sale price was far away, if not unreachable.

However, as Buffalo John, slightly unsteady from the wine he had taken, swung back towards the bar from his study of the windmill in the plaza, he barged against Jesus and the earthenware jug of wine that stood on the counter between them teetered, wobbled, then fell to the wooden floor with a smash, staining the bottom of both Cesar and Jesus’s pale-colored pants legs red.  They sprang apart and dabbed at their trousers, at first annoyed but then realizing that accidents can happen, it was nothing, and Jesus shrugged his shoulders at the big man, saying, “No matter, señor,” and turned to order another jug.

“Waddya mean, ‘no matter’?”

Jesus was surprised by the aggression shown.  “It is not important, señor, do not worry.  It is nothing.”

“Are you implying that it was my fault?”

Now Jesus and Cesar exchanged looks.  Buffalo John insisted.

“Don’t turn your back on me, you greaser.”

“Look, señor, I do not turn my back on you.  I do not offend you.  It was a simple accident.  The wine spilled.  It was an accident.  Look, let me please buy you a drink.”

“I ain’t drinking with no damned greaser.  You spill your wine and get some on my boot, then blame me?  The hell with that.  You get down there and lick it off.”

Cesar intervened.  “Señor, I-“

“Don’t keep calling me a damn señor.  I’m an American.  You call me Mister.  And you lick the wine off my boots.  Now.”

Jesus gritted his teeth, then spoke, quietly.  He used neither “señor” nor “mister”.  “No, I will not do that.”

Buffalo John pushed Jesus against the shoulder with the flat of his hand, hard, hard enough to send him cannoning into his friend.  Jesus recovered his balance, then lashed out at Buffalo John with his fist.  It was a futile attempt.  The big Texan with surprising agility simply took one pace backwards and Jesus once more lost his balance, this time tumbling to the floor.  The disturbance had alerted the bar tender, who sent a boy running across the plaza and reached under the counter for the twelve-gauge scattergun he kept there.  Cesar, coming to the aid of his friend, had had enough and he pulled out a small knife.  Buffalo John took one look at it and drew a large, ugly black .44 from his belt, leveled it calmly at Cesar’s stomach and fired.  Within the confines of the small wooden saloon, the shot was a mighty roar and blue gun-smoke swirled.  Cesar was caught amidships and grunted as he slumped backwards to the floor.  A deep redness began immediately to stain his shirt, matching the wine stain on his pants, except that in the case of the shirt it was accompanied by a black powder burn.  The barman brought out the shotgun and aimed it at the Texan.  Jesus, in a rage, shouted to the bar tender, “Give me that!” for, having no firearm himself, he wished to shoot Buffalo John with the twelve-gauge.  The bar tender shook his head and Jesus made a grab for the gun.  As they tussled, Buffalo John aimed his .44 once more, squarely at the head of Jesus.  He drew back the hammer and shouted, “Hey, greaser!”

The blow was such a hard one that it broke Billings’s good Winchester rifle in two.  He had swung it with all his considerable might at that spot just above the nape of the man’s neck and below the skull.  It was perfectly aimed because Buffalo John simply folded up like a house of cards and collapsed to the floor.  But Billings was damn sorry about the Winchester.

He looked at the Mex on the floor, gutshot.  Well, he wouldn’t see tomorrow.  The other one stood, shocked, at the bar and the bar tender put his shotgun away.  Billings looked at him interrogatively and the barman shrugged.  “Buffalo John was drunk.  Jesus and Cesar here did nothing to provoke him.  On the contrary, they were very polite.  It was a deliberate aggression, Marshal, with no motive except orneriness and drunken meanness.”

Billings nodded and grabbed Buffalo John’s collar.  The job of dragging him over to the jail was a hard one, for all his strength, but he got him there and threw him in a cell.  He started to write out a report for the judge.

 

***

 

The next morning the pain from the blow he had received and the raging ache of the hangover vied for control of the head of Buffalo John.  He couldn’t remember ever feeling worse, in quite a long career of waking up in cells.  He screwed up his eyes and saw the policeman who had, presumably, hit him.  He must have used a sledgehammer.  He spat dryly and asked, “Marshal?”

“I don’t know why everyone calls me ‘Marshal’.  I am Chief of Police.”

“Yeah, well, Chief of Police then.  Can I have some water?”

