Around dusk on a mildly sunny Friday afternoon, many of the stores, shops, and businesses began locking up for the day in the tiny town of Manasseh, Wyoming. While most of the townspeople began walking to their houses, one business had just opened, the saloon.
Right before the saloon opened, a man rode into the western end of town. He stopped and tied his white horse onto the hitching post just outside the saloon. He walked up the steps and through the building’s freshly painted navy blue batwing doors.
The old bartender looked at the man and thought about telling him that the saloon wasn’t open, but he decided against it. The man sat down at the bar, and the bartender felt a falling sensation in his gut. I hate it when soldiers come, thought the bartender.
The man took off his U.S. Cavalry Stetson and placed it on the bar. “Give me a bottle of your strongest, please,” the man said. He pulled his gloves off with his teeth, and then buried his face in his hands until the bartender put the bottle on the counter.
“Thank you,” he told the bartender.
“Sure, you uh, you want a glass?” the bartender asked.
The soldier shook his head and took a few gulps from the bottle. He put down the whiskey and began tracing patterns on the counter’s wood with his finger.
“You cavalry?” the bartender asked. The soldier looked at the bartender with deep, green, bloodshot eyes and nodded. “Any more of you around?”
“No,” the cavalryman said, and he laid his forehead down on the countertop.
The bartender began to feel a touch of compassion for the cavalryman. “You alright, son?”
“Well, is there anything I can do to help?” the bartender asked.
The cavalryman sat up and took a few more gulps. “Do you know a place where I can sleep?”
“Sure do, you can stay at the hotel next door. My wife and I just opened it and this saloon. This is all brand new,” the bartender told the cavalryman proudly. The cavalryman looked around the saloon, which had unpainted lumber walls adorned only with oil lamps, an untreated wooden floor, and a few tables. The wood in the place was so yellow and new, it almost made the cavalryman squint.
“I’m Josiah, by the way. Josiah Martin,” the bartender said, holding out his hand to the cavalryman. The soldier took Josiah’s hand and shook it firmly. “I’m Abe,” he told Josiah.
“Abe? You mean like Abraham?”
The soldier shook his head. “Absalom.”
Josiah smirked. “That ain’t a name you hear often.”
Absalom gave Josiah a quick, wry little smile and then looked down at the bar again. “My parents were odd folks,” he said. Josiah smiled politely and decided to leave Absalom to his brooding.
While Absalom sat and drank, horses galloped up the town’s main road. Four men tied their horses outside and walked into the saloon, talking amongst themselves.
“Two bottles of whiskey, Josiah, and glasses,” one of the men demanded. Josiah put the bottles and glasses on the bar, and his waitress served the men, trying to give the men wide birth while giving them their drinks. After she finished, she walked back to the bar, narrowly escaping a grope from one of the men.
One of the cowboys took out a deck of cards and began dealing them around the table, while his buddies sipped on their whiskey. Once they started playing, they chatted, complaining about their work on a ranch and about a man named Bishop. Once they finished one of the whiskey bottles their conversation shifted to their activities the previous weekend.
Absalom sat up from the bar and inclined his ear towards the cowboys’ conversation. After a few moments of listening, he sat straight in his chair and pensively rubbed his black beard. “Josiah,” he called, “can you give me a couple of glasses?”
“Sure,” he said. He gave Absalom two small glasses. Absalom poured two shots of whiskey and gave one glass to the bartender. Josiah raised the glass to Absalom appreciatively, and the two men drank. Absalom poured another shot for Josiah, and another, but neglected to pour shots for himself. “What’re those cowboys over there talkin’ about?” he asked Josiah after the old man had consumed a few shots.
Josiah just shrugged. “Can’t say. Haven’t really been listening.”
Absalom frowned, and poured another shot for himself and another shot for Josiah. Josiah drank his in one gulp while Absalom sipped his shot. “I overheard them saying something about a Mormon family that lived on top of the hill just north of town,” Absalom informed while he poured another drink for Josiah.
