There was nothing wrong with his eyes.
He watched a coyote lift its leg against the base of the HOLLYWOODLAND sign a quarter-mile away from his window. Men half his age would need binoculars just to identify the animal. And he was watching through stripes the rain made in the chalky dust from the gypsum refinery down the street. It was like trying to make out his reflection in a mirror streaked with toothpaste.
No, there was nothing wrong with his eyes; but he'd trade one for a new set of joints and one good piss.
Just then the roof sprang a new leak. The water broke through in a sudden trickle — just the way his pizzle worked, when it worked — and splattered one of the few dry spots of floor left. Other holes, some as big as a man's fist, had rusted their way through the galvanized iron, letting the water pour into pots, pans, and a Hog Heaven lard bucket. He was running out of containers. Casting about, he spotted the blue enamel camp coffeepot on the woodstove. He'd been using it to heat water since his electricity was turned off, but his wash-up could wait till the sun came out. He took off the lid, dumped the water into the sink, and placed the pot under the new leak.
He went ahead and emptied all the containers, then pulled his chair up to the Smith-Premier typewriter that looked like a toy piano, right down to the black and white keys, and listened to the water bing-bonging against metal, like slugs hitting the stove and Dutch oven and soup tins in the line shack in New Mexico where they said Billy Bonney had come to roost in '80. He and the other members of the P.C. had clobbered the place with long rounds and buckshot for three quarters of an hour before somebody got the bright idea to go down and check the place out. All he found was a lot of ruined gear and a dead armadillo that had chosen the wrong day to crawl in out of the heat.
When an animal expert told him armadillos were unknown north of Mexico before 1900, he'd said, "Well, maybe that critter we cooked and ate was a possum with a bad case of shingles."
He stuffed his pipe to smoke out the mildew stink. His pouch leaked tobacco. Buffalo scrotum wore like iron, but nothing lasted forever, including the beast itself. He raised the chimney from the lamp and held the bowl bottom-side up over the flame, drawing on the stem. Once it got going, there was no excuse for delay. He cranked the platen and read what he'd written; sat back, folding his arms and puffing up gales of smoke, then tore loose the sheet and threw it in a tight ball into the Hello Sunshine crate he used for a trash bin. The oranges on the label went on smiling their asses off. They didn't give a shit.
He wore his daily uniform of blue flannel shirt — the roomy pockets were good for tobacco and extra cartridges — whipcords, and Arapaho moccasins: dependable range wear he preferred to any suit of clothes made to his measure in St. Louis. The creature comforts were all a man cared about at the finish.
He tried again, rolling in a new sheet and stabbing the keys with two fingers:
"Kid" Curry had a cross-eye and you never knew whether he was shooting at you or someone else until the slug hit home.
He shook his head again and sent that page after the last. There wasn't anything wrong with what he wrote, just with the subject. He was plumb written out on the Wild Bunch. Once he put a memory on paper it ceased to be real, as if it was a story someone else had told him. Considering how many books he'd written, he was on the point of rubbing out his entire life. Maybe that was what happened when a fellow got old and forgetful, not remembering if he'd eaten and disgracing himself in his pants. Maybe they were all memoirists.
The only time things came back to him, really came back like he was watching them from the front row of a picture house, was when he dreamed, or when something familiar brought them bearing down on him like the Sunset Limited, which was dreaming too, he decided. But when he reached for them on purpose, they were as dead as Old Man Pinkerton, the only person in history ornery enough to have bitten himself to death.
He sat back again, puffing tobacco and scraping his gaze along the shelf of his books for inspiration. Water stained, every one. Could've been worse; he'd just gotten them out from under the last new leak before they soaked up enough to swell up like a dead steer.
No help there. They were headstones erected over the graves of murdered memories.
He wondered what Ince was up to.
The man had been a pest in the old days, sending him weekly wires pleading for permission to make a picture play out of one of his titles. But he'd been proud then, not wanting to see some jasper with painted lips and false eyelashes prancing around in front of a camera pretending to be him, and eventually Ince had gotten tired of being turned down and stopped writing. A year ago, that was: He couldn't believe it was 1921. Now he'd sell him the whole bunch for the cash to fix the roof. Tomorrow he'd run down to the library and see if he was listed in the directory.
Then all he'd need was a nickel for the phone.
He disregarded the knock at first, thinking it was a new note courtesy of the rain; as the receptacles filled, the pitch changed. If he were musically inclined, he'd have experimented by moving them around, raising or lowering the levels of the water, reaching for some tune he recognized. It was no more a waste of time than trying to coax a story out of his worn-out brain, and might have gotten him a job in vaudeville.
When it came again, he got up, threw a rubberized cover over the typewriter in case another leak opened up above it, and went to the door, scooping up his old brown Colt on the way. Los Angeles was filled with Mexicans fleeing the failure of the revolution, and the elderly were the favorite prey of banditti looking for grubstakes.