“Later.  I’m busy.”

He did indeed appear to be engaged in some work at his desk, head down.

“I shot someone, didn’t I?”

“You did.  He died in the night too.  So you’re on a charge of willful homicide.  They’ll hang you, Buffalo John.  The only question is who’ll do it, the official hangman or the Vigilance Committee.  Let me tell you, if they come for you tonight I shall do what I can to keep you safe for I prefer a more formal hanging but I warn you now that I ain’t going to risk my own neck for you and if they ask insistent enough they’ll get the keys to that cell and then goodnight.”

“You’d let them hang me?”

“I done told you.  You’re going to be hanged either way.  You better get used to the idea.”

Buffalo John grunted and turned back to his bunk to nurse his head.

Billings went back to his painting.

 

***

 

The good citizens of Las Vegas, or at least about thirty of the male ones, had had enough of murderers, thieves and bunko-steerers bringing their town into disrepute and attracting even worse rabble to the district.  And Cesar Romero had been a popular fellow, a decent cattle farmer and businessman.  The thug who had callously shot him down was alive and well in the jailhouse but he wasn’t going to stay that way.  Justice in the legal sense of the word was too slow and too risky.  He might get away with it from “lack of evidence” or even escape from the jail – it wouldn’t be the first time.  No, the hour had come to resort to a speedier justice.  As night fell, these thirty men, all well-armed and some masked, gathered in the plaza, talking quietly to each other.  The cold moon shone whitely and the windmill cast a long shadow.  At a signal the men walked over to the jail.

Billings knew they were coming.  He wasn’t afraid of them but he was a realist.  There was a knocking at the door.

“Who is it?”

“We want to speak to you, Marshal.”

“Go ahead.”

“Open the door, please.”

“I ain’t that foolish, whoever you are.  Say what you got to say through the door.”

“Marshal, let’s be sensible about this.  There are thirty of us out here, all well-armed and all determined.  We want Buffalo John.”

Buffalo John in his cell looked very unhappy.  He whispered forcefully at Billings, “Chief of Police, sir, don’t hand me over.  They’ll kill me!”

Billings replied calmly, “Well, it’s what you deserve.  Hold your peace.”

The voice resumed from outside.  “Marshal?”

“I ain’t a marshal.  Why does everyone call me Marshal?  I’m Chief of Police.”

“Come on, Billings, please.  Let’s just do this.  We’ll give you five minutes then we will let rip with these rifles and shotguns and you yourself will likely be hurt.  Your jail will certainly not be the same again.”

Billings knew he would have to come to some arrangement.  He was not about to risk his life over the fate of such trash as Buffalo John.  Still, he was Chief of Police.  He took a shotgun from the rack, broke it, inserted two shells and snapped it back.  He put more shells in his jacket pocket.  He unlocked the door.

Standing on the boardwalk, Thomas Billings looked and felt pretty tough.  His shotgun was leveled at the mob and he spoke without a tremor.  “Now listen, you men.  I am the law round here and the fellow in there, guilty or not, will receive due process and a fair trial.  He will stay in my jail till the judge comes from Santa Fe or tells me to send the varmint there, in which case I will take him.  But I will shoot the first man who tries to take him from me.”  He clawed back the two hammers.

It was a brave speech.  And it almost worked.  The crowd may have been heavily armed and it may have had a great superiority of numbers but each individual member was reluctant to be the first to press forward and walk straight into the blast of the marshal’s shotgun.  There was a kind of stand-off.  It was broken by Henry Bradford, vigilante and art critic, who had had the good sense to separate himself from the bunch and now came up softly behind Billings with a Colt .45 raised.

“I’ll take that shotgun, Marshal.”

Billings was not an easy man to frighten.  But he knew what was what.  He shrugged, held the shotgun at arm’s length and put the other hand in the air. 

Bradford took the gun.  “Let’s go inside, shall we?”

As Billings entered his office he could see Buffalo John through the bars looking even unhappier than before.

Bradford had clearly taken charge.  “Get him out of there, boys.”

A man snatched the keys from the hook and opened the cell door.  Two others grabbed its occupant, one at each arm, and started to pull him out.  But Buffalo John did not wish to renounce the hospitality of his host and he was a very strong man.  Others went to help.  It finally took five of them to get Buffalo John out of the cell and standing in the middle of the office.  He pleaded.  “Mr. Billings, please.  This ain’t right.  I know I’m a bad man and I gotta pay for that.  But if you let them take me that’s murder too, and you will be an accessory.  Please, Mr. Billings.”

