by Richard Harding
Copyright 1985 by Robert Tine
First Mass Market Printing: February, 1985
Dorca's, the smoky, dirty, noisy bar that stood in the ruins of the town they used to call Chicago, in the bombed-out, evil piece of land that once contained the United States, was going at its usual riotous pace.
Dorca, the mountain-sized barkeep that gave the place its name and its peculiar atmosphere, was at his usual place at the end of the ornate wooden bar that he had stolen out of a gaunt shell of a building. Artie, his bartender, set up the raw alcohol that Dorca stocked with grim-faced efficiency. The old-time bartenders, the ones that existed before The Bomb, the guys that listened to your troubles, talked sports, women, money—anything—they died with the rest of the nice, ordinary people that went up in The Great Conflagration, The War, The Fire, whatever you want to call it, that changed everything for good. Artie wouldn't give you the time of day. You told him what you wanted, you paid, and he gave it to you. Don't crack a joke with him, he might crack your teeth.
If there was trouble—and there always was because there was no shortage of riders and smugglers drunk and courageous at Dorca's—Artie or Dorca handled it. When Dorca waded into action carrying a leg of a pool table as an enforcer, trouble died down quick. Artie was likely to make things last a little longer. It was entertaining. Sometimes he would be about to go into action against some half-blind road guide and Dorca called him off, preferring to handle it himself. Dorca had a genuine affection for most of his customers. Artie hated them and was apt to do them some serious damage.
"I just puts 'em to sleep for a while," said Dorca. "That Artie man, he kills 'em. And that's money out of the pocket of yours truly, you know what I'm saying?"
But Dorca and Artie were a tolerant pair. There was more racket and ruckus raised in the joint than would have been tolerated in a pre-bomb bar. And Dorca had one rule you just couldn't break. No gunplay in the bar. Bonner had broken it once, but that was okay. Anything Bonner did, well that was okay with Dorca—and it wasn't like Bonner didn't have a good reason for it,
Everyone understood Dorca's forgiving Bonner. Smart men, the ones that lived long, knew that in life there were two sets of rules: there were the rules for the ordinary guys, the ones who were taking their chances and trying to get by. Then there were the Bonner rules, the rules that allowed The Outrider to live longer, fight harder, and bring down more enemies than anybody else.
People often remarked that there was something in Bonner that the rest of them didn't have. Some kind of weird strength, courage, knowledge, power that Bonner could find in his body and his soul that the rest of them just couldn't locate no matter how long they looked. Dorca swore he knew the man's secret:
"Most guys hate hot," he would say. "They get all fired up over something, their hate grabs 'em in the head and makes 'em crazy. Now Bonner, he hates cold. Like ice. He never gets hot-headed, he never gets his temper up. He keeps it all to himself, in deep freeze. But it's there if he needs it . . ."
Dorca's listeners would nod. Yeah, yeah, something like that. But they didn't really know what it was. But what they did know, the smart ones anyway, was that whatever Bonner, The Outrider, had, it scared them. It scared them good . . .
That was a rule for the ordinary guys: Tangle with Bonner, you die. You might strike a hit-and-run, like the guys that got Bonner's girl, Dara, or Bonner's best friend. Starling, but you had to know that The Man would come after you and he'd keep coming. And he wouldn't stop coming till he got you. Mess with Bonner, you were a living corpse.
"The thing that beats the crap out of me," said Dorca with amazement in his voice, "is that there are still guys that try to take him down. I mean, life is hard enough, you know? Why the fuck do they bother?"
There was no one in Dorca's that night in the mood to die, so when Bonner came in as he always did, late in the night, the riders and smugglers and the girls just nodded or said, "How's The Man tonight?" and went back to their drinks. Dorca was pleased to see his friend come in. "Hey! Bonner!" said Dorca, tapping his big club on the bar. "Sit yerself down here, have a beaker of Dorca's best brew . . ."
Bonner smiled at the big old barkeep and accepted the gut-wrenching glassful of poison. Bonner didn't really care for it but he didn't want to hurt his friend's feelings. Back in the warren of rooms that Bonner shared with the girl, he had stored a few bottles of pre-bomb brandy that he sipped at sparingly, it was considered more valuable than a good gun, which was saying something in those days.
"So what brings you in?" asked Dorca. He asked every night.
