Regulator: Chapter 1
The remarkable fiction debut of our own Frank Spring
One of my proudest achievements with The Experiment was to serialize my friend Robin Whetstone’s Moscow memoir, Red Ticket. Now comes our first foray into fiction with a cowboy story called Regulator by Frank Spring. Frank has remarkable command of a charismatic voice, and this is a helluva story. You’re going to love this novel, I promise, or your money back.
by Frank Spring
The woman’s name was Dusanka, though as far as she could tell there was only one other person alive who knew that. Men tended not to care what a whore’s name was, and Dusanka never stayed in one place long enough to make the kind of friends who deserved to know what her parents had called her.
She wasn’t born in the place where she would die, and so was already different from her neighbors and her family, who would stay in their village to the northeast of Ljubljana until age or a grim winter or rakia finally caught up with them. The few of her relatives who met their end abroad were men who died in mine collapses in unfamiliar mountains or of disease or blade or bullet in the service of an emperor who would himself rather have died than learn a word of their language.
Dusanka had a few warm memories of that place, but when her parents had told her at seventeen that she was going away to America, she did not protest. They broke the news to her plainly, almost formally, at the family table during a grey freeze of such extravagant length that Dusanka despaired of ever seeing the sun again. She was going to America to be married, her parents had told her, and she had nodded simply, and now the words to her favorite childhood songs and the taste of her mother’s dumplings had faded almost entirely from her memory.
Luck is relative to expectations, and Dusanka considered herself lucky when she arrived in Oklahoma. She had known immediately what her parents had done when they told her of her engagement, even if they would not admit it as such: they had sold her to an agency, who would then sell her to an American to be his wife. It had been done once before in her village, and similar stories made their way over the mountains. Times were hard, and getting harder, and daughters were expensive.
A hard-faced man and a somehow harder-faced woman had come in a cart to collect Dusanka and another village girl, Irena, who wept in a way that aroused the hard-faced woman’s contempt, and Dusanka’s too. Whatever was coming was at least even-odds to be as good or better than what they could expect if they stayed, so what was there to cry about? That leaving home to marry a stranger was not their choice? Show her one person in that cold, gray valley who had any real choice in their lives.
It was when the hard-faced couple had gathered the last girl from outside of Zagreb that the woman called the brides altogether, eleven in all, and told them what was what.
They were very lucky, she informed them, to be in the care of this particular agency. The girls were going to get to see America, and not just America, but the West! Buffaloes and cowboys -
“And Indians?” Piped up one young lady.
“Maybe,” said their new matron. “But friendly now. All friendly now.”
And, she went on, theirs was a respectable agency. They sold only to men of good character, and absolutely insisted that those men submit a signed statement of intent to marry and a license for same along with their payment. This agency, the matron said, provided wives, and wives only.
“There will be,” she said sternly, “absolutely none of the other. Absolutely none of that for any of you,” she vowed, patting a confused Hungarian girl on the shoulder. The hard-faced man translated into Hungarian, which relieved the young lady’s consternation not at all.
The matron produced a catalogue, and showed them the advertisement that had sold them, which featured a drawing of a comely lady smiling demurely next to blocks of big, bold text.
“What does all that say?” asked Irena.
“Oh, just that you all can cook and clean,” said the matron.
“Do you already know who we’re going to marry?” asked Dusanka, banishing the image of a sheep auction from her mind.
“Not yet,” said the matron. “They’ll decide where you’re going in the central office in New York.
“If you run, your families will be held responsible,” the matron went on, breezily. “You will learn English on the voyage over.”
This last was only partly true. They were handed over to new minders in Trieste, a pleasant lady who might have been anywhere between thirty and fifty and a silent, slightly built man who kept them segregated from the other passengers and of whom they were vaguely terrified. The affable lady would gather them occasionally to make them repeat a few words of English but spent most of her time between sea sickness and brandy.
So Dusanka knew just a few words of English when they arrived, anxious and practically crawling the bulkheads with boredom, at a terminal in New York City, where they were herded past a sea of migrant humanity and out through a door guarded by a bored-looking man in a uniform, to whom their minders slipped a wad of bills with a polite nod.
She was headed to Oklahoma, apparently, for all the good that knowledge did her, and after a couple of nights in the agency’s dormitory she and a handful of new companions were shepherded onto a train.
And so Dusanka came to stand, stiff and blinking on the platform at Tulsa, and gently closed her eyes against the endless sky and the bright sunshine as a warm breeze played over her face. Could be worse.
She had not allowed herself much in the way of hopes - no surer path to disappointment -and thus was not dismayed to be handed over to a man in his fifties, small and wiry, his face pockmarked. He handled her gently, nodding and smiling in greeting, and showed her to the wagon in which he would drive them directly to the Justice of the Peace who would make them officially Mr. and Mrs. T. L. Whitaker as far as the relevant authorities of the Indian Territory were concerned.
