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Boy's Life

Boy's Life

Boy s Life 16


  “That’ll do me, I believe.”

  “You got it, my friend.”

  This was how Mr. Perry Dollar, the owner of Dollar’s Barbershop on Merchants Street, began every haircut. It never mattered how a fellow requested his hair cut; he always walked out with a little bit off the top and the sides thinned out. Of course, we’re talking about a real haircut here, none of that “hair-styling” stuff. For one dollar and fifty cents, you got the treatment: wrapped to the neck under a crisp blue-striped barber towel, scissors-trimmed and clippers-raked, hot lather applied to the back of your neck and the fine hairs there scraped off with a freshly stropped straight razor, followed by a liberal dousing from one of the mystery bottles of Wildroot, Vitalis, or Brylcreem hair dressings. I say “mystery bottles” because every time I got my hair cut at Mr. Dollar’s, those bottles, on a shelf above the barber chair, were exactly half full and never seemed to go up or down an inch. When the haircutting was done—“the scalping” was much the better term for it—and Mr. Dollar unpinned the barber towel from around your neck and swept the dead hairs out of your collar with a brush that felt like whiskers from a boar’s snout, the adults got to reach into the peanut-brittle jar and the kids got their choice of lime, lemon, grape, or cherry suckers.

  “Hot day,” Mr. Dollar commented as he lifted up Dad’s hair with a comb and snipped the ends with scissors.

  “Sure is.”

  “Known it hotter, though. One hundred and three degrees this day in 1936.”

  “One hundred and four degrees this day in 1927!” said Mr. Owen Cathcoate, an aged specimen who was playing checkers with Mr. Gabriel “Jazzman” Jackson at the back of the barbershop, where the overhead fan kept the place the coolest. Mr. Cathcoate’s wrinkled face was dotted with liver spots, like a map of some strange and foreign country. He had narrow-slit eyes and long-fingered hands, and his scraggly yellowish-white hair hung down around his shoulders, which must have been torture for Mr. Dollar to have to look at. Mr. Jackson was a big-bellied black man with iron-gray hair and a small, neat mustache, and he shined and repaired shoes for people who brought them in, his workshop being at the rear of Mr. Dollar’s place. Mr. Jackson got his nickname because, as Dad told me, he could “blow butterflies and hornets out of that clarinet of his.” The clarinet, in a well-seasoned black case, was never far from Mr. Jackson’s side.

  “Be a whole lot hotter ’fore July gets here,” Mr. Jackson said as he pondered the pieces. He started to make a move and then thought better of it. “Owen, I do believe you’re tryin’ to put me between a rock and a hard place, ain’t you?”

  “I wouldn’t dream of such a thing, Mr. Jackson.”

  “Oh, you sly old fox you!” the Jazzman said when he saw the simple but deadly trap Mr. Cathcoate had laid open for him. “Gonna skin me up and serve me for dinner, huh? Well, I’d be mighty tough to chew on!” He made a move that for the moment got him out of danger.

  Mr. Dollar was short and stocky and had a face like a contented bulldog. His gray eyebrows stuck out everywhichway like wild weeds, and his hair was shaved to the sandy scalp. He could make the neatest parts of anybody I’ve ever seen. He knew all there was to know about the history of Zephyr. Because he had been the only barber in town for over twenty years, he had his finger on the roaring pulse of gossip and he could tell you everything that was going on, if you had an afternoon to sit and listen. He also had a nifty collection of tattered comic books, Field & Streams, and Sports Illustrated, and I had heard from Davy Ray that Mr. Dollar kept a box of Stag, Confidential, and Argosy magazines in the back for adults only.

  “Cory?” Mr. Dollar said as he cut my father’s hair. “You met the new boy yet?”

  “No sir?” I didn’t know there was a new boy.

  “Came in here yesterday with his dad to get a haircut. Got good hair, but that cowlick about blunted my scissors.” Snip, snip, they sang. “He just moved here last week.”

  “New family rentin’ that house on the corner of Greenhowe and Shantuck?” Dad asked.

  “Yeah, that’s them. The Curliss family. Nice people. All of ’em got good hair.”

  “What’s Mr. Curliss do?”

  “Salesman,” Mr. Dollar said. “Sells shirts for some company in Atlanta. The boy’s a couple of years younger than Cory. I set him up on the horse and he didn’t squirm a bit.”

  The horse was a carved golden palomino that had been salvaged from a doomed merry-go-round somewhere; now it was bolted to the floor next to the regular barber’s chair. Only babies got their hair cut while sitting on the horse, even though there were times when I wished I might be able to sit on that horse again and put my feet in the stirrups while my hair was being snipped. Still, the fact that the Curliss boy—at nine or ten years of age, say—wanted to sit on the horse told me he must be a pansy.

