My daughter and I have emerged, breathless, exhausted and muscle-sore from two months and a bit of schlepping heavy items back and forth between shed and Montero, and Montero to venue every other weekend, or every weekend. If it wasn’t my books, then it was my books and her origami art. This last weekend in Boerne was the last of our winter event schedule. We won’t be breaking out the hot-pink pavilion with the zebra-striped top until spring … unless it will be to set it up on a sunny day this week to dry it all out. Which we should have done on Monday, except that there was too much else to do … empty out the car, decorate the bay-laurel tree in front of the house for Christmas, pay attention to some basic housekeeping and laundry – the sink and the laundry baskets both overflowing – and to carry out a couple of items to the curb for the yearly bulk trash pickup.
Our contributions to bulk trash comprised a pair of cruddy computer speakers, a flat-screen monitor which had developed some pretty distracting areas of damage, a short ornamental garden pedestal of poured plaster, and a metal and fabric lounge chair/foot-stool combination which my daughter brought home from the Marines. It was one of those inexpensive, ugly and futuristic – but surprisingly comfortable items – which had been passed around the Cherry Point enlisted barracks until my daughter snagged it and brought it home, where it took up altogether too much space. I suspect from the distinct whiff from the cushions that the cats and maybe one of the dogs had taken to marking it with their very own essence. So, out on the curb it all went, and – mirabile dictu – all these items promptly vanished, although the enormous city collection trucks have not yet appeared – although the junker trucks have been rotating like turkey vultures over our neighborhood for days.
The plaster pedestal was pretty well decayed by use and weathering. An elderly couple in a very nice late-model station wagon pulled up, even as we were unloading the car of our gypsy-market materials, and the husband asked through the driver-side window, if it was very heavy. Blondie said it was not, and loaded it into the back of their car, as we confessed that … we had actually collected it from the curbside some years ago, when it wasn’t nearly so decayed. Amusingly, a fair number of the pots and ornamental elements in our garden were scrounged from the curbside. Our own haul from the neighborhood curbside this year included a pair of barely-used dog beds and one of those folding Oriental black lacquer screens – a rather nice item, once the hinges were replaced by stout brass hardware and longer screws and assorted dings and scratches repaired by various means. The dog beds were washed in blazingly hot water, of course. They are already popular with the one doggle who had prized the barracks chair.
As for the markets – they have all been so-so, this year. There are a number of possible reasons for this, which may make another blog-post. Still, one way and another, I have come home after some of them with bargains: this weekend, it was a whole cowhide.
No, don’t laugh – I have a set of Colonial-reproduction ladder-back chairs in the dining room, which I bought as kits from a very reputable mail-order catalogue yea on some decades ago. These chairs were designed and supplied to be finished with woven rush seats – that kind of rush made from brown paper, woven in diminishing squares to finish the seats, then varnished to finish. And I wove the rushing seats, and varnished them … but what with one thing and another, the cats just viewed them as handy scratching posts and tore them to shreds. I must refinish the darned things … again … but am just exasperated, contemplating ordering the necessary coils of rushing and reweaving the seats of five chairs for the third, or maybe the fourth time. A few weeks ago I had an inspiration – why not do the seats in cowhide, for a rustic Western look? The more I thought about it, the better I liked the idea, although tanned cowhides looked to be darned expensive, and the brown and white spotted hides would look kind of kitschy … but one of the other vendors last weekend had a booth full of cowhide rugs, runners and hangings – either pieced together, or straight as they came from the cow. Among them was a plain creamy-tan hide … and the vendor and I struck a deal for it. Business was slow at the market, the plain cream hides are not as popular as the more obviously spotted and dappled ones, and he was just tickled to death at the thought that I would be doing something so outrageously creative with it, and explained to me the best way to do the seats, with staples and ornamental nail-heads over a plywood base and a bit of foam rubber. The hide is enormous – the cow it came from must have been as big as a mastodon. There’ll be plenty of hide to do seats for all five chairs and a good bit left over. So – that will be my particular project over the New Year, now that the market events are done.
