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Players & Prospectors

Mackusker again several chapters later. This is where he has his first encounter with the other principal character, Polmar - a Cornish miner who has arrived at the flats below San Emidio, now Frazier Mountain, after a series of grievous misfortunes.

PLAYERS AND PROSPECTORS

masksBased on priority MacKusker reckoned he had dibs on whatever gold could be washed out of the discarded tailings from the quartz mine up on San Emidio. Legally, he couldn’t put any kind of claim on it. What got thrown away by the mining company was fair game for whoever found it. But MacKusker had no truck with the law, and that summer when Polmar pitches a tent on the flats about a half-mile upstream from MacKusker’s shack, everybody who hears about it figures that the outcome is going to be ugly. Ugly and violent. Some even took to hanging around so they’d have a front row view when it happened. MacKusker and Polmar both proved eager to oblige the spectators as best they could. At first it was mostly by threatening each other and having an occasional standoff, but before long things got worked up into a regular performance routine. MacKusker would catch sight of Polmar and yell something foul at him. Polmar, then, would yell something along the same lines at MacKusker, From there it would go to throwing rocks, taking an occasional potshot, and to describing, in the most gruesome terms they could think of, the terrible things each one was going to do to the other when he got his hands on him — mostly with regard to which body parts were going to be removed, in what order, and what was going to be done with them after they were ripped off or gouged out. Of course all of this was done more for the benefit of the spectators than with any intention of actually intimidating their opponent. They each new that the other wasn’t likely to be susceptible to verbal abuse, no matter how vivid. The rocks and potshots were to reassure the onlookers that their ultimate intentions were truly murderous. The spectators did seem to enjoy it. After the initial insults and threats, the show would move into a more active mode when one of them would slip off into the willow scrub and the other would go to hunt him down. Then they’d sneak around trying to get behind each other, or lay in ambush, or set a trap, or pull some other kind of trick. But, with all the bystanders nosing around to see who it is that’s going to get murdered and who's going to hang for it, well, how much sneaking can you do when you’ve got a mob on your heels raising dust and trampling down the cover. It was ridiculous, but it did give the show a longevity that was unexpected, and not entirely unwelcome. After a while it got to where members one group of partisans would shout information to their contender, telling him where the other was and what he was up to. This was blatantly unfair and would, more often that not, lead to fistfights among the spectators. There were also calls for the enforcement of civilized rules but, needless to say, no one was in a position to do any such thing.

Taken as a whole this wasn’t a particularly great show, but starting out as the only show around it got popular. Word traveled, and people even began coming in from other camps, from the towns that were beginning to form around some of the old rancheros, and a surprising number came all the way up from San Boniventura just to be around and witness for themselves the grisly finale of this drama. With them came the inevitable entourage of snake oil salesmen, gamblers, pickpockets, and other disreputable characters who’s livelihood was dependent on the assembling of crowds.
A troupe of players returning from a tour of mining camps in the Mojave got wind of something going on and made the side trip in the hope of drumming up some extra box office. The night they arrived they set up their stage, a platform erected along one side of the wagon. The front of the stage had four actual footlights, each with a large candle and reflector. Above, a pair of oil lamps suspended from poles provided the general illumination. The side of the wagon, which bore the name of the troupe in large letters, DOUGLAS’S TRAVELING FRONTIER PLAYERS, now served as support for a painted backdrop. The theme appeared to be Roman, since the painting depicted several buildings with classical columns, some palm trees, and a large rendering of what was probably a Roman coin, with the profile of a man having a particularly large nose and some Latin text written above his laurel crowned head.
While preparations were being completed, members of the troupe distributed flyers announcing that night’s production: The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. The Bard’s masterpiece presented in a manner now accessible to audience members of all ages and backgrounds. An admission charge of twenty-five cents will be required from patrons wishing to be within the roped area immediately forward of the stage. Exceptions to this were made for both Polmar and Mackusker who were honored as special guests and permitted, free of charge, to stand in the select area on condition that all acts of violence would be restricted to those between the players on stage during and immediately following the show.
The performance, once underway, consisted of all the good parts from the play, that is, the most shocking parts, strung together by a number of largely improvised expositions delivered by members of the cast. What transpired was nothing less than a cavalcade of severed heads, hands, tongues, blood spouting wounds, brutal Romans and savage Goths. And, of course, there were the pies with Queen Tamora’s sons baked inside and Titus dressed as a cook. This was followed by a suggestive, though inexplicable, dance performed by the mutilated Lavinia preceding her demise at the hands of her father, who then jacked the queen with his chef’s knife. In all it was a huge success. The crowd was in such an uproar by the end that the last spiteful remarks of Aaron and Lucius were drowned in the applause. Rarely has Shakespeare been more enthusiastically received. And seldom has an audience enjoyed a better display of dismemberment, rape and slaughter while convincing themselves they were improving their minds with culture.
As an encore the young lady who had played Lavinia was brought back on stage, cleaned up and appearing none the worse for so recently having been raped, maimed, and murdered. To everyone’s delight she produced the stage-prop tongue that had been ripped from her mouth, then to prove that she had not been rendered mute recited, in its’ entirety, The Wreck of the Hesperus with great emotion and feeling. At the end of the final stanza—
Christ save us all from a death like this,
On the reef of Norman’s Woe!
—the crowd wiped their tears and cheered her like a prize fighter.

