Tonawanda, New York
June 7th, 1889
The warbling call of the Tonawanda Express bade farewell over the fanfare of a bustling Seymour Street, overburdened with the canal pilots and lumbermen who shuffled about the river town like so many insects consigned to an insatiable American industry. It was a particularly sweltering day, wrought with all the humidity the Niagara could muster from her balmy depths, and yet Mr. Thomas James Lawson stood upon the boardwalks between Seymour and Niagara Street in his three-piece tweed, sweating profusely, fanning his crimson cheeks with a large bowler. He frowned, puffing his large and bristling moustache as he checked a silver-chained pocketwatch with some annoyance.
“You need to calm down some, Grover-boy,” Kirby Spencer chided with a facetious and patronizing tone, garbed in a dirty shirt and suspenders like a suspect saloon keeper. He leaned on the railing of the Lumberman, indistinguishable among a dozen Seymour Street saloons, save its corner proximity to the Eerie Canal and a large, amateur sign nailed above the door.
Mr. Lawson’s frown grew deeper as he scowled at his poorly dressed compatriot, lifting his chin. The two days aboard the New York Central-Buffalo Express had been, by all reasonable accounts, miserable with this frontier mercenary—this drunken, card-playing criminal with his unruly hair and poorly shaven face. William Shakespeare could not assemble two more opposite characters to share a corner of this canal town—the portly Virginia gentleman and his wiry, frontier antagonist, who had taken early in the journey to calling Mr. Lawson nothing but “Grover Cleveland,” which the Virginia man objected to in both a physical and political fashion. The only similarity the two men bore seemed to be their age—both settled beyond undeniable middle-life, perhaps fifty-five each, with all signs of youth departed from the pair.
“Are you certain the gentleman telegrammed for this specific saloon?” Lawson asked, ignoring Spencer’s jibe as he scanned the busy street. A wagon conveyed a towering assembly of wooden planks before the pair, with several young and exhausted boys riding atop. Lawson watched them pass with a wary eye.
“He’ll be here,” Spencer replied, thumbs in his suspenders as he leaned on the wooden railings. He sniffed loudly and spit a thin stream of tobacco juice into the street. “he’s on the village council, so I’m told. Says he’s got a catcher that can land a summer pea with a nurse’s thimble.”
“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean.”
“Lots of folks can catch a baseball,” Spencer continued, ignoring his companion as he looked about the street. “But finding one with the spring to guard a bunt, who can hit the average, that, Grover, is as rare as a cabaret in Dakota territory.”
“Ah yes, another reference to your intrepid life on the frontier,” Lawson answered sardonically. “One must wonder, Mister Spencer, why one would abandon such a wondrous adventure in the west.”
“Had my fill of the cavalry life,” Spencer answered with a shrug. He produced a flask from his shirt that caused Lawson to scowl dubiously.
“The Confederacy may have lost, Mister Spencer,” Lawson said, “but under General Jackson’s command, an officer would have been flayed alive for the sort of impertinent debauchery so embedded in your archetype.”
“Well, it’s a damn good thing I wasn’t in General Jackson’s command,” Spencer answered with a humorous grunt. “Tell me, what was the good General’s stance on gluttony?”
“I was not always an old man,” Lawson replied, straightening his suit jacket. “In the First Virginia, a gentleman’s honor still meant something.”
“Sure it did, so long as you was a pasty plantation boy with six or seven good house negroes.” Spencer laughed to himself. “Yes indeed, I know all about you gentlemen and your honor.”
“I won’t reduce myself to a debate with a failed drunkard.”
Before Spencer could reply, a tall and well-dressed man with an oiled moustache and splendidly fashionable mutton chops appeared, approaching from around the corner and taking off his hat as he looked from the saloon to the two men.
“Pardon,” the man, perhaps thirty-five, said politely, removing his bowler. “I am searching for Colonel Spencer, of Monroe Tobacco?”
Lawson was unable to withhold a scoff, to which the man frown and turned his head with a confused expression.
“At your service,” Spencer replied, spitting a bullet of brown juice into the steps. The fashionable man looked between the pair, still perplexed. “I’m sorry, you mean, you’re–”
“Indian Jack,” Spencer replied with a short and dramatic flourish. “that’s me, pal. Who are you, the Bonnie Prince Charlie?’
“Lattimer,” the man answered, dipping his head. “Horace Lattimer, gentleman. Of Lattimer Mill.”
Stepping forward with an annoyed expression, Lawson reached out his hand to the man. “Thomas Lawson, sir, practitioner of law and representative of Mr. Michael Monroe, of Monroe Tobacco Enterprises.”
“So, this is Kirby Spencer,” the man said, stupefied, shaking Lawson’s hand absently as he gazed at Spencer. “They say you rode through a dozen Lakota braves at Rosewater to save a captured Soldier.”
“It was more like two dozen,” Spencer replied, spitting again and pushing off from the column impatiently. “Now listen, mister, I just spent three days in a cheap train car with this nothing but this fat confederate bastard to keep me company. Are you gonna show me a damn ballgame, or what?”
“Of course,” the man said, lifting from his haze. “Of course, sir. Please, follow me. The game is on Goose Island.”
“It isn’t really an island,” Lattimer explained as the trio crossed the wooden bridge over the Eerie canal. A low-bearing freight boat drifted along under the bridge, with a tip of the wide-brimmed straw hat from the negro pilot that ferried the goods westward. “It’s just the tip of the town that they cut off when the Eerie was built.”