"Felt the need of a little company," said Bonner. "Well, you come on a special night," said Dorca. "What makes it special?" said Bonner. He tried not to grimace as the raw liquor burned its way down his throat.
"You wait and see," said Dorca happily, "you wait and see."
"No hints?" said Bonner.
"Uh-uh," said Dorca seriously, "it's a surprise." "Well, I hope it's better than your rat piss," said Clara, the leader of the Sisters. Clara stood about a head taller than Bonner and she made it clear that any enemy, some big, strapping man, who figured that because she and her gang were women they were easy marks, were going to be wrong. Dead wrong.
"Hey, Clara," said Dorca, "when did you get in? Bring in any merchandise?"
"Drink first," said Clara, slapping her big old Colt rifle down on the bar. "Talk later. Artie, give me a stein of poison."
Artie nodded. He didn't like Clara much either. He set the metal cup of alcohol down in front of the amazon. Clara shook the hair out of her eyes and drained the cup in a single swallow. "Gimme another," she roared.
"Been on the road?" asked Bonner.
"Yeah, and I ain't seen Leatherman neither. I know that's why you're askin'."
Bonner had sworn to kill the overlord of the Slavestates, a man generally held to be the most evil character on the Continent. And that was saying something.
Bonner smiled. He and Clara were old enemies of Leatherman. In fact, if Leather got into Clara's beautifully manicured hands, she had a few scores to settle.
"Just making conversation, Clara," said Bonner.
Clara whooped with laughter. "The hell you were. I'm telling you, Mister Bonnerman, if I run into Leather there are some questions me and Miss Colt here are gonna put to him."
"Then I guess I'll just have to find him first."
"Save some for me, Bonner, that's all I ask."
"Likewise," said Bonner.
"So, Clara," said Dorca, "where ya bin and whad'ya get?"
"What am I gonna do with this guy, Bonner? Business, business, business, that's all he ever thinks about. Me 'n my sisters been pushing our bikes all over this continent, 1 spend all day coming back across the lake dreaming of a nice slug of this piss and Dorca wants to deal."
"Man's gotta make a living," said Bonner.
"Tell ya what," said Dorca, his big gut shaking with laughter, "you come back to my place and we'll talking about something else."
Clara looked at him with contempt. Her big body shivered with loathing at the thought. "Men, ugh."
"That's what I figured you say."
"I never met a dyke yet 1 couldn't cure," said a voice from across the room. "Quick roll in the hay with me and they follow me round like a puppy."
All heads turned to look at a tanned, blond-haired young man who sat with a couple of his buddies. The other two men laughed at their friend's extraordinary wit.
"Who he?" asked Clara.
"Never seen him before," said Dorca.
"I guess he don't know who I am," said Clara.
"Reckon not," said Bonner.
"Did ya hear me les-bo, I'm talking to you."
Clara went red. Bonner sipped his drink. The kid stood up. "Can't believe you caught my eye, can ya, sweetheart? Can't believe your luck, right." The other goons laughed.
"Hey son," said Clara, "you know any prayers?"
"Say 'em if you know some. Make some up if you don't." Clara was walking over to the table.
The kid tensed, ready and waiting for the fight that was about to erupt. Clara stopped about six inches from the kid. "Go on, take your best shot."
"I'd never hit a lady without being hit first," he sneered.
"Well, sonny, that's a shame. Cause, you see, I'm not a lady." With that, she kicked him unceremoniously in the crotch. Every man in the room felt the force of the kick, but only one felt the agony of the pain it produced. The kid doubled over. Behind his tan his skin went red, then green, then pale.
Clara wore a ring on every one of her big fingers and they cracked into the lush blond hair on the back of the kid's skull. His buddies watched him go down. They weren't laughing anymore.
"You two want a shot?" Clara asked.
"Gee, I don't think so," said one.
"You don't think so maam," corrected Clara.
"Ma'am," said the two characters together.
Clara sidled back to her barstool. "Ever noticed how vulnerable men are in certain places?" she asked Bonner and Dorca.
"Yes," said Dorca soberly.
Just then, the Mean Brothers entered carrying a grand piano.
"Well," said Dorca, "its about fuckin' time. I send these two children out for a pye-anno and they're gone half the night. I mean, it ain't like I asked 'em to pick me up fifty gals of gas. Pye-annos you can find in every bombed-out fuckin' ruin. Jeez, look at the size of that thing."