It may also lead to having to repaint the dining area in a color better calculated to match the cowhide, but that will be another project entirely.
My mother always did plates of Christmas cookies as presents for neighbors; she had this down to a science the last couple of years. She would bake up a storm, about a dozen different kinds of cookies, and the last couple of years they were stashed as soon as they cooled in the freezer, until the day when Mom would assemble the plates, and whoever was handy would go around and deliver them. I think the only year that Mom skipped lately was in 2003, the year that the house burned to the ground in the Paradise Mountain fire. The twenty pounds of butter Mom had stashed in the freezer against the days of wholesale baking melted and and the butterfat grease burned for about a week after the rest of the fire was put out, or so Mom insisted later.
I did cookies myself for a good few years – little gift bags for fellow dorm residents, and a gargantuan box for the workplace – but eventually became rather bored of cookie-baking. Likely our neighbors were equally bored with it, because – well, everyone does cookies. I think that most of them have mercifully forgotten the gingerbread drop cookies from a good few years ago – those what were made from an uncharacteristically disastrous Joy of Cooking recipe which looked (and likely tasted) like ginger-flavored dog turds. We may have been forgiven this disaster thanks to last year’s offering: another recipe for lemon-pecan-coconut bars, but still … one can only do cookies for so many years.
So, a couple of years ago, Blondie and I decided to change it up. We did home-made cheese and bread, herbal vinegars and oils – all kinds of good edible things, packaged in pretty tins from the Dollar Store, or in little paper bags with a gingham-checked napkin on top. This year, Blondie decided that we should do an assortment of home-made fudge. We got this notion from a lovely candy store in Fredericksburg which commits a regular assault on good taste by providing chocolate-coated dill pickles and jalapeno peppers, but also has an amazing variety of made-on-the-premises fudge. So it was my daughter’s brilliant Christmas notion to make fudge for this year’s seasonal affliction of the neighbors. Which we did, the first of this week, after researching a comprehensive collection of fudge recipes on-line, and laying out for white, milk, and semi-sweet cooking/confection chocolate and all the other ingredients at Sams’ Club or at the friendly neighborhood HEB.
I swear, we did not skimp on the quality of ingredients; real butter, real cream, quality chocolate all the way. And so we spent two days stirring pans of butter-cream-sugar combinations over low heat, measuring out the additions on the kitchen scale, pouring them into every butter-greased pan in the house, taking up all the available space in the refrigerator (and some in the Coleman cooler, too) for slabs of fudge: straight chocolate drizzled with white chocolate, brown-sugar with pecans, two-colored and liqueur-flavored Brandy Alexander fudge, orange-white-chocolate crème flavored, white chocolate cocoanut and nut, dark chocolate peppermint topped with crushed peppermint-stick-candy, and dark chocolate Christmas-flavored with cranberries and nuts… yes, we gave that candy shop a run for their money, locally. We even doubled some recipes … an unnecessary precaution as it turned out, although it did use up just about every scrap of the ingredients purposeful-bought for this seasonal exercise. And the other thing – a good few packages of seasonal candy-papers; the tins and plates looked really good and almost professional-grade as we packed them. But we did have a lot, when all was said and done – enough to give a tin to practically every neighbor we have ever had several polite conversations with, and a good-sized platter of assorted fudges to the fire station on O’Connor, plus tins for the mailman and the guy driving the trash collection truck. (Mom always left the trashmen a six-pack with a bow and a Christmas card on it, sitting on top of the cans on the first collection day after Christmas.) For all of that, we still have a large Tupperware container of cut fudge, enough to package in another five or six tins. So far, it has proved enormously popular, and likely we will do it again – but not doubling any of the recipes.
