Author’s note: The following is not intended to be historically accurate, but more evocative of the scene.
The journey started out just fine across the forests and plains, but as the days and miles passed, the roads grew harsher, and the land began to fight back. Memories of the marsh flats from weeks previous pained him, as did those of the bayou that had threatened to become his tomb. He pressed on as wooded foothills became arid mesas, which fell away to the badlands and scrublands, before these too disappeared to the now omnipresent wastelands.
He was weak now and saw no salvation in sight. Neither man nor horse had drunk water in a day, or eaten in nearly three. Unless the town came up soon, they surely wouldn’t see another dawn. It was a harsh desert out here, to be sure—with no sign yet of the wonders he’d been promised.
He pulled out the battered flyer taken from the local store window: “A new life awaits you out West,” it read in bold type. It was to be a new life indeed, a fresh start: abundant, untouched land that could be bought cheaply by the quart-acre. Land suited for sowing crops, grazing cattle, mining, or even building new towns and railroads. All was out there, each plot sold as a grid reference relating to the nearest town square, and title on a small sheet of stiff paper. A government stamp in the lower left corner certified the bearer’s right to that area. Each sheet, or card as they were commonly known, sold for between a few cents and a few dollars, the price depending on the expected use and yield of the associated plot.
He carried close to him at all times a satchel with the hundred-odd cards he’d bought in advance, always wary around strangers who might try and steal what was rightfully his. They weren’t for anything special—enough for a small homestead, with enough cash left over to supplement it with the tools he needed to make something for himself when he got there. But that satchel may well have been a bag of rocks at this point; all it was doing was weighing it down. They should have arrived weeks ago, but the road was never easy, and the directions never clear. He’d bought a week’s worth of supplies at the last checkpoint village, fearing the “four days, not an hour more” estimate from the shopkeep to be a touch ambitious. Now it had been almost two weeks, and still New Haven was nowhere on the horizon.
The horse stumbled on a rock, whinnied, and stopped abruptly. Feeling its need, he dismounted and took the reins round the side to lead it. “Come on,” he urged, the mare resisting at first, “just a little further, just over that ridge. It’ll be there.” He gestured to the outcrop a few hundred yards ahead of them, convincing himself their destination, their savior, would be just beyond it. By now, it had to be.
The horse started walking again, and they dragged each other up the slope until they were on the ridge. He squinted into the low morning sun, trying to make out what it was in the distance on the other side. It wasn’t New Haven; that much was certain. But it was a town. They were going to make it out of here alive.
* * *
“Whit you doin’ out roun’ these parts anyway, boy?”
The saloon barkeep had dragged him from where he’d collapsed outside at the rail on arrival, and now he was conscious again, was giving him glass after glass of water. It was neither perfectly clean, nor cold in the slightest, yet was the best he’d ever tasted.
“I…was on my way… to…”
“New Haven, I sees that from yer cards,” the barkeep interrupted, tossing him his satchel from where it had been behind the bar, “don’ worry, theys all there. I ain’t no thief.” He was an old man, in his 50’s certainly, thin and with a face red from drink, and a nose broken many times over. Yet his words sounded true. “Yous a way off course fer there, boy. You dun taked a wrong turn back som’eres. New Haven’s a three-day trot North, easy. P’haps a week if yer horse don’t perk up.”
“Thank you, for taking me in,” he managed to croak weakly.
“Now yous talkin’ an’ alive, I needa know: you ain’t one a them traders, are ya boy? Cuz if you is, then you ain’t gettin’ no more help from me. No sir.” The barkeep looked a lot less friendly now, as he walked over and looked down on him where he sat, eyes piercing his soul.
“I… I… I don’t know what you mean? I’m just a regular guy on my way to build me a farm, a lil place to call home out West. Maybe find me a wife and settle down, in time.”
“Heh heh,” came a chuckle, “If you think yer gonna find you a woman out West, you really are crazy.” A long pause fell between them, before the barkeep leaned in closer as he pulled a stool round to sit opposite at the table. “An’ if you really don’ know what them traders are all about, I needa tell you, boy. Afore you lose that whole measly stack a’ cards.”
