The Pinks edged closer. Both men wore muddy boots and nicked-up Colts. The barbershop was quiet save their questions and the quick scrape of blades. Even my canary in his cage closed his beak and didn’t twitch his head. I took a shallow breath. Told myself I’d done nothing wrong. I wouldn’t lie.
Wouldn’t tell the truth, either.
I knew that the outlaw those Pinkerton detectives were hunting, Tommy Halvers, had strange eyes but was otherwise forgettable. Small nose and lips, unlined skin. I’d touched his smooth cheek and thought a warm newspaper has got more life to it. A runt, though a woman might call him delicate. He was already losing his wispy brown hair. In short, a man nobody looks at.
Pretty clothes to make up for the plain face. He’d strolled into the barbershop exactly a week ago, wearing a tailored broadcloth suit, silk vest patterned with pale blue swirls, and patent leather shoes with extra heel to them. An ivory-handled pistol at his left hip. When his coat shifted, I could see the gun had an eagle etched into the grip.
Not unusual to see a gentleman with style saunter in, as my shop sits in a grand hotel, the Royal Chicago, finished two years ago in fall of 1885. Four barbers, four bright red chairs, lined up under a painting of a locomotive blasting through an empty prairie. On the other side, a long, gilt-edged mirror. A few shiny brass spittoons, plenty wide, that nobody hits.
Customers are drummers, most often, selling everything a man could ever need and a lot he doesn’t, and of course there are railroad men, and gentlemen from the East, and hard men from the West—old soldiers, miners, cattlemen and gamblers. That little fellow was too quiet to be a drummer selling bottles of feelgood potion. No gentleman from Harvard, either, despite the fancy clothes. Too young to have served in the War, either side.
So, I pegged him as a western man. Maybe had found a gold mine somewhere, or, more likely, had made a good business supplying shovels or bullets.
He made his way to me, nice and easy, even giving a little whistle as he strolled past my canary. At first it was a normal shave. I wrapped a hot towel about his face to warm the skin. I lathered on cream. His body lay still as a corpse.
Stropped the cut-throat razor blade, lowered it, the man’s face all shrouded in white.
That’s when he did it.
He opened a pale blue eye, gave me a watery, unblinking stare. I raised the razor slightly, not sure whether to start. He closed the eye.
I began again. Just as suddenly, he opened his other eye. Stared awhile. That eyeball was the color of a leaf with some rot in it. His eyelid closed.
He did that half a dozen times while I shaved. First a blue stare, then green. His hands and feet didn’t move. He didn’t speak. The rest of his face stayed frozen.
I finished and splashed aftershave.
The man opened his mismatched eyes. He stood and smiled. Those small lips didn’t stretch far. His pale eyes glistened. Made me think of a hungry dog I saw once that had got a chicken trapped. I remembered how fast that dog lunged and snapped, how its tail wagged before and after.
“Never thought I’d let a gen-u-ine Cherokee come so close with a knife.” His voice was quiet. “And you’re a big one too.”
I was part Lakota Sioux. The rest was poor white settler, probably same as him, not that it mattered. He was no taller than my shoulder, even with his highboy shoes on. When you’re talking to a customer, that doesn’t make a difference, either.
“Yes, sir. Cost is fifteen cents.”
He handed me a coin: a newly minted $20 double eagle gold piece, bright and shiny. All clatter and talk in the shop suddenly sounded far away, like him and me were under water.
“Maybe next time, I’ll bring you something of a superior or more sentimental value.”
Hell, he was a dotty one. And he liked to draw out those long words. That dog had pawed at the bleeding chicken awhile, pouncing over and over again, just pawing and playing.
“Got business here for a few days.” He paused. “We’re friends, now. That right, big man?”
My name was Nathaniel Tall Cloud. I could’ve said that. The gold was heavy in my hand.
I may have said ‘yes, sir’ again.