Another weekend, it must be another book event. And so it was last Saturday, so it will be this coming weekend. Last Saturday it was Christmas on the Square in Goliad, a place which I hold in affection – because it is a pleasant small town, full of nice people who all know each other and are connected by one to three degrees, has some claim to historicity, but is otherwise relatively unspoiled by excessive tourism and what my daughter calls the YA contingent. Which doesn’t stand for Young Adult, but ‘Yuppie *sshole’ – that variety of well-to-do and socially conscientious arriviste who roar into some unspoiled little country locale, en mass, and gentrify the heck out of it; the kind of people who love the country and farms and quaint friendliness, but who promptly turn it into upscale suburbia, can’t stand the smell of cows or the noise of agricultural pursuits at odd hours, and condescend to their neighbors as being hicks from the sticks. This also raises the prices of everything from property, rents, and everything else from a sandwich and cuppa coffee on up. Given the chance, I would take up a place in a nice little Texas country town like Goliad, renovate a little house and live there quite happily – but I would keep very, very quiet afterwards. I don’t think I am a snob or even a reverse-snob, particularly – but I always liked the remote little suburb that I grew up in precisely for the lack of pretense and the low-key, working-class friendliness.
The weather was wonderful on Saturday, there were enough vendors to make a double-line of booths along one side of the square, my daughter was persuaded not to bring home any of the cats on display from the local animal shelter, and gratifying number of shoppers and fans fell upon my books – especially Lone Star Sons – with cries of happy joy.
Anyway – what brought that these musings about class and neighborliness? Fondness for Goliad, the fact that they have laid out the streets in the old part of town to bypass certain huge old oak trees, some say they never lock their doors at night, and that semi-rural begins very close – within a block or so to the Courthouse square in some directions – and that the authors at the event fell into two distinct groups, and another author and me. As a repeat author to Miss Ruby’s Book Corral, I readily recognized them, although some were new to me. The first group were academics – they occupy a perch at the local branch of UT, or A & M, or one of the community colleges, and they all had books out which touched on local history in someway or another – at least two of which I was tempted to buy because … I need more microscopically local references because that’s where I get my best ideas! (Blondie talked me out of it … since … hey, I hardly have any more room on the bookshelves anyway.) One or two of them talked to me as we were setting up, or during the course of the day – but since I am cheerfully PhD-less (pronounced fid-less) and a dogged amateur historian, I barely count in the grand academic scheme of things. They clustered together, bought lunches and chattered amongst themselves: I’m not certain that they sold much, between them. This may have been more of a social occasion for them. The second group in the Author Corral were authors who were personalities in the local media – writers and columnists who already had a local following for their books. They were the ones that I mostly knew from other events; I know that they did a brisk business, especially the ladies with the cookbook, which seems to be enormously popular. The single other historical novelist and I shared a table, although my collection of nine separate books very much overwhelmed hers of two – and in hardback and paperback. I eventually sold her a copy of Lone Star Sons and The Quivera Trail purely because she was so intrigued overhearing me talk about them to people who came to my half of the table.
And that was that – for last week. This weekend, it’s Boerne, and on Saturday the market will continue until 7 PM. We have been told to bring a couple of strings of lights for the outside of the pavilion and some kind of spotlight for the inside. I think it will be actually rather lovely, at night – with the music and the lights and all. See you there, perhaps! We’re in the pink pavilion with the black-and-white-zebra-striped top.
Yes, in between Christmas shopping, Thanksgiving and various other events, I have finally pounded out another chapter of The Golden Road – the adventures of wide-eyed young Fredi Steinmetz in the California gold fields. Only he and his slippery Irish comrade, Polidore Aloysius O’Malley have been delayed for some months working in the only saloon in the dusty frontier town of San Bernardino – run by the Bean brothers; the upright Col. Joshua Bean and his scapegrace, card-playing horn-dog of a younger brother Fauntleroy. Enjoy. And yes, Fauntleroy Bean was also known as Phantly Roy, and long decades later as just plain Roy, the only justice of the peace and upholder of the law west of the Pecos…
Chapter 9 – El Camino Real
“They think it was one of Murrieta’s old gang,” O’Malley explained, with a somber face. “The Colonel had words with a Mexican last night, threw him out of the place. This morning, they had words again when the man came to complain …. The man went away, but waited and shot him down like a dog not half an hour ago in the street – he escaped, although those who saw it raised the hue and cry. They were looking all over for the pair of ye – where have ye been, all this time?”