“What do you mean? I thought New Haven was supposed to be…”
“A new life out West,” the barkeep interrupted again, putting on a voice to say the line like from the flyers. “It could be, if yous smart. But many ain’t smart enough not ta git fooled an’ swindled by the traders.” He leaned over and spat on the sawdust floor. “Jus’ sayin’ it leave me a bad taste. Anyways, I was just gonna say,” and he hunkered down at the table, leaning forward on his elbows as he started to tell his story…
“I traded my way from jus’ a few cards to a goldmine—an’ you can too!” He starts tellin’ anyone and everyone down at the Lone Star saloon out ‘n New Haven, fillin’ all their minds with ideas of makin’ theyselves a fortune down on this so-called imagin’ry ‘card market.’ Shows ‘em all this solid gold bar he keeps wit him in a knapsack at all times, says it’s just one a’ many leaves on his big ol’ money tree.
As might you expect, a couple folks heckle him; say he’s a fool an’ a con artist, to give it up like all them other snake-oil salesmen that pass through town, leavin’ wit a few suckers’ hard-earned dollars. But credit to him, he keeps on keepin’ on wit all that big talk, and gradually folks start listenin’, aksing him for advice on what they should do with they cards, which ones to sell or buy an’ that.
Pretty soon he’s in that saloon erry night, standin’ up on the bar, woopin’ an’ a hollerin’, layin’ down the law on which cards is worth more than they sell fer, which plots ain’t worth the paper theys printed on. Treatin’ the lands people bought to make themselves a lil farm wit like theys some city slicker’s stocks an’ share certificate.
People is lookin’ on up at him like some kinda preacher as he stands there:
“Thou shalt sell all lands between Rockbury and Salt Pass: they’re useless for grazin’ cattle, an’ no seed’ll take root.”
“Thou shalt buy plots to the north of Wayville: prospector I know tells me gold’s in them hills.”
Folks goin’ wild for it, thinkin’ they too gonna buy an’ sell theyselves to an easy life. ‘No more workin’ like a sucker on some ranch a’ farm for me. No sir,” they all tellin’ each other.
The Messican, he ain’t the only one amassing all these followers and devotees neither. All across the new towns of the West, in the big saloons they got these trade advisors, men wit more cards then you ever seen in your life, buyin’, sellin’, tellin’ folk what they outta be doin’ theyselves.
Pretty soon erry man from Cold Ridge down to New Messico think hisself a big shot. All fightin’ to be the first ones to buy up all them plots some ‘valuation advisor’ or ‘plot marketeer’ telled ‘em to buy this week. Drivin’ up price of erry piece of land that has any chance at all of seein’ a plough, cow, or drill. Refusin’ to give any regular folk a deal unless they makin’ a dollar on it. Then there’s no such thing as a 50-cent plot no more. Theys all two or three dollars now, cuz some guys says it so, cuz of some ‘niche demand,’ wharever one those is.
Very tough bein’ jus’ a guy that wants to work hard an’ earn his way in the West now, boy…
Oh, an’ if you were to dare start arguin’ wit a guy like the Messican? He’ll challenge you to a duel straight up; that’s if one of his cronies don’t take a bottle to your throat first, make you piss yer pants and cry like a sissy front of the whole town. One time, I saw him shoot a man’s hand off out front a saloon, saw it with these very eyes I did, no word of a lie. Quickest draw I e’er saw. Said the guy was just jealous he couldn’ mass sucha fortune hisself. Mayhaps he was tellin’ the truth. Or p’haps that angry fella lost hisself somethin’ he cared about t’one them tradin’ folk. All I know is, that fella ain’t gotta good right han fer shootin’ or ridin’ no more.
An’ then, time goes on, more an’ more of the regular guys like me or you turn into these trader-types. All their dreams of makin’ a little farm, settin’ up a town supply or summat? Long gone forgotten. Nows all about turnin’ the cards them ideas were base on into other ones some guy says is worth a lil bit more at some auction house or other. Most the plots they own are by towns they ain’t ever visited, never will. Half the land in the West is tied up in these guys’ knapsacks an’ safe boxes, never to see a seed or shovel. All purpose them plots had got left behind when them price list papers started up.
“So that land I own, in New Haven?”