On the following days it was noted that MacKusker had taken to addressing the spectators in the manner of soliloquy. During one of these he concluded, after promising the thorough mutilation of Polmar, to do him like a Roman. This literary allusion, though unclear, was greatly appreciated.
In a subsequent monologue, though, Mackusker promised that after having removed Polmar’s ears he would then proceed to rip off his balls and ram them up the son-of-a-bitch’s ass. To Mackusker’s disappointment this further attempt at classical declamation, rather than eliciting acclaim, brought nothing but perturbed and censorious murmurs from the crowd. That night Mr. Douglas, the director of the theatrical company, led a small delegation to MacKusker’s shack.
Mr. Douglas, whose years of experience had taught him how to deal with unruly actors opened the discussion. “First allow me to say, Mr. MacKusker, in all sincerity, how thoroughly impressed I am with your dramatic skills. In truth, not since the great Junius Brutus Booth have I beheld such a monumental talent, so unexpected in this wilderness. That a talent like this would arise … ah … spontaneamente, so to speak, that is, of its own accord and without the many years of training that most of us require to approach such a level of dramatic ability. I can only say, Sir, that you have earned my admiration, which is not easily gained, as the members of my own troop will attest.” It was Mr. Douglass’ good fortune that he had the demeanor of an affable man. Portly to just the right degree, with a broad, good natured face that seemed incapable of concealing deception.
“Now, so much being said, and in earnest I assure you, I was wondering if you might consider a suggestion or two from an old veteran. Not that I have anything approaching your native talent, but I do have many years of experience that have taught me useful things about audiences.” MacKusker didn’t respond one way or the other, so Mr. Douglas took that as consent to continue. “Now, as I am sure you are aware, there are women and children present at your performances, and that with such individuals the hearing of certain words has the effect of causing considerable discomfort, as well as giving offense where I’m sure it was never intended.”
“So we would greatly appreciate your toning things down a bit in respect to certain references,” said another member of the delegation, a pinch-faced New England preacher named Hinkley who regarded himself a guardian of public morality as well as the voice of the Reformation in this realm of unrestrained Papistry. “For you might bear in mind there is more at stake than the outcome of your petty dispute. By your conduct and your deeds you shall be judged! Ezekiel twenty-four: fourteen,” he added, brandishing a pocket sized bible as if it were a terrible swift sword.
“Not that we mean to unduly influence your way of expressing yourself.” Mr. Douglas was quick to point out. “And of course, if what you mean by balls is eye-balls?” he added as clarification, “Then, of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, except for where you intend to relocate them. Perhaps one might consider a less indelicate destination, like mouth or an ear, it could still be effective without offending. As long as you make it clear that that’s what you mean.”
“Perhaps,” said the Reverend Hinkley, “if you just skipped the word balls altogether.”
“Ah, a point, indeed, you could, for example, say simply, eyes, or if you choose to be more poetic, orbs. That way there would be no chance of confusion.”
MacKusker suggested that they might be on their way before they got their own orbs rammed up their asses. The delegation promptly complied, but MacKusker’s rhetoric was subsequently toned down, and Polmar’s balls, eye or otherwise, were henceforth kept discretely out of the picture.