“I had an errand, and asked Freddy to come with me,” Fauntleroy answered, on the instant, as if he did not even pause to consider a lie. “Where is my brother now?”
“In his own room, sor,” O’Malley looked so very grave and sympathetic. “I fear that it will not be long now for your brother. But he is not suffering.”
“That’s good,” Fauntleroy answered. He seemed dazed, uncomprehending; likely for the second time in a single day. Fredi wondered who would run the Headquarters now … Fauntleroy enjoyed looking like a big man, behind the bar, but had no relish for the work involved – and that had been obvious within days, even to Fredi. “I suppose that we shall open tonight – just for friends of Josh’s. No piano – we’ll keep it quiet from respect.”
“It’s all happened so sudden-like,” Fredi said, later that afternoon to O’Malley. They sat on a bench in the veranda of the Headquarters, with Nipper at their feet. The late afternoon sunshine blazed on the plastered walls of the mud-brick, a welcome counter to the cool breeze wandering from the east, seemingly chilled by the snow lingering on the tallest mountain peaks. “No warning – and in the space of an hour, everything is turned upside down.”
“It’s like that, Fredi-boyo,” O’Malley meditated on the smoke from his pipe, rising into the air. Fredi had already told him of the mornings’ escapade with the duel, Dona Inés and the almost-hanging. “Sometimes ye can see the bad fortune coming – see it for miles – and then sometimes not. I think should leave here soon, as we had planned. The doctor does not think that the Colonel will last the night. Young Fauntly attracts misfortune to him, and I do not like the thought of standing next to him when the next parcel of it arrives.”
“For loyalty to the Colonel, should we not stay a while?” Fredi asked, for the Colonel had been quite decent to them both, if sometimes blunt-speaking.
O’Malley shook his head. “’Til he has been put into the ground and the words read by the priest; not a moment longer, boyo. We take the pay that is owed and we go north.”
Colonel Josh Bean died very quietly, just before dawn the next morning. Fauntleroy, very pale, and with his shirt collar buttoned high and cravat tied likewise to hide the marks on his neck told a small handful of friends the next morning.
“I suppose since I am his brother and he owned the Headquarters free and clear in his name, that it is mine now, to order and run as I see fit,” he added, in closing. The various friends looked sideways at each other; their opinions of Fauntleroy Bean likely being similar to O’Malley and Fredi’s – but it was the only saloon in San Bernardino.
“I daresay ye will close the Headquarters until the burying,” O’Malley suggested in a gentle voice. “‘T would be suitable.”
But Fauntleroy shook his head. “My brother had many friends and much respect among the citizens of this place – if they come to pay their respects, I may as well open the bar.”
There was an uneasy silence, in which Fredi cleared his throat. “We are owed our wages for this last week, Fauntly – for working in the back, and O’Malley with the piano.”
“How can you bring up money, at a time like this?” Fauntleroy had every appearance of being in grief and wounded to the quick. “I’ll … look at my brothers’ account books, and see what I can do for you boys.”
