Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now
A chapter from the next book – The Golden Road, wherein young Fredi Steinmetz follows the gold rush trail to California from Texas, in the year 1855. Arrived in California, they have made friends with the disreputable youngest son of an otherwise respectable family, one Fauntleroy Bean. A fugitive from the authorities in San Diego, Fauntleroy has talked Fredi and his friend and business partner Polidore O’Malley (an eccentric Irishman with a mysterious background, who has never told the story of it in the same way twice) to the dusty city of San Bernardino, where Fauntleroy’s brother runs a prosperous establishment, the Headquarters Saloon.
On their return to San Bernardino, any number of willing volunteers assisted with moving the precious crate from wagon-tail to saloon, with Colonel Bean and O’Malley hovering, watchful and protective.
“Gently, go gently with it now,” Colonel Beam commanded. “I paid top dollar for it, all the way from New York.”
“Sure now, don’t open the crate as if you are cracking a nutshell,” O’Malley crooned – he had a long iron crow in hand, and as soon as the crate was positioned next to where Colonel Bean had indicated where the piano should go, O’Malley deftly inserted the point of it into the right places, directing the interested to pull away the planks which made up the crate top and sides as he loosened them. In a few moments the piano stood revealed in all of its varnished and ivory-keyed glory, the protective layers of excelsior and canvas stripped away.
“Careful, boys – careful!” O’Malley urged four men – including Fredi – as they bent their backs and lifted the piano up from its discarded chrysalis of wood, excelsior and canvas and shifted it just a little way, to place it against the rough-plastered wall of the Headquarters. Buried deep in the mound of excelsior tucked into the recess underneath the keyboard was a smaller and barrel-sized bundle which proved – once removed from that smaller wrapping – to be a small stool with what looked to be one seat mounted over another on a large threaded screw. It was of the same wood and styling – or close to it – as the piano. O’Malley divested it of the last of that packing material and set it before the keyboard with an expression once ecstatic and nostalgic.
“’Tis made to compensate for the height of the performer,” he said. “A clever device – this one from the Parker Company of Connecticut … but nay, boys – I will not play a note, until I have seen to the proper tuning of this lovely and long-journeyed lady. Shoo, then – take all this clutter away with ye.”
“Yes – do as he says,” Colonel Bean encouraged them, and then turned his regard on O’Malley, who was caressing the ivory keys – without any pressure upon them to bring forth a note or two – and lifting the hinged lid to peer within, shaking his head as he did so. “You tell me that you can tune and play it? Well, that’s a fortunate occurrence …”
“For which he will expect to be paid, accordingly,” Fredi spoke up – and both the older men looked on him with expressions of mixed dismay and calculation. No matter; Fredi looked straight at the Colonel and said, “For fetching this from Los Angeles, we were paid well. Fitting it to be played and playing upon it is more skilled work. If there is another such in San Bernardino…”
“Freddy, boyo…” O’Malley sounded distressed, and the Colonel looked positively thunderous, but Fredi continued, undismayed.
“Then send for them, if they can offer a better rate. $25 dollars for properly tuning the piano, and $5 an evening for playing it – that’s our offer, for the rest of the winter, until we head north to the gold-fields. What’s yours?”
Colonel Bean appeared to chew on his mustaches for a long moment, while Fredi held his own firm countenance and O’Malley looked from one to the other with increasing dismay. Finally, the Colonel replied, in tones which seemed as if they had been squeezed reluctantly from him, “Yes on the piano tuning – although I doubt anyone in this dusty hell-hole could tell the difference. For an evening, $3 – but he can keep all the tips.”
“Done and agreed,” Fredi said, before O’Malley could demur. He was breathless with this achievement; quite better than he had hoped for, all things considered. “For as long as we stay in San Bernardino – until the snows melt in the Sierras in the spring and we head north to the gold-fields. Shake on it, sir?”
“Agreed and done,” Colonel Bean shook hands with the both of them, and it seemed to Fredi that Josiah Bean regarded him with newly-fresh respect. “You drive a hard bargain, boy.”
“I’m not a greenhorn, fresh off the boat,” Fredi replied. “Though I might sound when I speak English as if I am – a foreigner, newly come.”
“Aye well, perhaps a little,” Colonel Bean admitted. Fredi only smiled, thinking of how this would fatten their stake.
It took O’Malley some days to properly tune the new piano; it seemed to be tedious work, involving incessant fiddling with a peculiar little tool, tightening or loosening the metal pegs that secured the metal wires inside, while O’Malley whistled tunelessly to himself. He seemed happy enough at the task. Fredi became quite bored of watching him after a day or so; no, tuning a piano was not a skill that he could ever acquire, not when he couldn’t hear any significant difference at all between notes. And it turned out that Fauntleroy Bean had been giving scant time to his duties as a bottle washer.
“He’s running after some pretty Mex girl again, I swear.” His brother growled, upon discovering two full baskets of unwashed tumblers, tin cups and beer-mugs. “Damn him, I wish he wasn’t so well-grown, I’d tan his ass with a willow-switch until he couldn’t sit down for a week.”