Polmar’s outbursts were more in the line of mad ravings with distinct socio-political overtones. They were delivered with the fervid conviction and ranting style of a soapbox orator, and they reflected, in a peculiar and personalized sense, his earlier association with political ideologues at Grass Valley. Although it was not altogether clear how these rantings related to MacKusker as an individual against whom he had particular grievances, they did address a broad spectrum of discontent, some of which, no doubt, was the fault of his antagonist. Unfortunately, his spectrum was so broad that it included a great many grievances that had noting to do with MacKusker at all. It was an inevitable problem when basing a personal attack on broad ideological principles.
One of his harangues began with a reference to “A specter that is haunting the Flats,” understandably thought to be a reference to MacKusker, although he then went on to list the enemies of this specter as “the Pope, the Czar, Metternich, and French radicals.” After this perplexing, to say the least, opening, Polmar condemned the exploitation of labor, then made a passionate call for the abolition of private property, the family, religion, and all right of inheritance, followed by an attack on Bourgeois Socialists. That was where it got personal, as he called out MacKusker as the most bourgeois of all the socialists that ever were.
These tirades were appreciated for their performance value, even though no one had a clue what he was talking about. It didn’t make any difference, the intent was clear. That’s all that mattered to the audience, and they cheered him like General Taylor off to put what-for to old Santianna.

While not great, there was real potential in this show, and in time it might have flowered into something substantial. But, as with many things, it ended up ruined by it’s own success. Mainly it was the wagering that did it. Back in the days when a drifter down to his last nickel wouldn’t think twice about staking it on the outcome of a cat fight, a banker would tap his vault to have a stake on two men out to kill each other. Gambling was as much a part of frontier life as flea bites and beans, and few situations had better potential than this one. So, once people started taking a significant financial interest in one party over the other, it was only natural that they’d want to protect their investment. With members of the audience having so much at stake, there was no way in the world either MacKusker or Polmar was going to be allowed to get the edge. And if somehow one of them had actually managed to kill the other, the ensuing disputes would have resulted in considerable bloodshed. Of course, with all of the cash moving back and forth between the wagerers, not a penny was going to the principles, and this was also becoming a problem. Summer was about done, and MacKusker and Polmar both needed to lay in provisions before the weather turned bad. But, with having their daily performance to attend to, neither one of them was able to take care of the business of scrounging gold. Since no merchant in his right mind would extend credit to either of them, they were in a bind. They couldn’t manage to kill each other, and with all the time and effort trying to, they couldn’t get anything else done. Both were headed for bust if they couldn’t figure out how to put a stop the whole thing.
Of course the obvious way to do that was declare a truce. It was a terrible thing to have to consider. Terrible for both of them. But the alternative was worse. So one day they gritted their teeth, made a public display of shaking hands, and went to work. For a while people figured it was a trick. Get rid of the crowd then get on with the killing. So they stuck around and upped their bets. But all performances were canceled. The players were working the creek together, acting peaceful and friendly as a pair of Quakers. With nothing left to do around there but get drunk and bet on cat fights, the audience got bored, and eventually they started drifting back to wherever they came from. There were a few cries of fraud, but for the most part people were reluctant to seem so outright bloodthirsty as to be disappointed with the outcome. The exceptions were the ones who stuck around the longest. Finally the day came when nobody showed up at all. Polmar and MacKusker could have killed each other then, but they didn’t. They’d gotten used to each other. After all, they’d been troopers together, and they’d done it well. There was a lot to be said for that. They didn’t say it. It was understood.

©Rick Fine

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