“I’d be grateful, Fauntly.” Fredi was reassured on that score – but only for a day. Fauntleroy emerged from the office at mid-morning with an opened account book in his hand, just as Fredi went past with a tray of clean glasses and tankards, saying, “I’ve been going over Josh’s accounts – and there’s nothing to pay you boys with, what with the costs of burying Josh, and the loss of business on account of closing to the general public over the last five days …”
Fredi regarded Fauntleroy with stone-faced disgust; the Headquarters Saloon – never mind who was in charge of it now – owed O’Malley for a week of pounding the piano keys, and himself for the same week, running errands, sweeping up the floor and washing tankards and cups. This was no better than being treated as a Negro slave – and Fauntleroy owed his freedom and his life twice over to O’Malley and Fredi. This was galling – and all the more galling, since there was damn little they could do about it now, dependent upon Fauntleroy’s willow-the-wisp good will. At that moment, Fredi realized that he had enough of this kind of smiling-faced treachery. He and O’Malley were cheated of their wages, and that was an end to it. He dropped the tray onto the tile floor, hearing the tray hit with a clatter and the glassware with a satisfactory smash. “We’re gone north to the gold mines, then. Look to some other poor fool to clean that up for you – or do it yourself. ” He turned on his heel, and walked away, leaving Fauntleroy no doubt staring at the mess in dismay. For himself, Fredi no longer cared; he went to the tiny room in the back of the place where he and O’Malley had been quartered. O’Malley was there, sitting by the small window where the light was best, mending the hem of his overcoat with needle and thread. Fredi rolled up the pallet and blankets that he had slept on and under since leaving Texas.
“We’re going, O’Malley,” he said, over his shoulder. “Fauntly says that he cannot pay us our due – so I have quit, and told him we are for the gold mines.”
“Indade,” O’Malley observed – sounding not all that distressed about it, or even very much surprised. “The open road calls to us, then. And we have many hours of daylight left to us if we leave at once.” He made a knot in the thread and snapped it short, shaking out the overcoat as if to admire his own handiwork. “A pity about the piano, though …‘Tis a bonny and tuneful thing, abandoned in this place!”
“If at all possible,” Fredi said through his teeth, as he bundled the last of his meagre possessions into a carpet-bag and shrugged his own jacket over his shoulders, “We’ll find work for you – playing another. Gather your own trash and traps, O’Malley – let us be done with this place at once.”
“Before Fauntly gathers his wits and cozens us to remain, pleading with sweet words and promises?” O’Malley nodded agreement. He whistled to Nipper, who came awake in an instant, and bounded from where he had been curled up in a tight brindle ball at the foot of O’Malley’s pallet, resting his paws on O’Malley’s knees.
“’Tis on the road we are, little fellow!” O’Malley said to his dog. Nipper seemed agreeable enough, and much more philosophical about it than Fredi felt. They gathered their small baggage and went out to harness the mules. Nipper bounding ahead of them all the way, looking over his flank at them, and hopping up to assume his usual seat in the wagon as O’Malley whistled to the mules in the small corral at the back of the Headquarters. The corral and the stableyard were deep in trampled mud after a week of on and off rain, and also the droppings of many animals, and the pans of dirty dishwater thrown out from the back steps of the Headquarters. O’Malley threw his many-caped overcoat into the wagon-bed, and Nipper burrowed into it at once, for the morning again was chill and the promise of more rain, if the grey clouds gathered like a cloak about the peaks of the mountains were any indication..
They set to the business of harnessing the mules, two and two, to the wagon, a task at which they – and the mules – were so accustomed that it was accomplished in relative silence and a few minutes by time. When they were nearly done, Fauntleroy Bean appeared in the kitchen doorway, his cravat already undone and shirt collar unbuttoned, revealing the livid marks about his neck still remaining from his near-hanging. O’Malley was already in the wagon, the reins in his hands.
“Fellows … Fred, Aloysius, you should reconsider …” he began, his countenance set in an earnest and tragic expression. “It’s just that there isn’t any money for wages at present, after the expenses are considered …My word on it. The Headquarters is in a bad way, with my brother dead – and a worse, if you are gone…”
“Not our concern, “Fredi snapped, still furious almost to the point of reverting into his first language. He felt again that unreasoning red mist of anger about to descend on him, that mindless and heedless fury that had led him into pounding Zeke Satterwaite into a bloody pulp. If Fauntleroy Bean laid a hand on him, Fredi knew without a doubt – that particular battle-fury, as O’Malley had called it – would descend again. He was that angry over the lost wages, over the way that Fauntleroy seemed determined to treat them both as he did his various lovers. “Your word … it is a worthless thing. Not like your brother. He was honest and fair to us. We are on our way. You cannot cozen us into remaining…” He turned away from Fauntleroy, who started forward, looking as if he was about to stay them with a hand outreached, even as Fredi mounted up onto the wagon-seat.