Fredi, seeing his duty plain, rolled up his shirt-sleeves and volunteered to work his way through the detritus of the previous night’s drinking – not forgetting to set a price on his labors over the dish-tub. Late in the afternoon, while throwing the last pan of dirty water out into the stable-yard, he spotted Fauntleroy strolling in from the direction of the San Gabriel church, swaggering like a tom-cat. Fauntleroy had not seen Fredi, who waited until Fauntleroy had tiptoed into the back room – rather obviously hoping not to be seen.
“The Colonel’s mighty angry with you,” Fredi said, from beyond the doorway into the saloon, and Fauntleroy jumped.
“Sweet Jesus, I didn’t see you, Freddy – aww, Josh is always angry with me. It’s in his nature, I guess. What’s he mad about this time?”
“About the usual – sparking pretty women and not doing your job here.” Fredi added, since he was curious, “Are you courting a girl, Fauntly? Is she pretty?”
“The prettiest,” Fauntleroy’s handsome countenance wore an expression of smug assurance. “And she’s aflame with love for me … can’t keep her hands off. It’s like wrestling with an octopus. And the things she can do with her … lips. You’d be on fire, Freddy. Dona Inés is kin to the Ortegas – big landowning family in these parts. She’s supposed to marry some distant cousin of theirs, but what do you know? She might marry me instead.”
“The Colonel won’t like that,” Fredi could feel his heart sinking. Fauntleroy Bean could not go two weeks without getting into trouble – gambling trouble, woman trouble or fighting trouble. No wonder the Colonel looked so much older than his brother; being responsible for Fauntleroy Bean would tend to age a man considerable. “It’ll make trouble for him.”
“Ol’ Josh can take care of himself…” Fauntleroy assured him, as the sound of gentle piano notes floated into the back room.
“He’s done with tuning the piano,” Fredi exclaimed with much delight, immediately loosing interest in Fauntleroy’s current light of love, and in twitting Fauntleroy about it. Also, he was nearly done with the work of washing-up from the night before.
In the near-empty saloon, O’Malley sat before the piano, his eyes half-closed as his hands wandered purposefully over the keyboard. The music was slow and stately, with a touch of melancholy, enough to bring tears to the eyes of the sentimental; loss and longing and regret all mixed together. Fredi stole closer – the tune was halfway familiar. Perhaps he had heard it at one of the Sunday recitals back in Fredericksburg, when Captain Nimitz opened up the casino-ballroom in his hotel for a concert or some such.
“From an opera by Handel, boyo – one of your countrymen,” O’Malley answered, his eyes half-closed as he played; no music on the stand before him, he was playing from memory. Fredi was immediately awed by the magic of it – such a complicated piece, with so many notes! “A concert-master to kings and princes, and a favorite of the Earl of Cork, no less.”
“No – from Halle in Prussia,” Fredi objected. “We were from near Ulm in Bavaria…”
“No matter …” O’Malley played on, singing half-under his breath to the notes that he played. “… Where’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade … Trees where you sit shall crowd into a shade … Trees where you sit shall crowd into shade! Where’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise … And all things flourish …”
“Sounds like a funeral,” Fauntleroy said, disparagingly. “Christ almighty, don’t play anything like that for the house tonight, O’Malley. Play something cheerful; get the boys into a drinking mood.”
O’Malley clashed his hands onto the keys in one discordant rush – the melancholy mood instantly shattered into a thousand jagged pieces. “How about this, Fauntly – for a good drinking mood?”
He launched into another tune, in brisk waltz-time, which sounded partly familiar to Fredi; he rather thought it was one that the older Fabreaux brothers were wont to whistle when the mood took them – a rather lewd and suggestive ditty when it came right down to it.
“Will you come to the bow’r I have shaded for you? I have decked it with roses, all spangled with dew…”
“Just the ticket, O’Malley,” Fauntleroy said, with a broad and appreciative grin, just as Colonel Bean came out of his office and passed close by his brother.
“Oh, it’s you – finally,” he said, and sniffed. “I know where you have been all afternoon – you have the stink of a woman all over you.”
“Jealous, Josh?” Fauntleroy’s grin widened, and his brother snapped, “I swear, Fauntly, if you have loosed your Nebuchadnezzar to romp with the wife or daughter of a jealous man and it brings down ill-fortune on the Headquarters, I will cast you off entirely. I mean it – use some discretion, for the love of your life! Try a whore now and again – at least, such will go away once paid!”
“But’s so much fun, this way,” Fauntleroy Bean replied, unrepentant.
“Get ready to open the bar,” Colonel Bean snapped, and Fauntleroy looked as if he were about to make a reply, but thought better of it. O’Malley was still playing, to the world oblivious of all save music, but as Fredi hovered uncertainly, O’Malley murmured,
“Boyo, has the good Colonel paid us yet for the work?”
“He will, as soon as I remind him that the piano is now playable … why?”
“I sense choppy waters ahead, Fredi-boyo.” O’Malley looked at the ivory keys, responsive to his hands. “We may have to leave in a hurry.”