Give-a-Damn Jones: New Excerpt
By Adam Wagner
In Give-a-Damn Jones, Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini debuts a thrilling Western with expert storytelling and a mysterious hero who will appeal to Pronzini’s Nameless fans.
Not all the folks who roamed the Old West were cowhands, rustlers, or cardsharps. And they certainly weren’t all heroes.
Give-a-Damn Jones, a free-spirited itinerant typographer, hates his nickname almost as much as the rumors spread about him. He’s a kind soul who keeps finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That’s what happened in Box Elder, a small Montana town. Tensions are running high, and anything (or anyone) could be the fuse to ignite them: a recently released convict trying to prove his innocence, a prominent cattleman who craves respect at any cost, a wily traveling dentist at odds with a violent local blacksmith, or a firebrand of an editor who is determined to unlock the town’s secrets.
Jones walks into the middle of it all, and this time, he may be the hero that this town needs.
Well, I guess I know Give-a-Damn Jones about as well as any man ever did or could. Our paths have crossed half a dozen times over a span of years, in six different states and territories, and whenever that happens we just naturally gravitate to each other and spend a fair amount of time gambling, carousing, and swapping stories tall and true. We mostly share the same taste in food, liquor, cards, and women, and the same general notions on how type should be set and newspapers run.
Itinerant hand-peggers is what Jones and I are and have been most of our adult lives. The fiddle-footed breed known as tramp printers, though the word “tramp” translates to “shiftless” in the minds of some and we’re anything but when we’re at our work. Nobody ever toiled harder for wages than a type-slinger does for his. The difference between men like us and the general population is that we’re not the settling-down kind. After a few days or weeks in one town, why, we get a restless urge for new places, new horizons. And once we hear the call of the open road, we’re off first chance we get.
I first met Jones in Butte, Montana, in the early summer of ’89. I came in by train, the way most of us traveled, riding blind baggage on the Utah and Northern Union Pacific. Didn’t matter how you came to Butte, though, whether by train or stage or wagon or on horseback—you smelled it before you saw it. The air was so poisonous thick with smoke and sulphur and arsenic fumes from roasting ore pouring out of the copper mines’ smelter stacks that no vegetation was left anywhere in or near the town. The pall got so heavy on windless days it blotted the sky and lamps had to be lit at midday.
The foul air, and the town’s location on a steep hillside overlooking a bare butte, were two reasons it was called the “Perch of the Devil.” A third, the one that had drawn me, was that it was a wide-open boom camp, reputedly the wildest in the west, with scores of saloons and gambling halls and houses of pleasure open twenty-four hours, same as the mines. A sin-ugly town in more ways than one, but I was only twenty-four then, just two years on the road, and hungry for as much sport as I could find.
Butte had two daily newspapers, the Inter-Mountain and the Miner, but I didn’t head for either shop straightaway. First things first. I’d been told that a gent named Dublin Dan ran a saloon at Porphyry and Main that catered to the hobo trade, and that he kept a big kettle of stew boiling on a potbellied stove and permitted sleeping on the floor free of charge to any wandering roadster on his uppers. I was on mine just then, my last meal a dim memory and one thin dime left in my purse.
Give-a-Damn Jones was in Dublin Dan’s when I walked in late afternoon, sitting by himself at a table reading a book. I didn’t recognize him at first, didn’t pay attention to him at all until after I showed my International Typesetters Union card to the barkeep and got invited to help myself to the free stew. The place was some crowded and there was room at Jones’s table, so I took my bowl over there and asked could I sit with him. He looked me over, took note of my ink-stained fingers—not nearly as ink-stained as his—and said to help myself to a chair.
“How’s work in town?” I asked as I parked myself.
“I’ve only been here a week,” he said, “but Inter-Mountain’s hiring. Might be able to get on there if you’re a good hand with a composing stick.”
“Well, I’m no blacksmith,” I said, “blacksmith” being what they called a typesetter who did poor work. “Never had any complaints yet.”
“How many types can you pull a minute?”
“Two hundred or better.”
“Clean as a whistle.” Well, most often at that time, anyway.
“You’ll do then. What’s your name, sonny?”
I didn’t much care for the “sonny,” but then he was a good ten years older than me so I took it without comment. I told him my name and he said his was Artemas Jones.