"Who's there?" He had to shout to be heard through the thick panels. The rain had stepped up, clanging on the iron roof and striking the drip-catchers hard enough to slap water off the surfaces onto the floor.
"Oh, let me in, Charlie. I'm wet through."
He couldn't tell if the voice was familiar, but at least it came without a Spanish accent. He slid back the heavy bolt and opened the door three inches, thumbing back the Colt hammer in the same motion.
The face was leaner than he remembered, gaunt, the handlebars white, the strong jowls loose now and wobbly. A pair of brows still dark but growing wild drew together over faded gray eyes. "Don't you know me, Charlie? It's Earp."
"I can see that. Which one are you?" They'd looked alike, that whole pack of brothers, and not even a trained detective could tell them apart at a glance. That was one of the reasons there had been so much confusion among the witnesses as to who did what in that mess in Tombstone.
"The one that's left. You going to let me in or cut loose with that dog's hind leg? It gets me out of my misery either way you choose."
"I guess it's the Christian thing to do." He took the revolver off cock and stepped out of the way.
Wyatt Earp — he knew which one it was now, the irritable one nobody liked — stepped inside, took off his drooping slouch hat, and shook water off it onto the foot mat. He looked around the room. "I can't tell if it's wetter inside or out. I'm glad I didn't come to borrow money."
"I chopped them holes myself. I slept under the stars so long I can't get used to any other way."
When Earp bent his head to sweep water off his lapels, the light from the lamp glistened on pink scalp. He'd been vain of his hair when it was yellow, slicking it down with pomade and letting it curl over his collar, but it had quit the field, leaving behind a few pale strands on the crown for seed. "I never could figure what the hell you were talking about half the time. That's one thing hasn't changed."
A humorless man, Siringo recalled now. He'd met a few like him, and had always felt sorry for them, like someone born without arms. But an armless man could train his feet to act as hands. A man who couldn't appreciate how flat-out ridiculous the world was lived every day out of step with existence.
He had trouble feeling sorry for Earp, though. He'd been meaner than a shithouse rat when he was young, and now that he was old and his looks were gone he was no company.
"I wouldn't turn down a drink."
"I thought you didn't."
"That was before Alaska got into my bones. I keep a fire most days even in summer."
Charlie opened the icebox — doing cabinet duty until he absolutely needed to pop for ice — and hoisted out a demijohn.
"Moonshine?" Earp's handlebars drew down severely.
"It's all moonshine now."
"Just because it's illegal don't mean you have to go blind drinking it."
"I soak my biscuits in it, and I can still pick the eye off a potato at fifty yards. Fellow I arrested in Virginia retired to Barstow a few years back. He drops off a couple of jugs whenever he's in town and we shoot the breeze. It's just a hobby now, so he don't cut it with lye-ball like in the old days." He blew the gypsum dust out of a pair of mismatched tumblers and filled them a third of the way, drawing the cork with his teeth and shouldering the jug.
"You get on with folks you put in jail?"
"He didn't know I wasn't one of him till I slapped on the irons. By then we liked each other too much to turn."
Putting his hat back on — he was still vain, no surprise there — the tall man sat on the edge of Charlie's bed, the springs braying like a donkey, and sniffed at the clear liquid in the glass. "What made a runt like you turn detective, anyway?"
"Head bumps." Charlie grinned at his reaction. He leaned forward in his writing chair and touched his scalp through the fine strands covering it. "Phrenologist in Kansas. He gave my skull the once-over, found a bump of caution and a bump of intelligence, said I'd do all right as a stock raiser or a newspaper editor or a detective. Well, I'd worked with cows all I cared to and I can't spell, so there was just the one thing left."
"You have to spell to write books."
"You'd think so, but no."
"I wouldn't let a stranger grope my head for a double eagle."
"He had nice hands, like a barber's. Oh, he also said I had a stubborn bump big as a mule's."
"That part I believe."
They drank in glum silence.
Siringo wondered what the hell this was all about, but he knew from past experience his guest never answered questions, only barked orders or expressed opinions. The two adventurers had taken a dislike to each other from the first. Siringo, the affable type, had made a specialty of ingratiating himself with outlaws, worming his way into their confidence with tales of shared experiences, cowboy ballads, and the latest jokes from the burly-Q's in St. Louis and San Francisco. Earp, on the other hand, got through to them with the butt end of a Smith & Wesson. And he was half-outlaw himself, with rumors of a horse theft in his past and more recent stories of claim-jumping in the Klondike.
The former detective and the on-again, off-again lawman might have settled their differences with lead long ago, if only their immediate interests had come into conflict.
Earp looked at the shrouded typewriter. "Still scribbling, I see. I gave it a dally myself; I'd rather grade track. Fellow named Lake's been sniffing around asking to write me up. What's the pay like?"
"Oh, I'm rich as Midas. Got a bigger house on the beach with twice as many holes in the roof."