She spent much of the wagon ride south eyeing her new husband, the passing landscape requiring no great investment of time, and she being anxious to learn what sort of man it was who now had power over her.
She got the impression he was waiting for her to do something, but she couldn’t figure out what. Talk to him? He did not seem a stupid man and clearly knew within hours that she spoke almost no English; if this bothered him, he didn’t let on.
It was when they arrived at his homestead, a modest house on acres of rolling land, that his expectations became clear. Whitaker unloaded their bags, showed her around - to the well, to the chicken coop, to the woodpile, to the garden, to the kitchen. Then he raised his hands, palms up, and gave a wholly unexpected, tiny shrug. I ordered a wife. So, go on: wife.
This did not best please Dusanka.
But the homestead was warm, and this man Whitaker, whatever else might be said of him, was clearly a capable farmer, and did not seem inclined to treat her harshly. She wifed, as she understood it.
Her start was not auspicious. Confounded by the absence of cabbage, intestines suitable for sausage, or essentially anything else a reasonable person might cook with, she botched her first succession of meals spectacularly, serving bread the consistency of leather and a bowl of beans of which the less said, the better. They ate silently, and she wondered whose cooking hers had replaced.
The night came when they lay in bed together and he gently laid a hand on her hip. She had not chosen this for herself; it could not and never would be right with her.
But what choice did she have? And also: could be worse.
They carried on. She spoke English, she worked her hands raw, she made beans and cornbread, planted cabbage in the garden. He learned a few words of Slovene, which he initially trotted out sheepishly and then with obvious delight. One day he came back from town with small tins of spices he must have ordered weeks before, and sausage-intestines from the butcher. It was an invitation for her to do more work but this work smelled and tasted like home and he smiled almost bashfully when she kissed him in gratitude.
Could be worse. And then, inevitably, it was.
There are few better ways to understand ‘exposure’ than to be caught in an ice storm on the American plains. It was March, and the worst of the winter should have been behind them. They still had food laid up, their woodpile large enough to face winter all over again, the animals secured in their straw-lined stalls, the slats in the barn letting in only a trace of the cold. Whitaker was nothing if not a conscientious man.
It was the wind that warned them. There was no snow on the ground and hadn’t been for a month; the days were chilly but clear, the land starting to wake up and stretch. And then the wind came, howling and rising, ever colder. Whitaker brought in as much firewood as the house would hold, hunted for seams in the walls he could patch, seams he might have missed the previous handful of times he’d gone over the place. Dusanka filled everything that would hold water, keeping some near the stove against a freeze. Anything to keep them from having to go outside in what was coming.
The snow came in, piling up as fast as Dusanka had seen. It passed, as all things do, but the wind did not. It shrieked and tore at their cabin, threatening to rend their walls and leave them to the mercy of the plains.
But the house held. It was the barn that gave. The wind was carrying ice now, great sheets of water that froze almost immediately against the ground and their walls and doors and windows, and as Dusanka and Whitaker sat together in appalled silence there was a maniacal shriek, a crack from the barn, the sound of frightened animals.
Dusanka told Whitaker not to go, there was nothing to be done, it was getting dark, but he said the animals would die in this goddamned ice if he didn’t get them into some kind of shelter. He forbid her to follow. “Do not leave this house,” he said. “I’ll be back. Do not leave this house.”
After a time she disobeyed, but only briefly, stepping out of the front door to call into the darkness for him. She was wearing every garment she could fit on herself but the wind and wet still slipped in, strangling her, and the darkness was a wall no lantern could pierce. She retreated back to her place by the stove, there to keep her vigil.
The next morning dawned a bright and mocking calm. She bundled up again and found the door had frozen shut, the whole front of the house coated in a thick layer of ice. She hammered away and broke it loose, emerging into the morning somehow both sweaty and cold.
Whitaker was slumped at the foot of the steps. Whether he had mounted them and slipped on the ice, or simply collapsed there in the grip of the freeze, no one would know.
The homestead had some value, but as it was undeniably the kind of place where even a diligent farmer like Whitaker could die on his own front steps, buyers were not exactly lining up to pay the asking price. And Whitaker had relatives, some of whom had lawyers, and in the end and all Dusanka Whitaker left that place with more than nothing and less than she needed.
She drifted down to Texas but decided it wasn’t for her after an unpleasant encounter in a German community that apparently had a long memory for ancient enmities, and decided to make for a place where there were people like her, which she understood to be somewhere north and east.
There were three things she could do for money: cook, clean, and whore, and she resolved to spend as much of her life doing the first as possible. She was good at it; she enjoyed it. And, when she could get the right materials, other people enjoyed it, too; one batch of her kranjska klobasa won her an offer to be the cook at a rooming house in Texarkana, which she was for a time before the place went under (not, the bereft owner was at pains to assure her, because of her cooking).
And so Dusanka wandered in the general direction of her goal, north and east, plying her three trades as circumstances demanded.