  “Mr. Curliss seems like a decent fella,” Mr. Dollar went on, following the scissors across my father’s scalp. “Quiet, though. Kinda timid for a salesman, I’d say. That’s a hard row to hoe.”

  “I’ll bet,” Dad said.

  “I got the impression Mr. Curliss has moved around quite a bit. He told me all the places he and the family have lived. I guess, bein’ a salesman, you’d have to be prepared to go where the company says go.”

  “I couldn’t do that,” Dad said. “I’ve gotta have roots.”

  Mr. Dollar nodded. He left that topic and wandered through others like a man through high grass, not seeing anything but the next step. “Yessir,” he said. “If them Beatle boys came in here, they’d sure ’nuff leave lookin’ like men ’stead of women.” His eyebrows squeezed together as he wandered on in a new direction. “Communists say they’re gonna bury us. Gotta stop ’em while we can, ’fore they get to our country. Send our boys to bust their tails in that place over there…y’know, where they grow all the bamboo.”

  “Vietnam,” Dad supplied.

  “Right. That’s the place. Kill ’em there and we won’t have to worry no more.” Mr. Dollar’s scissors were getting up to speed. A new thought was being born somewhere between Mr. Dollar’s ears. “J.T. ever figure out who went down in Saxon’s Lake, Tom?”

  I watched my father’s face. No expression registered there, but I knew this question must be stabbing him. “No, Perry. He never did.”

  “He was a federal man, is what I think,” the Jazzman ventured. “Must’ve been lookin’ for stills. I think the Blaylocks killed him.”

  “That’s what Mr. Sculley believes, too,” Dad said.

  “The Blaylocks are bad news, that’s the truth.” Mr. Dollar switched on his clipper and worked on Dad’s sideburns. “Wouldn’t be the first man they’ve killed.”

  “Why do you say that?”

  “Sim Sears used to buy whiskey from the youngest boy, Donny. Oh—” Mr. Dollar looked at me. “I’m not talkin’ out of school, am I?”

  “It’s all right,” Dad told him. “Go ahead.”

  “Well, this is from Sim’s mouth, so I guess he’s come to grips with it. Anyway, Donny Blaylock used to sell moonshine to Sim, and Sim told me Donny and him got drunk up in the woods one night—the night that meteor fell up there near Union Town—and Donny told him things.”

  “Things?” Dad prodded. “What things?”

  “Donny told Sim he’d killed a man,” Mr. Dollar said. “Didn’t tell him the why, the when, or the who. Just that he’d killed a man and he was glad of it.”

  “Does J.T. know about this?”

  “Nope. And he won’t hear it from me, either. I don’t want to get J.T. killed. You ever see Biggun Blaylock?”

  “No.”

  “Big as a moose and full of the devil. If I told J.T. what Sim had told me, he’d have to go out and find the Blaylocks. If he did find ’em, which I doubt he could, that bunch would hang him up by his heels and cut his throat open like a—” Again Mr. Dollar looked at me, sitting there, all eyes and ears, behind a Hawkman comic book. “Well, I kinda figure that’d be the last of our sheriff,” Mr. Dollar
finished.

  “The Blaylocks don’t own the county!” Dad said. “If they committed a murder, they ought to pay for it!”

  “That’s right, they should,” Mr. Dollar agreed as he returned to his clipping. “Biggun came in here last November to pick up a pair of boots he was havin’ resoled. Remember that, Jazzman?”

  “Shore do. Fine, expensive boots. I was scared to death of gettin’ a scuff on ’em.”

  “You know what Biggun said as he was payin’ for his boots?” Mr. Dollar asked my father. “He said they were his stompin’ boots, and anybody who got under ’em wouldn’t be standin’ up again. I figured that to mean he didn’t want anybody messin’ in his business. So who’s gonna be fool enough to go lookin’ to get killed by the Blaylocks?”

  “That’s what happened to that fella at the bottom of the lake,” the Jazzman said. “He was messin’ in the Blaylocks’ business.” Bidness, he pronounced it.

  “I don’t care if they brew up ’shine and sell it outta the back of their trucks,” Mr. Dollar went on. “No harm done to me. I don’t care if they fix the stock car races, because I’m not a gambler. I don’t care what they do to them fallen angels at Grace Stafford’s, because I’m a family man.”

  “Hold on,” Dad said. “What about Grace Stafford’s place?”