Siringo shifted the conversation away from his poverty. "How's the horse-raising business?"
"I thought it was a gentleman's game, but it's just stable work without regular wages." Earp swirled the liquid in his glass, lifted it to his lips. His Adam's apple worked twice. He shook his shoulders like a bull swarmed by gnats. "Jesus. Sure there's no lye in this?"
"You can't ever tell by the taste. Your gut can, but by that time it's too late."
Earp wasn't listening. He seldom did unless the conversation was about him. "The ranch is what I'm here about, Charlie. I got me a hoss thief."
Poetic, thought Siringo, finishing his own drink. It went down like water.
"Where you got this thief?"
"That was just a way of speaking. I don't have him. That's the problem." Earp took a deep breath and let it out. "It's Spirit Dancer."
"That the thief?"
"Hell no, it's a horse. What kind of a name is that for a person?"
"I thought maybe it was an injun or a belly dancer, like Little Egypt." He'd spent most of what he made in Tombstone on dinners and liquor to get to that, and when he did it was a disappointment, as just about everything was after weeks of anticipation. She'd left all her best maneuvers on the stage of the Birdcage Theater. "What's the thief's name?"
"If I knew that, I'd know where the horse is. Will you stop asking about the thief till I tell you what happened?"
"Sorry. Asking questions is a hard habit to get shut of."
"Spirit Dancer's the prettiest filly you ever saw, and lightning on the hoof. I've been three years raising and training her: She's by Gold Dollar out of Treys-Over-Deuces."
Siringo shrugged. "I've rode more horses than I can count. I couldn't tell you any of their names offhand. I always held it a waste of time. They don't come when you call."
"I'm not here for the conversation, Charlie. You never used to chew the rag so much."
"It comes from living alone. Go ahead on."
"Dollar and Deuces are solid winners, trust me on that. I mortgaged the ranch to buy Dancer. I had her all primed for Louisville, and then some son of a bitch stole her right out from under my stable boy's nose. Which is one nose I won't have to look at anymore."
"You fired him?"
"No, I gave him a raise and an oyster dinner at the Ambassador Hotel. Sure I fired him."
"You should of kept him on."
"What in Christ's name for? Shovel shit and keep an eye on the best horse in the string, that was the extent of his responsibilities. All he did was shovel shit, and he wasn't even good at that. He kept tracking it onto the back porch."
"Did you think to ask him who paid him to look south when the filly was going north?"
Earp's face got angriest when he realized he'd made a mistake. Siringo reckoned that admitting it would bring foam to his mouth.
"He didn't have that kind of brains. When you recruit a shit-shoveler, you don't exactly go down the dean's list. This one didn't have sense enough to smoke a cigar by the cold end."
"I spent twenty years of my life tracking train robbers and murderers, and I paid attention. It don't take brains to be a thief."
"I tracked my share."
And shot the wrong ones when you caught up with them; but there was no percentage in dragging up his guest's pitiful record as a lawman.
"Keeping the peace is one thing, finding out who broke it's another. I don't reckon you know where he went after you let him go."
"I got a wire from a ranch up in Sonoma County yesterday asking about his fitness. The son of a bitch used my name for a reference."
"What did you say?"
"I haven't answered it yet. Josie says I should cool down before I say anything I might regret. She treats me like a horse; I'm surprised she doesn't rub me down with a piece of burlap before she puts me to bed."
Siringo always thought Josephine was too smart for her husband.
"If I was you, I'd paint a pretty picture of the boy, get 'em to hire him on. Then you'll know where he is so you can pump him."
Earp chewed the ends of his handlebars. Finally he nodded.
"It sticks in my craw, but sure. Only if it's me doing the pumping, I might just kill him."
"You're too hotheaded for the job. Fists are no good in detective work. If they're tough it just makes 'em stick down deeper and if they ain't all you get is lies to make it stop. You got to oil a saddle to bring out the grain."
"Well, I'm no hand at that sort of thing. That's why I'm here instead of out beating the brush for my horse."
Siringo pulled on his pipe, found it had gone out. He placed it next to the typewriter to cool.
"I'm out to pasture," he said. "Hire a Pinkerton. I'm down on the outfit since they let me go, but I guess they can still handle horse stealing."
"You quit, the way I heard it. Seems to me I read it in that Isms thing you wrote, or as far as I got into it. A gentleman rancher such as myself hasn't a great deal to do but sit around and read, but that one lost me in the tall grass."
He knew the "gentleman rancher" lived off his wife's money, but he wasn't one to judge a man for making his way however he could. Siringo had sniffed around some well-set-up widows after Mamie died, but he'd lost considerable of the looks and charm that had gotten him so far in the past. All he'd been able to throw a loop around was Lillie. That had not ended well; certainly not in riches.
"Two Evil Isms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism," he said. "The Agency confiscated every copy. Anyhow, there wasn't much to do after I was fired but go ahead and quit."