Thomas Billings thought he had a point.  And he was pleased that someone was finally addressing him properly by his name.

“I’d like to help you, Buffalo John.  But I’m not exactly a free agent here, do you see?”

A man was busily tying the Texan’s hands behind his back.

Buffalo John grunted and his head fell to his chest.  Now he addressed the vigilantes.  Not angrily or even pleading, just resigned.  “Please, you men, give me at least five minutes to make my peace with the Lord.  You can’t deny me that.  Let me pray a moment.”

Billings was surprised.  He had never pegged Buffalo John for a religious man.  Still, the sight of a noose does things to a fellow.  He spoke up on his behalf.  “Give him five minutes, boys.  Go on.  Wait outside.  We ain’t going nowhere.”

Billings’s authority still held.  They grumbled a bit but shrugged and trooped out to the boardwalk.  Bradford put his head back through the door.  “Remember we’re here, Marshal, and our guns are loaded.  Five minutes.”  Billings was starting to dislike this Henry Bradford.

Buffalo John slumped to a chair.  “Thank you, Mr. Billings.”

“I’ll leave you alone for a moment.”

“No!  Don’t go!  Just sit, please.”

Billings nodded and sat.  Buffalo John stared into space.  The minutes ticked by.  Billings took out his watch.

“You know, that’s beautiful.”

“What is?”

“That picture there on the wall.  A great artist must of done that.  It’s mighty fine.”

“You like it?”

“Why, I sure do.  I never had no talent of that kind.  But that fellow sure could paint a picture.  At least I go to meet my maker and something beautiful is the last thing I see on earth.  That’s worth a lot, Mr. Billings, don’t you think?  Who is it by?”

“You don’t know?”  Billings thought he must be trying flattery.  But he was too simple for that.  He really didn’t know.  “You don’t know the artist?”

“Hell, no.  I don’t know any artists.  Is it someone from round here?  It sure is mighty pretty.”

Billings did not answer.  He rested his elbow on the table and put his hand to his chin in thought, then he stood, walked over and opened the door again.  “Bradford?”

“We’re ready.”

“No, I want to talk to you.”

Bradford shrugged and walked back in.

“I’ve changed my mind.  You ain’t gonna lynch Buffalo John.  In fact you ain’t gonna lynch anyone.  In fact I’m gonna clap you in the cell next to him for attempted murder.”

What?  Marshal, you’re-“

“And if you call me ‘Marshal’ once more I’ll put you in the same cell as John.”

The other townsmen had crowded at the door.  Billings addressed them: “Listen, boys, I understand what you want and up to a point I sympathize with your aims but let me tell you, and you had better believe it, that any one of you I recognize, and that’s quite a few, who is still here by the time I have finished this little speech here is going to be in that cell with Buffalo John and will appear at the same assizes as John on a charge of attempted unlawful homicide.  And I mean it.  I have decided.”  He took a rifle from the rack and levered a round into the breech.  “I am the Chief of Police of Las Vegas, San Miguel County, New Mexico Territory, duly sworn and appointed, and I don’t intend to just stand by and let…”  But the boardwalk was empty.

Billings turned towards Henry Bradford and picked up the keys.  “After you, Mr. Bradford.  I’ll put you in a different cell from John.  It might be better for your health.  This one here would be good.  From here you get a good direct view of ‘Sunset, Taos.’  One of my better efforts, I think.”

Henry Bradford began to cough.

 

***

 

“And to think it was painted back in 1878.  It’s so modern!”

“Mmm.”

“I love the courage of primitivism.”

“Yes, dear, but I fear this was a primitive in another sense.”

“Oh, but surely you like it, Georgia?  The deliberate bizarreness of the colors is positively Van Gogh.  And look at that violent distortion of the perspective – it could be Picasso!  Those wagon wheels!  It’s a sort of Cézanne landscape which foreshadows cubism.  It’s a masterpiece.”

“If you say so, dear.  Now what about a cup of tea?”

 

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Jeff, art is in the eye of the beholder. The art of justice is in calling for equality before the law, not for equality of outcome.

    Good short story, well done.

    ReplyDelete