“Freddy … Aloysius,” Fauntleroy pleaded – as if he was an honest man unfairly reproved – which infuriated Fredi even more. He kicked out, his contempt unrivaled – and his toe caught Fauntleroy Bean fair in the chest, with sufficient force to topple the man backwards with a satisfactory splash, down into the pool of muddy dishwater and accumulated cow, mule and horse-pats at the bottom of the step into the kitchen.
“Well-done, Freddy-boyo,” O’Malley observed with satisfaction, slapping the reins over the backs of the mules. Fauntleroy, stunned for once into speechlessness, levered himself with one elbow into a sitting position, mouth open with shock as the wagon rolled out of the yard and into the street.
“We tell everyone we meet what you have done,” Fredi shouted, over his shoulder as they rounded the corner, not caring that he was shouting in an incoherent mixture of German and English. “That you are a cheat, a liar and a fornicator … see how many customers come to the Headquarters now, eh!”
O’Malley chirruped to the mules, and grinned at Fredi. “Well, boyo – so now ye see? There’s many of his like in the world, I’m afraid, and Fauntleroy Bean is far and away not the worst of them.”
“I’ll take very good care not to take wages from any of them!” Fredi’s anger still burned hot, and O’Malley looked at the road unrolling ahead of them, the dusty road which led north, towards Los Angeles.
“’Tis a luxury, having such a choice, boyo.” The Irishman sounded as if he were admonishing. “But aye, I am thinking that no’ so many will work for a promise of wages now. In good time, Fauntleroy Bean will have the reputation which he deserves. We still have a foine stake for setting up a claim. It’s only a week or so that he cheated us of – no so much, considered against what we have already. As for us now … the snows still lock the high mountains in winter for another few months. ‘Tis too early to commence our journey to the diggings; what say you to San Francisco, and searching for work there? The biggest city in the land likely will offer us any number of opportunities.”
“Even for playing the piano?” Fredi, good humor restored by the thought of as large a city as any that he had ever seen in this country – bigger than Galveston even – was not above teasing his business partner a little, and O’Malley laughed. The freshening breeze tugged at their caps, and at the overlapping capes of O’Malley’s overcoat.
“Aye, boyo –and it pays well! When the diggings open, we can load up the wagon and haul supplies into whatever mine-camp seems to be most promising. They say that rich strikes are happening every week, from Mont-Ophir in the south to Rich Bar in the north – but that the men getting richest of all are those who mine the miners – selling supplies, whores and the mail from home.”
“But why shouldn’t we be among those striking it rich?” Fredi ruminated over all the stories he had heard – pebbles of pure gold, the size of a man’s thumbnail, scattered among the gravel at the river’s edge. That was a picture more alluring than laboring away, hauling freight and driving cattle – or washing glasses and bottles in a saloon. He could hardly wait – and relished once again and imagining of returning to Texas, richer than one of the Firsts, and repaying his brother-in-law every penny of the money lost to robbery on the road to Indianola.
That seemed now to have happened a long time ago, although in truth it was barely eight months. Fredi thought smugly that he had become very wise in that time; he and O’Malley’s stake was secreted in several places; a small portion carried on his own person and on O’Malley’s, but the largest part in a small sack concealed in a cask of cornmeal in the back of the wagon. No one would think to look for money in the meal cask, O’Malley had said, quite early on, and Fredi agreed.
