It was a roadhouse before there was even a road. There was just a bald line through the trees at first, without one wagon rut. The flatwoods were unbroken for miles and travelers heading south through the territory could not hope for friendly shelter before the end of the land. Then all of a sudden they would stumble across Missus Monroe’s rumshop, hunched up under an oak tree, as if it had been set there by the receding of the Flood.
Missus Monroe and Missus Monroe’s, the lady of the house and the house itself, they were made of the same stuff. Describe one and you describe the other also. The building was tall, dark, unsmiling, rough, lean, and undecorated. There were no homey touches or pictures on the walls besides what could be carved by knifepoint. But what did a house or a hostess need with homey touches, a full day’s ride from anyplace else? She was just herself, and eventually they came.
The footpath officially became a road when a Captain John Thomas Hank and his men came down from Georgia with orders to clear it. He had to make it wide enough for a cart to pass and flat enough to ride on without getting the teeth jarred out of your skull. They started up at Saint Mary’s town on the Georgia border and beat their way south toward the heart of the territory. Armed scouts walked in the lead to jump any loose indians along the way. Following the scouts came the surveyors, then a handcrew with machetes to cut an avenue through the brush. After them came the axemen and sawyers, going hard on the big trees. Then came a gang of poor bastards with grub hoes who had the job of digging out all the palmetto stumps that grew tough in the soil—these men required kicks and occasional gunplay to keep them at their work. At the back was a more placid team of men with shovels who smoothed and graded the roiled earth. From the Georgia border they worked along a route which was supposed to be the best one into the interior, cussing and sweating.
But as they moved deeper into Florida the trail got thinner and thinner and the woods grew murkier. Below Picolata the path became altogether ghostly. There was a stretch where they had no sign of humankind, red white or otherwise, for three days. And then suddenly there was Missus Monroe’s, waiting for them.
A lead scout discovered it. He rode back to Hank’s wagon and came in to the rich man in the middle of his breakfast.
‘Excuse me, Mister Hank, but it’s worth telling you. There’s a stablishment up ahead.’
Hank mopped his mouth a moment. ‘What sort of a stablishment?’ he asked finally.
‘A roadhouse, sir, with a lady running it. Room and board. Food and drink. Just sitting in the woods there, off the trail.’
Hank thought a moment. ‘Hum. How far ahead?’
‘Whum. Well, why not. Yes, we will reach it tomorrow. We will reach it, and rest there just long enough to water our horses.’
That statement became famous. They got to the roadhouse, and stayed long enough to water their horses. They stayed there long enough to water a lot of horses. Five days passed in one long riot, the quiet woods filled up with crashes and yowled laughter and zinged glass and the sound of sawblades recommissioned as musical instruments whanging away though the night. At the center of it all stood Missus Monroe, grimly dispensing slugs of Ron Dominicano.
The great wide military road came to a dead halt right in front of her place, which must have suited her fine. Hank had been chased off on the first day, wailing, weeping blood. Some of his lieutenants fled with him and some stayed. It took a full week for the man to come back from Saint Augustine with a team of rented Hessians, muskets a-glinting, to drive them back to work. When the men got partway sober they took up their tools at bayonet-point and started beating the road south again from Missus Monroe’s, bleary and depressed.
But not all of them. A few of the soberer ones had escaped into the trees when they heard the mercenaries approaching. They reappeared over the next few days, praising God for their deliverance. One man named Rouchefort did not come out of the woods for a month. He was nearly seventy years old and he emerged with a gnarled beard below his breastbone and wild hungry eyes.
These deserters became the bedrock of Missus Monroe’s place. As the cart road became a little more populated these men remained loyal, emotionally attached. There were places for them to stay. Little rooms off the tavern, a couple of shacks put up nearby. There was always food left over from paying customers, so in addition to scavenged poke greens and possum they also dined on the odd leg of chicken or chunk of pie.
It became a proper roadhouse, with a road and everything. Cowmen, trappers, and speculators passed through. Rooms were built on the second story, with exposed stairs leading up. A certain type of lady would come sometimes—a fallen Minorcan woman from the coast, or any standard backwoods slattern. She would arrive and set up in one of the rooms for two or three weeks and then depart with two or three men’s lifeblood folded away in her pretty pockets. Such women were acceptable in Missus Monroe’s eyes, and received their fair share of her tough hospitality. She comforted them too, in the long afternoons, and listened to their stories about vanished husbands and stolen children, and brought them cup after cup of rum as they wept: but the rum was strongly cut, and more and more diluted as time wore on, until at last she was just bringing them clear water in a liquor mug, as if to replenish them after their tears.
She treated every least whore and heel and ruffian with equal generosity. It was not moral laxness, just pure consistency: for any person, in any situation, she was there with her syrup-dark rum and hot cornbread. There was no limit to it. In peacetime she even served Seminoles, whole hunting parties. Between the two wars they made up a decent part of her business. At first she served them at the bar, next to the white customers, but there was something bad about that arrangement. The indians with their hoops and cloaks and muskets standing on one side of the room, silent, never sitting; the paler clientele on the opposite side of the room, also silent. Everyone was glad when she had a palmetto chickee built outdoors. The Seminoles’ food was brought out to them there. It suited them better, since they disliked enclosed spaces: outside they would feel at ease to sit down, and could sometimes be heard talking amongst themselves in that beautiful rolling liquid-toned tongue, and cracking the pig bones with their teeth to suck the marrow.
Was there a Mister Monroe? One mute old man who occupied a fixed barchair for many years was a candidate, but in time his name was proven to be Hicks. There was the gentleman who brought the rum and provisions from Saint Augustine every week or so, maybe it was him. Some men swore they saw the lady smile at him once, as he brought the jugs into the back. But that was talk, just talk. If there was a husband he had never made himself known.
Missus Monroe’s was an easy place, and even a respectable place. Carved out of the meanest pinewoods and still it was respectable. On the way through the great forest a person could stop there, and water his horse, and sit in a chair, and rest his eyes, and shave his face, and smoke a pipe whether lady or gent, and eat warm hoecakes, and watch the drunks squabble and strike each other loosefisted blows for the sake of some goodnatured everlasting feud, and at the end of day lean back to watch the sunset seep through the western pines. If you needed to be foolish a week you could do that at Missus Monroe’s. If you needed to heal from a wound you could heal there. If you needed to pick yourself up from some misfortune you could pick yourself up. If you needed to fall down you could do that too. She had provided a good place to land.