“Lord knows what you’ll find there now, boy. Could be it’s worth twenny times what you paid for it, could be barren and worthless without another soul be seen for miles. I dunno. Most like, someone’s said both a those things about it someplace in town today, tryna fish for a better deal on some trade. Some folks in the saloons an’ markethouses’ll say darn near anythin’ to part a man from the clothes off his own back an’ sell ’em back ta him. The big guys, the Messican, the beardy fella, they may give you a weighted deal, but they got some scruples, an’ a reputation maintain. Not erry guy thinks himself a trader has a shred of honesty or that kinda rep to keep him clean though. Some a’ them, no morals at all, all about makin’ a profit at any expense. Don’t who they might do over and ruin inna process. Sendin’ folks away from the West for good, left an’ right. Done more bum deals than girls down at Mistress Marie’s place sees a man between the sheets. Highwaymen with a thank you an’ a handshake, what they is. Train straight to hell for the lotta them, I says…”
The barkeep carried on muttering bilefully under his breath, flecks of spittle peppering the surface of the whiskey-stained table.
“It happened to you, didn’t it?”
He stared deep into his eyes for a moment before deciding him worthy of an answer. “Listen. I had a big ol’ ranch out Spring Falls, town over to Southa New Haven, once upon a time, when the West was all new and unexplored, when men were fulla hope and not greed, before all that tradin’ lark came about. I was happy. But I got lied to many times o’er, an’ I believed all of it. Those bastards took me for darn near errything I had. I realize what’s goin’ on all too late. And so’s I ended up with this no-good empty saloon, in a dyin’ town that only lost folks like you come stumblin’ into.” He exhaled heavily as his eyes glazed over in a stare. “Now get lost and go buy youself some supplies, feed that mare a’ yours.”
* * *
It was a day later. After plenty of rest, water, and a good meal for both man and horse, it was time to finish the journey and get to the promised land of New Haven—although this citadel had been somewhat tarnished, now.
“Afore you be carryin’ off on that horse, lemme give you some advice should ya run into them no good hustlin’ trader folk.”
“But I’m not gonna be buying any new lands, or selling the ones I’ve got. I’ve made my plan, and I’m sticking to it. I’m building my farm, and no matter what you say, I will find a wife, someday.”
“I was stubborn like that too, at first. But erry man give in in time, change his plans, mark my words. Jus’ gotta be prepared for when you do, an’ needa deal with them trader folk. The women… well you’re on your own there. Jus’ hope you got some fancyman’s waistcoat an’ hat t’ impress ‘em. Anyways:”
Number one, don’t get yerself talked ino no deal you don’ wanna make. An’ if a fella says you “Oh this deal only hold for right now, or today,” then know he’s desperate to make it then fer a reason. Cuz he think you’re gonna cotton on to his hustle. A real deal can wait a day.
Two, don’ let them talk your plots up and theys up on the word of some prospector man. If he thinks summat gon’ increase in value, well he can pay today’s price an’ see if it happen an’ enjoy it if it do.
Third up, choose yerself a price listin’ you think reasonable and make errything fair an’ square on that. Some guy says you he wants to value one card on one list, another on another? He tryna swindle ya.
Fourth, sometime folk’ll say they ain’t really that bothered to barter for somethin’ you got. Well, lemme ask you this: If he so disinterested, why he botherin’ ask after it at all? He jus’ tryna make you do his work for him!
Number five… Oftentimes a guy’ll try an’ drive down the price of your side the deal by sayin’ summat like, “Oh I can git that for so much at this auction house,” or say that he wan’ use some saloon’s buyin’ prices on value your cards. You be a fool t’ let ‘im do that! If he says he can gitta plot like yours cheaper someplace else, then let ‘im! Whys he aksin’ for yours if there a better deal roun’ corner, hmm? An’ if you was desperate nuff to want 10 cent on a dollar for your regular cards, well, you can go.
Finally – If ever a man say t’ you, “Whatchoo value this at,” he tryna screw you over, for almost certain. He jus’ tryna take advantage fact he knows a few more prices on a few more them lists than ye do. You tell him ta git lost!
“Thank you. I’ll be sure to keep all that in mind should I change my mind about the farm.”
“Oh you will, jus’ you wait. Now you watch yourself boy; don’ get taken a fool like I once was. West may have somethin’ in it fer you it ne’er did for me.”
The barkeep stood at the top of the steps, saloon doors swinging to a close behind him, as he watched the young man saddle up and ride into the distance. He turned and went back in to the empty bar, muttering to himself:
“Sun still shines, but erry day it gets a little darker.”