“Oh, yeah, that, I don’t know when they’ll stop talking about them.”
“Yep,” Josiah said with a nod. “There used to be a Mormon family on top of that hill.” Josiah said, taking his drink. Now the old man looked down at the bar, his cloudy blue eyes full of regret, or shame.
“Yeah, I saw that place on my way here,” Absalom recalled, and he drained the rest of the whiskey from his glass. “Looked like somebody torched that whole farm to the ground. That where they lived?”
Josiah frowned and nodded.
“They all dead?” Absalom asked, and he looked Josiah in the eye. Absalom’s intense stare unnerved Josiah, and the old man looked at his shoes. “Yes” was all Josiah could say.
“Huh, those poor, sorry shits,” Abe grunted. He dropped some coins on the bar and stood. “Thanks for the whiskey and the conversation,” he said. He grabbed his hat, his gloves, and his bottle and walked to the hotel next door.
He walked into the hotel to see an elderly woman reading a novel by lamplight. When Absalom walked toward her across the shiny hardwood floor, she smiled politely and stood slowly. “Hello, would you like a room?” she asked.
“Yeah, I got a horse outside. You got a stable?”
“We do. Daniel! Daniel I need you!” the old woman yelled. A few seconds passed before a boy around the age of twelve came downstairs into the small hotel lobby. “Daniel, this gentleman has a horse out front that needs stablin’,” she said. “You go take it out back and fetch his things to his room when you’re done.”
The boy looked up at Absalom. To the boy, the man looked as tall as the ceiling. “It’s the white one, with the U.S. brand.”
“You a soldier?” the boy asked
Absalom nodded at the boy with a tight frown.
“You killed many Indians?” the boy asked. The old woman smacked him on the back of the head, and the boy grimaced while he walked toward the door.”
“I’m sorry, I’m afraid my grandson don’t have no manners.” She said. “Now, how many nights you gonna be staying?”
“I’m not sure yet,” Absalom admitted as he took a coin purse from his pocket.
“Well, you gotta pay up front. I’ve had too many folks leave without payin’.”
“I understand. I’ll just pay for tonight, and I’ll pay you again tomorrow.” He said. “You got a barber and a bath house in this town?”
“Owner of the general store’s name’s Walter. He’s our barber, and the second floor of his store serves as the bath house.”
Absalom nodded. He put the payment for his room on the countertop, and she slid him a key. “You’ll be stayin’ in room two-oh-one. It’s the first room upstairs,” she informed him. He smiled his appreciation and walked slowly up the narrow staircase, watching his feet as he ascended. He walked into his room and slammed the door shut behind him.
A few minutes later, Daniel walked back inside, carrying a large blanket, saddle, and saddlebags. He went up the stairs to Absalom’s room and knocked on the door.
The door opened, and Daniel looked up at the big soldier with long black hair. The soldier’s eyes were red and full of tears. The soldier snatched his things from the boy, turned, and kicked the door shut behind him.
Saturday morning, right around noon, Absalom trudged down the stairs to the front desk. He paid the old lady for another night, and then he went to the diner for lunch. After he ate his meal of cornbread and chili, he left the diner and walked towards the general store.
The townspeople went about their work diligently, but occasionally, some would steal a few glances at Manasseh’s newcomer. Whenever Absalom looked at the wandering eyes of the locals, they looked away, without acknowledging his presence.
When Absalom walked into the general store, the owner mumbled a greeting without looking up from his magazine. Absalom stood in the center of the store, looking around at the store’s various odds and ends, until the man’s eyes left his catalog. “Oh, well, you’re new. Can I help you with something?”
Absalom smiled thinly and walked up to the counter. “You the barber?” Absalom asked.
“I am. You need a shave?” the man inquired.
“Yes, I do, among other things, but let’s start with a shave.”
“Alright, then, step this way,” the man told him. He beckoned Absalom to sit in the barber’s chair at the back corner of the store. Absalom sat while the man drew water from a pump outside the store. While he sat, he saw a set of nice men’s clothes hanging on a rack. When the man came back, he mixed some shaving cream for Absalom. “How close do you want it?” the man asked.