  “Ain’t her place. She just manages it. The Blaylocks own it, lock, stock, and hair curlers.”

  Dad grunted softly. “I didn’t know that.”

  “Oh, yeah!” Mr. Dollar applied lather to the back of Dad’s neck and worked a straight razor along the leather strop. “The Blaylocks are rakin’ it in, that’s for sure. Makin’ a killin’ off the Air Force fellas.” With a steady hand, he began shaving my father’s neck. “The Blaylocks are too much for J.T. to handle. It’d take Edgar Hoover himself to throw ’em in jail.”

  “Wyatt Earp could do it.” Mr. Cathcoate spoke up now. “If he was still alive, I mean.”

  “I reckon he could at that, Owen.” Mr. Dollar glanced at me, gauging my interest, and then back to the old man. “Hey, Owen! I don’t think young Cory here knows about you and Wyatt Earp!” Mr. Dollar winked at me conspiratorially. “Tell him the tale, why don’t you?”

  Mr. Cathcoate didn’t answer for a moment, but it was his turn and he didn’t move any of the checkers pieces. “Naw,” he replied at last. “I’ll let it rest.”

  “Come on, Owen! Tell the boy! You want to hear it, don’t you, Cory?” Before I could say yes or no, Mr. Dollar plowed on. “See there? He wants to hear it!”

  “Long time gone,” Mr. Cathcoate said quietly.

  “Eighteen hundred and eighty-one, wasn’t it? October twenty-sixth at Tombstone, Arizona? You were all of nine years old?”

  “That’s right.” Mr. Cathcoate nodded. “I was nine years old.”

  “And tell the boy what you did on that day.”

  Mr. Cathcoate sat staring at the checkers board. “Go on, Owen,” the Jazzman urged in a gentle voice. “You tell him.”

  “I…killed a man on that day,” Mr. Cathcoate said. “And I saved the life of Wyatt Earp at the O.K. Corral.”

  “There you go, Cory!” Mr. Dollar grinned. “Bet you didn’t know you were sittin’ in here with a real live gunfighter, did you?” The way Mr. Dollar said that, though, made me think he didn’t believe a word of it, and that he enjoyed goading Mr. Cathcoate about it.

  Of course I’d heard about the O.K. Corral. Every boy with even a passing interest in cowboys and the Wild West knew that story, about the day the Earp brothers—Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan—and cardsharp Doc Holliday faced down the rustling Clantons and McLowerys in the hot dust of Tombstone. “Is that for real, Mr. Cathcoate?” I asked.

  “For real. I was lucky that day. I was just a kid, didn’t know nothin’ about guns. Almost shot my foot off.”

  “Tell him how you saved ol’ Wyatt,” Mr. Dollar urged as he blotted the last of the lather off the back of Dad’s neck with a steaming towel.

  Mr. Cathcoate frowned. I figured he didn’t like remembering it, or else he was trying to put the details together again. A ninety-two-year-old man has to open a lot of locks to recall a day when he was nine years old. But I suppose that particular day was worth remembering.

  Mr. Cathcoate finally said, “Wasn’t supposed to be anybody on the street. Everybody knew the Earps, Doc Holliday, the McLowerys, and the Clantons were gonna spill blood. It had been a long time brewin’. But I was there, hidin’ behind a shack. Little fool, me.” He pushed his chair back from the checkers board, and he sat with his long-fingered hands twined together and the fan’s breeze stirring his hair. “I heard all the shoutin’, and all the guns goin’ off. I heard bullets hittin’ flesh. That’s a sound you don’t forget if you live to be a hundred and ninety-two.” His slitted eyes stared at me, but I could tell he was looking toward the past, where dust clouds rose from the bloodstained earth and shadows aimed their six-guns. “A terrible lot of shootin’,” he said. “A bullet went through the shack next to my head. I heard it whine. Then I got down low and I stayed there. Pretty soon a man came staggerin’ past me and fell to his knees. It was Billy Clanton. He was all shot up, but he had a gun in his hand. He looked at me. Right at me. And then he coughed and blood spurted out of his mouth and nose and he fell on his face right next to me.”

  “Wow!” I said, my arms chillbumped.

  “Oh, there’s more!” Mr. Dollar announced. “Tell him, Owen!”

  “A shadow fell on me,” Mr. Cathcoate said, his voice raspy. “I looked up, and I saw Wyatt Earp. His face was covered with dust, and he seemed ten feet tall. He said, ‘Run home, boy.’ I can hear him say that, clear as a bell. But I was scared and I stayed where I was, and Wyatt Earp walked on around to the other side of the shed. The fight was over. Clantons and McLowerys were lyin’ on the ground shot to pieces. Then it happened.”