Well, that made me sit up and take a different look at him. He was a broad-coupled, belly-lean man with long flax-colored hair, and he had the deep-set smoke-colored eyes and clean-shaven face I’d heard talked about on the road. A sort of quiet, watching and listening face. By that I mean you could tell from it, if you looked close enough, that not much passed him by that he didn’t take notice of—people, places, events, all sorts of things big and little. Life in general, you might say.
“Give-a-Damn Jones,” I said with a touch of awe.
A muscle fluttered under one of his eyes, almost a wince. “I’ve been called that. Can’t say I care for it much.”
“From what I hear you’ve earned it.”
“I’ve known plenty of men it’d sit better on than me. And don’t believe everything you hear—half of it’s bound to be sheep dip.”
“Too many have sung your praises for the stories not to be true, Mr. Jones.”
“Why, that you’re always willing to help folks in need or trouble. That you can’t abide injustice, can’t step aside from it no matter what—”
He made a snorting sound. “Sheep dip.”
“You mean you don’t give a damn?”
“Sure I do. Any man worth his freedom ought to. But I’m no saint by a long shot, no do-gooder on the lookout like some make me out to be. I can’t help it if now and then I end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Or the right place at the right time.”
“Point is other people’s troubles keep dogging me. I don’t go looking for ’em, they just come crawling my way. You understand the distinction?”
I wasn’t about to argue with him. “Yes, sir. Whatever you say.”
“Oh, hell. Go on, eat your stew.”
He opened up his book again while I emptied my bowl. When I was done feeding I asked, “What’s that you’re reading, Mr. Jones?”
“Call me Artemas. Shakespeare’s sonnets. You ever read Shakespeare, Owen?”
“No. Never had much time for reading.”
“Man can always find time for reading if he cares to better himself. There’s a wealth of things you can learn from Mr. Shakespeare. Increase your vocabulary, too.”
“I know enough words now from all the type I’ve set.”
That brought a wry chuckle. “You could live to a hundred and five with a gray beard down to your gonads and you’d still never know enough words. Or enough of anything else, either.”
Good advice. But I was too young and too brash then to take it to heart.
Well, he took me under his wing and introduced me to the foreman at the Inter-Mountain, and not only got me hired, but given an advance on my wages—a five-dollar gold piece that bought me a comfortable room in the transients’ boardinghouse where he was lodging. The Inter-Mountain was owned by A. J. Davis, said to be the richest man in Butte, and he paid more than scale. It was the best job I’d ever had up to that point in my travels.
What made it even better was a gimmick Jones, who had a puckish sense of humor among his other virtues, and one of the home-guard printers devised. The saloon upstairs from the Inter-Mountain had made the mistake of running its beer pipes through a corner of the composing room, and the pair conspired and then commenced to tap and plug the pipe. Free beer on tap any time we wanted it. The proprietor of the saloon never caught on, leastways not while I was working for A. J. Davis’s sheet.
I had the best sport of my life that spring, too, when we weren’t working at our trade. Jones and me haunted the north side of Galena Street, the “line” in Butte—King & Lowrie’s saloon and gambling palace, Pete Hanson’s Clipper Shades in the heart of the red-light district, a combination dance hall, saloon, prize-fight arena, theater, and brothel called the Casino, and Molly Demurska’s fancy parlor house with the prettiest girls in town. More than one morning we had the fantods from too much liquor and too little sleep, but we never missed a single minute’s work in the composing room.
You couldn’t ask for a better companion and mentor than Give-a-Damn Jones during the five-plus weeks we spent together in Butte. He’d been a roadster and gay cat, as we’re sometimes called, for more than a dozen years and had a storehouse of stories and anecdotes that he’d regale you with when the mood struck him. He was a fount of opinions, quotations, professional gossip, place descriptions, and capsule biographies of men and women he’d known in his travels. Yet he was reticent about his family background, wouldn’t say where he was born and raised or from whom he’d learned the printing trade. The only times I knew him to be rude and profane were when I attempted to draw him out. And while he shared our breed’s liking for alcohol and ladies of easy virtue, he drank no more than a few beers while on the job and was unfailingly courtly to women of every stripe.