“I want my beard gone,” Absalom said.
“Wow, that’ll be quite the change. You got a handsome beard. You sure you wanna get rid of it?” asked the man.
“Yes.” Absalom said in a whisper. “My momma always preferred me without a beard.”
“Yeah? She uh, she here in town?”
“Nah, she’s dead,” Absalom admitted.
“Oh, well, I’m sorry to hear that,” the barber said awkwardly. Absalom said nothing, so the barber began to give Absalom his shave.
When he got close to being done, the man Absalom if he wanted a haircut, which Absalom turned down. “I like it long,” he told the barber, “but I am gonna need a bath, some new clothes, and my uniform washed.”
The barber wiped off Absalom’s face, and he saw why he had kept a long beard. Absalom had a large diagonal scar that ran from under his left nostril, across his mouth, and down to his jaw. “You see much action in the cavalry?” the barber asked.
“A little. When does the service start?” Absalom asked, eager to change the topic.
“The service,” Absalom repeated. “I saw that big white church at the end of the town. It’s real prominent. You do have services there, right?”
“Oh, yeah, we do. Service starts at 10. You’ll hear the church bell around that time; it’s big and loud.”
“The congregation big?”
“Well, yeah, usually everyone in town and a few folks from outside attend.”
“Well, you must have quite the preacher there,” Absalom reckoned.
The barber shrugged. “I guess so.”
Absalom chose a set of clothes before going upstairs for his bath. After he had finished, he put on his new clothes, picked out some pipe tobacco, and paid the storeowner for his goods and services.
After Absalom ate his dinner, he walked back to the hotel and saloon. He paid the old lady at the hotel for two more nights, and then he walked across the road to a building that had a shingle with the words “U.S. Marshal’s Office” hanging above a locked door. Absalom looked inside and saw nothing and no one. He leaned against the hitching post outside the Marshal’s office and packed some tobacco in his pipe.
While he smoked, he watched the town: the way it looked and the way it acted. Most of the buildings’ wood looked new, and many of the buildings sat unpainted. At the opposite end of where he stood sat a small group of houses, and at the end of the neighborhood sat the town church. All the houses and the church had white paint. The church itself had stained glass windows and a tall steeple topped with black cross.
As the sun set, Absalom saw many men of the town begin entering the saloon, along with the same four men he had seen in there the night before. Absalom observed the saloon for a long time, watching the patrons leave long before the four men decided to go. Absalom watched as the men, drunk, decided to end their night. They walked outside, haphazardly mounted their horses, and trotted off out of town, seemingly guided only by their horses’ memories.
When the town stopped moving, Absalom walked back inside the hotel, tipped his hat to the old lady, and went up to his room.
When the church bells began ringing, Absalom walked down the road to the church, passing a few other church goers as he made his way up the small, dirty street. He sat in the back and waited for the service to start, but when it started, few people had made their way to church that morning. The people sang their hymns to the Lord with apathy, and when the preacher got up to speak, most of the congregation looked down at the floor, except for Absalom and another man who sat in the pew opposite of Absalom.
The pastor spoke to his congregation about God’s judgment on Apostasy and rebuked those who had not attended the morning’s service. Absalom gradually lost interest, until the preacher said something that regained his attention: “Now, what happened to those Mormons- What Mr. Bishop and I did- that was us carrying out God’s judgment. Those Mormon folks were apostates. All Mormons know the truth, they know the Scriptures, but they have rejected it!” the preacher yelled, startling a few members of the congregation.
The short, pudgy man sitting across from Absalom nodded his head furiously and delivered an encouraging “Amen!” to the pastor. A young woman sat next to him, looking down at the floor, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. The pastor nodded at the man and continued. “They’re no better than blasphemous, idolatrous heathens! Mr. Bishop and I showed them the Lord’s judgment,” the pastor said as he pointed at the spirited man who sat across the aisle from Absalom.
To be concluded.
Published by John Du