They had gotten to a point halfway between San Bernardino and Los Angeles when disaster struck. It was a particularly deserted stretch of road, not a lonely house or a tiny settlement in sight. The sun, sliding down the western sky was still gilding the hilltops, and tinting the snow on the distant mountaintops in hues of rose and gold, but the valley bottoms were already abandoned to shadow. Fredi had already suggested that they make a wilderness camp of it for the night, picket the mules to graze, and sleep under the wagon, but O’Malley hankered to spend the night under a roof, and held out for traveling another mile or so, in hopes of encountering a dwelling-place, a town … anything. Shadows filled the valley, deep and darkening, even as O’Malley looked wistfully ahead for a lantern-lit window. Just as Fredi was about to say that there was no such thing in sight, and they should make camp while they still had light enough to unharness the mules and ensure that they were not bedding down on top of an ant-hill or a nest of rattlesnakes, a male voice called to them in Spanish, from the deeper shadow beside thicket of bare sage.
“Hola, my friends … it’s late to be on the road – may I ask where you are going?”
“To Los Angeles,” Fredi answered, having no suspicion in the least – until the metallic click of a pistol cocking alerted him – too late. Even as O’Malley made as if to send the mules hurtling forward, another man-shaped shadow emerged, deftly catching the lead mule’s headstall. Fredi – too late alarmed – leaned down, reaching for the shot-gun which O’Malley kept within reach, under the wagon seat. The man with the pistol stepped out of the shadows, the last of the twilight etching a pale line down the barrel. That pistol pointed straight at Fredi’s stomach, from hardly an arm-length away, and there was another pistol aimed at O’Malley; at least three men that Fredi could see, and at least two more that he could not, but sensed their presence anyway.
“Not tonight, I think,” said the first man, suave and confident. Now Fredi could see that he had a dark kerchief over his face, and his heart sank. This did not look good. There had been many a tale of Murietta and his bandit gang told in the Headquarters Saloon; not everyone in San Bernardino was convinced that Murietta and his chief henchman, Three-Finger Jack Garcia, had been killed by Captain Love’s Ranger company a year or two before although many had said they recognized the bandits’ pickled head when it was shown around the gold camps afterwards. “Alas, we are poor men and you are rich – and is it not said that those who have must share with the poor and hungry?”
“And we are very hungry,” commented the man holding the mule’s headstall. The wagon rocked slightly on its springs, as if someone were climbing over the tail-gate. Nipper growled, from his nest at their feet in O’Malley’s folded overcoat, and O’Malley twisted around to look back into the wagon bed, bidding Nipper to be still. Fredi could hear O’Malley whispering to himself, very low in English which sounded like prayers.
“We’re being held up by road-agents,” Fredi said, keeping his voice level with an effort. Everything they owned between them was in the wagon – the cargo it carried, the mules which pulled it, and most especially – their stake in coins and notes, secreted in the cornmeal. “We are not rich,” he protested. “But honest and hard-working men! We are heading for the gold mines – not away from them; why should you steal what we have from us?”
“You have more than we,” the bandit leader replied, in an irritatingly reasonable manner. “And we have nothing – so you are rich indeed, by comparison. Come down from the wagon, my friends – slowly and keep your hands clear where we may see them.”
“He’s telling us to get down,” Fredi translated for O’Malley. “And to be slow and careful – there are at least three guns trained on us.”
“I’ll not die like a dog in the road,” O’Malley said through his teeth. “Give them what they ask for, boyo – do just as they say. Nip – to me. Tell them I’m wrapping Nipper in my coat. He’s just a poor little doggie, but he is loyal above all.”
