Happy August, everyone! To celebrate my upcoming novella’s release, I’d love to share a taste of it here with you. I’ve selected a moment inspired by the journal of one of La Crosse’s founders, Nathan Myrick. Here’s the original excerpt:
“In October of that year  quite a colony of Mormons came up from Nauvoo [Illinois] and landed at La Crosse…. They built twenty-five or thirty log houses and made themselves quite comfortable….The pay was drawn by the elders in provisions to support the families of the settlement. Just as the river opened in the spring , the men all came down from Black River, and the men stopped cutting…. News got out they were all going to leave. I went down to the settlement to see the elders and adjust matters…. That night they set fire to most of their houses and embarked in their flat-boats, and left by the light of their burning houses for Nauvoo.”Naythan Myrick, A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin 1841-1900
This moment of Mormons fleeing in the midst of fire and smoke got my wheels turning, and I decided to put that moment to use in this moment of altered history. Enjoy!
No one’s going to say the Bent Nail don’t live up to the title.
After all the straight streets and prim houses, Sumac finds the uneven floorboards and slap on the walls a welcome sight. Hazy smoke from the potbelly stove near the bar table on one side of the room mingles with the smells of cheap brews, raw meat, and human sweat. It’s enough to make even the biggest hunters like Sumac dizzy. He braces himself in the doorway for a moment to let his senses adjust.
Half a dozen human men—railyard foremen, like as not—huddle together at one end of the bar, waggling their mustaches over the rims of their glasses, showering the bar with whiskey. The bar dog gawks at Sumac from amongst the wood-carved mermaids and glass bottles, his hand in some mechanized motion of wiping the bar table with a stained apron. Cold from outside snaps like so many ghost-jaws at the lantern flames at the far back marking the stairs to the second floor. A few strumpets lounge on those stairs for easy selling. Who wants to sleep in a cold bed?
The wall opposite the bar’s got a crooked stone fireplace surrounded by crooked benches like as not built from ties the railroad deemed unworthy of its locomotives. Two worthless barrel boarders, one young and one old, lay on those benches with their hats over their eyes, sleeping.
Sumac sniffs the room with superior disgust. Yes indeed, a slum like this is where all humanity belonged.
Not those golden boys, though. They sit at a table in the middle of the saloon with their cards and cigars like they own the place. Sheriff Jensen was right: they’re all too pretty to be trusted, what with their clean leather coats and matching haircuts. Any real hunter’s going to have a scar or three, a coat stained by seasons and life, boots caked with dirt and blood. This pack’s all preened for some sort of show.
The golden boys give Sumac the once-over with their violet eyes. Something shimmers on one—the gold earring of the pack leader. He bares his teeth and says, “What are you looking at?”
Territorial, that one.
Sumac shrugs and saunters over to the bar table. “Beer.” He listens as the golden boys return to their game, yip and snap over their cards.
The bar dog sets the glass down. “Visiting kin?” The words croak like they don’t want to come out. It’s a man’s face in front of Sumac, but inside’s a boy never quite grown up.
Damn violet eyes. Sumac can’t help it if most of his sort has’em. “Nope,” he says, and takes a long, slow drink.
Crescents of sweat emerge beneath the bar dog’s armpits. “Must’ve been traveling, then, your pa.”
Sumac peers over the rim of his glass.
“Twenty-five years, or thereabouts?” The bar dog scratches the side of his neck. A scar’s there, jagged and angry: a bullet’s scar. “You’re the spittin’ image of’im.”
Sumac sets his glass down. He takes out a few Confederate buttons and the old apple peeler one of Mick’s bastards tried wielding for a weapon. “Sure,” he says, and looks at the human. Hard.
A faint smell of urine stings the air between them. It leaves the moment that fool bar dog moseys down to the foremen at the other end of the bar. One asks if he’s okay.
“Just caught myself rememberin’ somethin’ nasty, is all,” says the bar dog. “The Prophets’ Massacre.”
By the sounds of the card game the golden boys have paused a hand to hear the tale.
Sumac? He don’t look up. He just goes right on whittling the shanks of the Confederate buttons, biding his time while the bar dog speaks…
“The Mormons were here then, just a short while, back in ’44, but you don’t hear tell of the other ones who came along. Called themselves Stags of the Prophet, led by some holy man who promised all these crazy things, showed off this magic trick of turnin’ himself into a deer.”
An old strumpet laughs. “My pappy didn’t get scooped in to that. He saw the stag they used all chained up in a tent.”
“Chained up nuthin’!” The old barrel boarder coughs himself upright, words slurring. Drunk or tired or both, he spits into the fire and goes on, “I saw those crazy fools. Devil men, they were, pullin’ gold out of trees and wine from the flowers. And that holy man did change. I was there.”
The strumpets all cackle, the foremen banging their glasses for more.
But the golden boys? Silent. The young barrel boarder? Snoring.
Sumac? He’s checking his handiwork on that shank. Good and sharp. A handful of tacks can be mighty useful in a chase, especially when the runner’s got paws.
The bar dog’s wiping the table again like the memory’s spilling all over, staining it. “Mormons don’t much care for the Stags’ magic show, especially when the women folk get all interested.” He pauses, shudders. “Thought all of Prairie La Crosse’d burn that day. The whole land went wild in their fight, guns and fire beneath the full moon, people screamin’ like animals, animals screamin’ like people, cougars and wolves and bears all just, just crazed for hell’s blood…” He stops wiping the table.
Sumac knows the human’s fixed on him now.
“Then out of the burning tents I see your pa, walkin’ like there ain’t no fire or hell-screamin’, goin’ straight for the Stags’ holy man—holy deer, whatever he really was, but in that moment he was a buck, thirty points easy, and sure he weren’t a stupid buck, Gabby, because he charged right for that fella’s pa. And that man grabbed the buck like he weren’t nuthin’, and dragged him by the antlers into the smoke and embers at the edge of town. I heard gruntin’ and cryin’ for a time…and then it went quiet. The Stags fled, and the Mormons, they hopped their scows and took off down the river while we put out their damn fires.”
Well. Sumac never knew he could leave such a memorable impression on a young human like that.
Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!