He’d traveled all over the west and back again three or four times since the age of fourteen, and worked for more than a few of the legends of newspapering: Joseph Pulitzer on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Edward Rosewater, the fighting editor of the Omaha Bee,and the beaver-hatted old firebrand J. West Goodwin, of the Daily Bazoo in Sedalia.
For a time he traveled with Hi-Ass Hull, considered the king of tramp printers for his union-organizing work, whose nickname came from a Northwest Indian word meaning “tall man.” For another period he’d run with the band of roaming typographers known as the Missouri River Pirates, who frequented the towns along the Missouri River between St. Louis and Sioux City. Met Jesse James when the outlaw was living in St. Joseph under his Tom Howard alias, two days before the dirty little coward Bob Ford fired a .45 slug into Jesse’s back. Others whose paths he crossed were Bat Masterson, Texas Jack Omohundro, the poet Walt Whitman, himself a vagabond printer, and the acid-tongued writer Ambrose Bierce.
He admitted to having had no formal education, but he was a learned fellow nonetheless. By his own estimate he’d read more than two hundred books—the Bible, most of Shakespeare, and the likes of Hawthorne, Melville, and Mark Twain. He could be induced to quote passages from the Book and the Bard when in his cups, and I had no doubt they were as flawless as his typesetting. He liked music, too, just about any kind. Played a variety of tunes himself on the mouth organ, with more enthusiasm than skill.
Now it may seem that I’ve painted a romanticized picture of Give-a-Damn Jones. That he was too footloose, too devil-may-care to have done at least some of the good works he was credited with, and that I’m guilty of a kind of hero worship. Well, none of that is true. Within his province he was and is an honest, honorable, obliging, and downright companionable fellow.
One thing that happened during our time together in Butte proved to me that he deserved his moniker. We were on our way out of one of the gambling halls concealed behind the stores that lined China Alley when we heard a man cussing and a woman screaming in one of the side passages. By the light of a lantern over a doorway we could see a drunken miner beating on a young Chinese prostitute half his size. Jones didn’t waste a second rushing to the girl’s aid. He pulled the drunk off her, fetched him a poke that knocked him halfway across the alley. The miner came up on his feet with a knife in his hand, but he didn’t try to use it because by then he was looking down the barrel of a revolver cocked and ready to fire. He turned tail and ran.
That was the first I knew Jones carried a pistol tucked inside one of the tall boots he wore. Most of us roadsters kept a weapon of some kind handy for self-protection, mostly barlow knives and derringers, but Jones is the only one I’ve ever known to pack a pistol—a Smith & Wesson Model 2 single-action, top-break, .38-caliber, five-shot revolver. He preferred it to other makes, he said, because of its size—it had a three-and-a-half-inch barrel and fit snugly into his boot—and because it was reliably accurate at close quarters. I asked him how often he’d had occasion to fire it, if he ever had, but he refused to say one way or the other.
By the end of our fifth week together I was content to stay on in Butte a while longer, but Jones was ready to move on. I could see the restless itch in him even though he didn’t give voice to it. What finally sent him back on the road was a big pot he won in a draw poker game at the Clipper Shades—some forty dollars in cash and, of all things, a horse and saddle from a gent who threw in everything he owned on the strength of trip aces, only to find out Jones was holding a diamond flush.
The horse wasn’t much and neither was the saddle, and I expected Give-a-Damn to sell them both for what he could get. But no. Like the rest of us type-slingers his usual mode of travel was by train, boxcar, or blind baggage, but the novelty of heading off on horseback to his next job, wherever it might be, appealed to his sense of adventure. He hadn’t seen much of Montana before coming to Butte, and he figured horseback was a good way to get the lay of the Big Sky country. He told me that after the poker game, and the next morning he was gone.
It was a while before I found out where he went, for I left Butte myself not long afterward and went down to Cheyenne for a short stay and then on to points east. But stories get around quick on the road, especially when they involve a man like Give-a-Damn Jones, and it wasn’t long before his name came up. And in bits and pieces, the tale of what happened to him in Box Elder, a small eastern Montana cow and farm town.
Yes, sir, that moniker of his fits right and proper. Just ask the folks in and around Box Elder …
Copyright © 2018 Bill Pronzini.