The Streets of Cairo (or Poor Little Moses)

Posted: June 17, 2014 in Short stories, starts & writing, The Streets of Cairo (or Poor Little Moses)

Leaning against the door, hands behind his back, Raymond Cecil Jones looks genuinely sad behind the substantial bristling of his moustache. Here in front of him is the boy he had taken under his wing, educated, and moulded, so long ago. The boy that had bitten the very hand that fed him. He takes a handkerchief from his breast pocket and wipes his nose and eyes.

“All the dudes were in a flurry, for to catch him they did hurry,” he chimes. Someone makes a noise in the back of the room, something between a snort and a scoff. Jones has two hard-core gun-fighters among his crew – Wily “Utah” Vaine and Sam Vartana. It is likely to be one of them. Jones glances in the direction of the scoff and bares his teeth in a cruel grin, exposing his look of sorrow as perhaps just another piece of fakery, hinting at his penchant for theatre, at his talent for deception, and at his generally fraudulent ways.

“One who caught him now is sorry, poor little maid,” he sings, removing his waistcoat, unbuttoning his shirt cuffs. “Poor little Moses. Poor little maid,” he says as he rolls up his sleeves. “Moses?”

Moses Raleigh sits, blank-staring at the floor, at the bare floor-boards. His hands are tied behind his back, his ankles to the legs of the rickety-legged chair, his bottom lip drooping.


            As an orphaned twelve year old, Moses was the epitome of mistreated child labour. A leaf stripper in one of Julius Fecht’s cigar factories in Ottumwa, Iowa, he had run off after receiving his umpteenth black-eye from the overseer. He jumped the first freight train he saw pulling out but was put off by a tetchy brakeman near the smelting works in Omaha. At dusk he snuck past the toll collector’s hut and crossed the bridge over the Missouri, and walked into the midtown in search of he-didn’t-know-what.

It was there that Moses first made Jones’ acquaintance. Jones was in town, inspecting one of his bands of grifters as they sold cheap-John jewellery and trinkets on a street corner. He felt a sudden pang, something, as his gaze settled on the lost and bewildered looking boy. Was it pity? Concern and compassion did not come naturally to him and he had no qualms in taking advantage of unsuspecting saps and country innocents. But the sight of the boy had roused something in him. He found himself all at once feeling uncommonly averse to the thought of using his slick-tongued guile to effect a hustle on the poor lad. The boy seemed to be at sixes and sevens and so rather than take him for a ride, Jones instead offered him a job as an errand boy at his cigar store down in Denver.

Moses quickly discovered that there was a lot of money to be made from cigars. Especially when your cigar store was a front for a back-room gambling hall, full of dishonest poker games and rigged three-card Monte.


            Jones is a ruthless, violent, vindictive little man, exploiting prospectors as they hump their mandatory ton of supplies up the Chilkoot during the early months of the Klondike gold rush. Well versed in the science of extortion and bribery, the violence with which he enforces his authority here is new, but it comes to him easily.

“Now he’s sorry that he met him, and he never will forget him,” he says, monotone, deadpan, smoothing his pomaded comb-over with his hand. “In the future he’ll know better, won’t he, poor little Moses?”

His face is smooth, his looks are that of a young man, but for his thinning hair and the wrinkles about his eyes. Wrinkles that point to years of scowling and squinting? Not eased now by the glare from the snow around the town of Skagway.

“Ev’ryone said he was pretty, he wasn’t long in the city. All alone, oh, what a pity.”

As he sings he raises his hand forming a white-knuckled fist. “Poor little Moses,” he says and takes a sharp inhalation of breath.


            By fifteen Moses was employed as a shill, casing the Union Station for likely types coming off the trains, fresh sheep for Jones’ bunco gang to shear. In the gambling hall he had learnt to look without looking, to spot the palmed card, the signal from the barman, or the wink from one of the scarlet ladies. Eventually he devised methods for doing it all just a little better, imagining himself in the dealer’s chair, deftly swapping aces for threes or spades for clubs, doing it right under their noses. Often he would be bundled out, clipped over the ear and told to stop standing about gawping at the tables. “You’ll give the game up,” he was told. “And besides, the suckers get the guilts when a kid’s eyeballin’ ‘em.”

Barred from the card games, Jones also prohibited him from going near the women, much to Moses’ chagrin, and he had eventually grown bored. Deciding to skip town, he planned on joining the gold-rush to Alaska, to try his hand as a solo grifter. His first act, however, was to try his hand at out-and-out thievery. Ignoring a brand new Pocket Kodak camera, he swiped a couple of heavy envelopes and a not insubstantial weight in bank notes from Jones’ office safe and fled.

Little did he know the money had been set aside to pay Soapy Smith, a sweetener to help pave Jones’ own way to the grifter’s Eldorado that was the mad rush to the Yukon goldfields. That Soapy had to wait meant nothing to Jones, who was furious beyond speech to discover the envelopes were missing. He set Sam Vartana on Moses’ trail. “Dead or alive, ya hear!” he had yelled.


            Moses is present only in body. His mind staggered off after the first beating, retreating into itself, weaving and banging through yammering noise, the nauseating laughter and gold-crusted gibberish of painted women with their breasts out, men in top-hats-and-tails with their pricks in their hands, and all manner of deviants frozen in the midst of violent intercourse. Careening into foggy memories, Moses does a punch-drunk polka through the throng, receding further and further into the crowded crack-pot orgy. Thousands of crimson-cheeked faces, smiling like lunatics behind their moustaches, yelling incomprehensible babble at him like bar-room drunks with big balding balloon heads, bobbing out of the black and red flickering darkness, leering and shouting and sodomising. He brushes them aside, lurching and leaning his way to a happier time.

  1. Suzanne says:

    Has Moses ever bin happy?

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