"Hey, Means, how goes," said Bonner.
The Mean Brothers, huge, twin, mute giants, dropped the piano making the sounding board boom with a resounding, discordant crash. They waved happily at Bonner, easily the Mean Brothers' favorite human being.
The noise of the mistreated piano hung in the air and cut the usual noise of conversation in Dorca's down to a low roar.
"This the surprise. Dork?" asked Clara.
"Yep. I am going to give you guys—even though you don't deserve it—the gift of music."
"The what?" asked a rider known as Wasaki, because that's what it said on the side of the rusty old motocycle he rode.
"Music, you dummy, you know singing and pye-anno playing. Jeez, what an uncultured bastard."
The Mean Brothers kicked aside a few tables and the boys drinking at them and set the piano down carefully. Their job done, they wandered over to Bonner and stood one on either side of him like protecting lions.
"Hey, you guys—" Dorca yelled at a couple of thin, not very tough-looking guys who had been sitting at a table far off in a comer eating bowl after bowl of the brown stew that Dorca served for those riders hungry enough to eat it.
"Us?" said one of them pointing at his chest.
"Yeah. Time to earn your keep," said Dorca. To Bonner he said: "If they go over I'm gonna keep them on regular."
Bonner looked over the unshaven, scarred collection of violent men waiting for "the gift of music" and said: "I wouldn't put any money down."
"Come on, you guys," said Dorca, "you're on."
The two men rose from their dishes and threaded their way through the room. One sat down at the piano and played a couple of terribly out-of-tune chords.
"Hey," said one of the riders in the audience, "I didn't know you could do that on them things."
"I know," said the companion, "I seen 'em around, but I never knew what the fuck they was for."
The pianist felt a little happier now and played the opening bars of a piece of genuine music, the first instrument to be played in Chicago in many a year.
The other guy faced the patrons of Dorca's. "Ladies and—" Then he looked at Clara and stopped himself. "Friends," he said, "Tonight we bring you the forgotten an of music and song. My brother here has labored many years to decipher the little dots that our brethren of ages past left written on pieces of papers so that man wouldn't forget the old tunes of the past." He held up a sheet of music. "See, this is one of them."
A few necks craned to get a better view. "My brother will translate each one of these dots into music and I will sing the words that go with them. Got it?"
"Yeah," said Wasaki and a few others.
"Okay, here's one of my favorite tunes, and 1 hope it's one of yours."
"Ain't heard it yet," said Wasaki.
The pianist plinked out a few rusty notes. And his brother began to sing. "Oh beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain ..."
"For what?" demanded someone from the back.
"For purple mountains' majesty, above the fruited plain."
"This don't make no sense to me," protested Wasaki.
"Shut up," insisted Dorca.
"America, America God shed His Grace on." The singer stopped abruptly. "Thank you, thank you." His brother had run out of sheet music and they had always assumed that the song stopped there.
"Lets give the boys a big hand," said Dorca.
The boys gave them a lukewarm hand.
"Any more?" someone said.
"Oh yeah," said the singer, ''plenty more."
"Lets hear it then."
The pianist played a lead in. "You go home and get your panties. I'll go home and get my scanties and away we'll go. Off we're gonna shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo ..."
"I was in Buffalo once," shouted someone, "got my scanties shot off by Stormers." Laughter erupted around the room.
"I don't think they're goin' over too well," said Dorca philosophically.
The musicians abandoned that song for another. "Feelings . . ."
The patrons of Dorca's shifted uncomfortably. "Feelings like I never left you. Feelings, deep in my heart."
A tear appeared in the comers of a few eyes.
"Feelings, woah-woah-woah, feeeelings . . ."
"Too fuckin' sad," said Wasaki.
"Yeah," agreed a few voices.
"Feelings, woah-woah-woah, feelings . . ."
"Okay," said Dorca pounding the pool table leg on the bar. "That's enough. Thank you, fellas."
There was a smattering of applause as the pair left the piano. "I think," said the pianist to the singer, "we don't play Chicago again."
Web Site Contents
(Unless Mentioned Otherwise) ©2012
By Atlan Formularies, Post Office Box 95, Alpena, Arkansas 72611-0095