“How fascinating,” Lawson said flatly, chewing on a cigar as he watched a pair of rouge-cheeked women in cheap dresses eye Spencer with coy expressions, fanning themselves. Spencer, for his part, seemed oblivious to them, frowning at the narrow boats that drifted across the shallow canal.
“it’s not the—ah—most reputable corner of our fair town,” Lattimer explained as they walked, a bit embarrassed. “mostly Irish and Italians. They don’t let the darkies stay in the boarding houses, but they run about like cats.” He turned an eye to Spencer. “Say, Colonel, if you don’t mind, I’ve always wondered—why is it exactly they called you ‘Indian Jack’ in the papers, years ago?”
“I killed Indians,” Spencer replied flatly, scratching at his stubble. “Kill enough Indians, they start calling you one. I believe that’s called a paradox.”
“Ah,” Lattimer answered, paling. “Ah, yes, of course. Well, gentlemen, if you’ll follow me.”
The three men entered a weaving and largely disorganized corner of the river town, wrought with lopsided shacks and rotting canvas. Near the shore, where a small, rolling flood plain gave way to the rolling waters of the Niagara, an impromptu set of viewing stands were erected on either side of a poorly kept field. The resonant crack of a bat filled the air with exhilaration—as through the impoverished commotion of Goose Island, a large and rambunctious crowd cheered a ballgame into the afternoon. A pair of marked deputies leaned against a handful of crates near the stands, watching the game.
“They call him Fat Man Rogers,” Lattimer said, nodding toward the game. A defense garbed in faded white uniforms with a bright blue “D” over the breast hollered and whopped as an enormous man, perhaps two hundred and fifty pounds, emerged from the crowd with his bat—not unlike an ape—nearly dragging it as he approached the plate. He had a wide, slackjawed face, with small eyes and a hawkish, aquiline nose. He seemed twice the size of a normal man. The crowd grew unruly, cheering the heavy striker on, as the outfielders all turned on a heel, shouting to each other and running near to the banks of the river.
“We had to fashion a custom uniform for him a the mill,” Lattimer explained proudly, rubbing his black moustache.
The pitcher, visibly shaken, threw out his leg in a corkscrew motion and delivered a splendid pitch—a powerful fastball that would have seared beyond any normal man before he could even raise his bat.
However, Spencer cursed in pure wonder as this enormous man came to life, delivering a punishing blow upon the ball that could be heard, perhaps, in Buffalo. The crowd erupted into salvos of joy, and the baseball arced like a shooting star well into the river. Even the deputies clapped politely from the crates, smiles across their features.
“best player in the Lake Leagues,” Lattimer said proudly, his hands behind his back. “Most clubs refuse to play Tonowanda unless Fat Man Rogers sits it out. And he is shockingly limber, for his size. Watch how he grazes the bases.”
Indeed, both Spencer and Lawson were speechless as the massive man ran the bases with surprising speed.
“Any experience in the major leagues?” Spencer asked. Lattimer shook his head.
“Not even a day, sir. The man emerged from the Minnesota wilderness like a work of fiction. Found his way down the canal last year looking for work. I pay him five dollars a month to hit the ball.”
Spencer turned, with a suspicious eye, to the lanky businessman.
“So what’s in it for you, Lattimer?” Spencer asked. “Every city from St. Louis to Louisville’s looking for hidden gems. Why Monroe? Why us?”
“Well, normally, a customary finder’s fee would be in order for these sorts of discoveries,” Lattimer replied. “I have, as I’m sure you surmised, some experience as a chaser in the National League. I own one of the textile mills in Buffalo—but to be frank, I make more money selling tickets to come watch Fat Man Rogers hit balls into the Niagara.”
“Go on,” Spencer said.
“Gentlemen, I believe I have lost my taste for the textile industry. Send a telegram to your friend, Mr. Monroe. His endeavors in Richmond are no secret among the old scouts. Tell him that if he will have me as his Head Scout, I will show him a new frontier of baseball talent, waiting just out of sight of the old guard.”
Folding his hands behind his back, Lattimer smiled politely at the pair.
“That would be highly irregular,” Lawson answered hotly, puffing his moustache. “Mr. Monroe has already hired Mr. Spencer to conduct our scouting, sir—hence our presence in this sweltering town. The idea—”
“It’s a deal,” Spencer replied, extending a tan hand to Lattimer. The younger man smiled warmly and took it. “Grover, wire Richmond and inform Mr. Monroe we require a one-hundred-dollar advance for Mr. Lattimer.”
“One hundred dollars?” Lawson demanded. “That simply will not do, sir. This is Monroe Tobacco, not some slipshod Hoboken financier’s hobby cart.”
“Two hundred would be sufficient,” Lattimer replied, “we’ll be gone quite some time, and I shall have to advance some subsidiary costs here.”
“Of course,” Spencer replied.
“That will not do at all,” Lawson continued, red in the face.
“It’ll do fine,” Spencer answered. “Now, Mr. Lattimer—if you find the terms agreeable—where shall I tell Mr. Monroe to wire funds for tickets?”
“Oh, it’s right up your alley, Mr. Spencer.” Smiling, Lattimer rubbed his mustache again, eyeing the pair. “Gentlemen,” he said, removing an envelope from his suit jacket, “we’re going to Montana.”