  “What happened?” I asked when Mr. Cathcoate paused to breathe.

  “The fella who’d been hidin’ in an empty rain barrel raised up and took aim with his pistol at Wyatt Earp’s back. I’d never seen him before. But he was right there, as close to me as you are. He took aim, and I heard him click the trigger back.”

  “This here’s the good part,” Mr. Dollar said. “Then what, Owen?”

  “Then… I picked up Billy Clanton’s pistol. Thing was as heavy as a cannon, and it had blood all over the grip. I could hardly hold it.” Mr. Cathcoate was silent; his eyes closed. He went on: “Wasn’t time to call out. Wasn’t time to do a thing except what I did. I was just meanin’ to scare the fella by firin’ into the sky, and to get Mr. Earp’s attention. But the gun went off. Just like that: boom.” His eyes opened at the memory of the shot. “Knocked me down, ’bout busted my shoulder. I heard the bullet ricochet off a rock about six inches from my right foot. That bullet went straight through the fella’s gunhand wrist. Blew the pistol out of his hand, broke his wrist open so the edge of a bone was stickin’ out. He bled like a fountain. And as he was bleedin’ to death I was sayin’, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ ’Cause I didn’t mean to kill anybody. I just meant to keep Mr. Earp from gettin’ killed.” He sighed, long and softly; it was like the sound of wind blowing dust over the graves on Boot Hill. “I was standin’ over the body, holdin’ Billy Clanton’s gun. Doc Holliday came up to me, and he gave me a four-bit piece and he said, ‘Go buy yourself a candy stick, kid.’ That’s how I got the name.”

  “What name?” I asked.

  “The Candystick Kid,” Mr. Cathcoate answered. “Mr. Earp came to my house to have dinner. My dad was a farmer. We didn’t have much, but we fed Mr. Earp as best we could. He gave me Billy Clanton’s gun and holster as a gift for savin’ his life.” Mr. Cathcoate shook his scraggly-maned head. “I should’ve thrown that damn gun down the well, like my momma wanted me to.”

  “Why?”

  “’Cause,” he said, and here he seemed to get irritable and agitated, “I liked it too much, that’s why! I started learnin’ how to use it! S
tarted likin’ its smell, and its weight, and how it felt warm in my hand after it had just gone off, and how that bottle I was aimin’ at flew all to pieces in a heartbeat, that’s why.” He scowled as if he’d just had a taste of bitter fruit. “Started shootin’ birds out of the sky, and believin’ I was a quick-draw artist. Then it started workin’ on my mind, wonderin’ how fast I could be against some other boy with a gun. I kept practicin’, kept slappin’ that leather and pullin’ that hogleg out time and again. And when I was sixteen years old I went to Yuma in a stagecoach and I killed a gunslinger there name of Edward Bonteel, and that’s when I put a foot in hell.”

  “Ol’ Owen here got to be quite a name,” Mr. Dollar said as he brushed the clipped hairs from Dad’s shoulders. “The Candystick Kid, I mean. How many fellas did you send to meet their Maker, Owen?” Mr. Dollar looked at me and quickly winked.

  “I killed fourteen men,” Mr. Cathcoate said. There was no pride in his voice. “Fourteen men.” He stared at the red and black squares of the checkerboard. “Youngest was nineteen. Oldest was forty-two. Maybe some of ’em deserved to die. Maybe that’s not for me to say. I killed ’em, every one, in fair fights. But I was lookin’ to kill ’em. I was lookin’ to make a big name for myself, be a big man. The day I got shot by a younger, faster fella, I decided I was livin’ on borrowed time. I cleared out.”

  “You got shot?” I asked. “Where’d it hit you?”

  “Left side. But I aimed better. Shot that fella through the forehead, smack dab. My gunfightin’ days were over, though. I headed east. Wound up here. That’s my story.”

  “Still got that gun and holster, don’t you, Candystick?” Mr. Dollar inquired.

  Mr. Cathcoate didn’t reply. He sat there, motionless. I thought he’d gone to sleep, though his heavy-lidded eyes were still open. Then, abruptly, he stood up from his chair and walked on stiffened legs to where Mr. Dollar was standing. He pushed his face toward Mr. Dollar’s, and I saw his expression in the mirror; Mr. Cathcoate’s age-spotted face was grim and thin-lipped, like a skull bound up with brown leather. Mr. Cathcoate’s mouth split open in a smile, but it was not a happy smile. It was a terrible smile, and I saw Mr. Dollar shrink back from it.