Which is how she ended up in a grim establishment on the banks of the Ohio River, one that looked for all the world to see like a once-respectable inn, which, having been dealt a cruel blow or two by fate, had decided to break bad.
The place did not have a name, and in truth it did not deserve one. When Jack had owned it, it was just called Jack’s. Jack was dead, of course, and so it had become Bill’s, and then Devil’s, then for a time LaDonna’s, but it was none of theirs by the spring of 1893.
Such places, their lights dimmed by the fug of tobacco smoked when the nation was still young, are appropriately dim venues in which to transact business with men whose identity is best afforded a touch of mystery. Its offerings were the usual: drink of dubious provenance, whores of pretty much the same, and gambling, naturally.
It was an adequate place for Dusanka, and it was an ideal place for two men who were looking to finance - or more specifically to have someone else finance - their journey away from a business venture that had failed to live up to expectations and culminated in a truly shocking burst of violence outside of St. Louis a little better than a week before.
Collum Geary and Tim Masterson were friends, after a fashion, or at any rate Tim was friends with Collum. They were intermittently successful business associates, and this was one of the intermissions. Geary acted as the senior partner, an authority granted by a certain natural style, the virtue of patience, and the fact that he could read. Masterson might have had hidden depths, but aside from a surprisingly melodious singing voice his primary skills were based mainly on being big, mean, and ugly, in all of which strengths he had invested to an admirable degree.
They had headed east from the unpleasantness in St. Louis because there were warrants for their arrest in the west and because Tim had people near Toronto, which seemed a good enough reason to go anywhere for men who urgently needed to be anywhere but where they were. The plan had been a series of one-night appearances at poker tables off the beaten track to pay for their travel and perhaps restore some of the modest fortune that had dissipated in a cloud of gunsmoke and blood.
They were both decent pokers players, and two hands being better than one, played together, fleecing tables with a practiced coordination that occasionally led to hurt feelings from the fleeced, to whom Tim would liberally add injury to insult in the event that anyone felt like negotiating.
That did not seem like it would be necessary at formerly-Jack’s-formerly-Bill’s-&c., where the small but steady stream of gamblers took their losses (mostly) in stride and where there seemed to be no sign of any kind of law at all.
“We solve our own problems,” the barman had scoffed when Collum had inquired, just in passing, about whether the local sheriff perhaps ever stopped by.
“Good to see some folk still believe in self-reliance,” Collum said, draining his glass and dropping a coin which he judged adequate to show his considerable appreciation. “For yourself.”
Tim, meanwhile, was upstairs, lying next to a dark-eyed woman with an accent from east of anywhere Tim had ever heard of.
“Euphala,” Dusanka told him when he asked her name after their first session, and he shrugged, not caring enough to believe her or not.
Euphala was usually enough for the small number of men who asked; for the even smaller number who truly wanted, for reasons ranging from the mundane to the frightening, to know her name, she typically trotted out Anna with a show of reluctance, and that did the trick.
“You remind me of someone,” Tim told her after their third session.
I usually do, she wanted to say, but she knew what could happen when a man felt mocked by a woman. And anyway there was usually money in it for her when some sentimental hooplehead decided the two of them had a special connection.
Tim was not normally a man to form strong attachments, but Collum knew the signs.
“Would you have us stay bit, now?” he asked Tim one evening as they trudged toward their respective beds.
Tim looked into Euphala’s room and saw her waiting for him, as arranged, posed and inviting. “I guess I would,” he said, turning to meet Collum’s eye. “If that’d be alright with you.”
In fact, Collum was just as minded as Tim to stay. He’d gotten acquainted with a local dry-goods merchant who was having a transportation problem that Collum might be able to solve. The merchant had some cargo he wanted moved by riverboat, but the cargo was unfortunately on a boat that, in the most technical sense, did not belong to him. Neither did the cargo, of course, but men of action are not put off by technicalities.
Collum Geary always negotiated their jobs and he and Tim always split the take fifty-fifty, meaning Tim got half of what Collum told him they’d made and Collum pocketed the rest for himself. The boat business was a few days away and Collum was still musing on how he’d handle Tim’s end of this one. Far better for the big man to think that Collum was doing him a favor by letting them stay.
“Alright,” said Collum, with great seriousness, and jutted his chin toward Tim’s room. “But you’ll be ready at a minute’s notice to weigh anchor and set sail for our next port of call, hey? And not bearing any excess cargo, either?”
Tim looked over his shoulder at Euphala, then back to Collum, and shrugged. “There’s whores in Louisville.”
So they stayed and drank and ate and whored and paid for it all with what they stripped from anyone unfortunate enough to play poker with them. What more could anyone ask?
Subscribe to The Experiment to keep up with future chapters of Regulator. Check out Frank Spring’s previous contributions to The Experiment which include “Neither Gone Nor Forgotten,” “Oh, DaveBro,” and “In Praise of Gold Leaf.” For legal reasons, I want to make clear that Frank Spring owns the rights to Regulator, free and clear. Follow him on Twitter at @frankspring.
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