“Your valuables, my friends,” ordered the bandit leader, once they had obeyed. “Go on – keep nothing back, not a single centavo, for Jesu Cristo rewards in heaven those who are generous to the poor.” Fredi and O’Malley stood with their backs to the wagon-wheel, Fredi with his hands raised, and O’Malley holding Nipper, tightly wrapped in his overcoat under his arm. Inside the wagon they could hear one of the bandits ransacking what it held, while Nipper whined in distress, but O’Malley held him fast, swathed in the overcoat’s folds. With one hand the bandit leader held out a coarse sack which might once have held sugar or salt – brandishing in the other an old-fashioned dragoon pistol. It only held a single shot, but at that range, a man couldn’t miss – and close as they were, Fredi could see the hilts of three or four more, tucked into the leader’s belt and the front of his short Mexican jacket. Another bandit, similarly masked and armed, stood by and holding a small pierced-tin lantern aloft, so that there was light enough to see by it, as darkness closed down over the valley like a pot-lid. Who knew how many other guns were trained on them, held steadily by how many bandits? He thought that he could hear horses close by, whickering to each other, and their bridle-bits jingling. There was no advantage to himself and O’Malley in this, Fredi acknowledged bleakly. Not even Carl Becker could have overcome this many … and in any case, his wood-wise brother-in-law likely would not have fallen into an ambush like this in the first place.
With an insouciance remarkable to Fredi, O’Malley surrendered his pocket-watch; a cheap and battered thing of tin, and twisted off the tiny jet signet ring from his finger. With a sigh, he added his purse, containing his small share of their stake, which he carried for such small expenses as they had, in order that the avaricious might not observe the larger store of money. Fredi, the bag and the dragoon pistol put before him, added his own small share, and the patent Colt revolver which he had bought from Gil Fabreaux’s brother, all these months ago.
The two bandits regarded them in reproach in the speckled lantern-light, obviously disappointed over the meagre takings.
Stung, Fredi protested, “I told you that we were plain working men – who other than such would be on the road at this time and season?”
At his side, O’Malley groaned faintly. “Boyo, have a care. We give them what they want, that we may go in peace…” he crossed himself in the way of Catholics in the old church with his free hand, murmuring, “…pray for us now, and in the hour of our death…”
Seeing an advantage or sorts – did this bandit understand English after all? – Fredi said, “He is one of your old church, as devout as a man can be said to be in this wilderness. We have given to you what we can…”
“Not all!” the bandit leader sounded as if he leered triumphantly under the kerchief over his face, as one of his gang came over the wagon seat, with a dusty sack in his hand. Fredi’s heart sank, all the way into his boots. Their stake! All the money they had in the world, their wages from six hard months on the cattle trail, and what they had earned since! The sale of Paint lay in that bag, that and the price of his and O’Malley’s long hours of work, pounding piano keys and laboring over the wash-pan in Colonel Bean’s saloon.
The man with the corn-meal dusty bag emptied it into the larger one, the coins and notes jingling and rustling as they fell. Fredi and O’Malley watched, helpless and impotent – and to add insult to injury on top of robbery, the bandit chief looked at them both in reproach.
“My friends – you are certainly very poor rich men, if this is all you have! Little notes, small coins of less value…”
“We were cheated of our wages,” Fredi replied, indignant, as that particular injustice still stung. “We worked for Colonel Bean, at the saloon in San Bernardino; all these weeks … and his brother did not pay us, saying there was nothing from the profits…”
“Los Frijoles?” the other bandit murmured – not wholly sympathetic, but appearing to flirt with the notion. O’Malley’s gaze went back and forth between Fredi and the two outlaws, but the Irishman sensibly appeared to think better of speaking. Fredi wondered briefly again, if the bandit understood English. Bundled in the overcoat, Nipper whined again, distressed – but not as much as he hand been, when the bandit first began searching the wagon.
“Yes – the Beans. We worked without pause or rest for … many weeks. And at the end of it, Senor Leroy refused us our wages.”
“And what did you do … for los Frijoles?” the bandit leader asked again, seeming interested.
“I washed in the kitchen,” Fredi answered. “And we hauled a piano from Los Angeles. Senor O’Malley played upon it nightly for many hours, which brought many customers into los Frijoles’ establishment and enriched them mightily. We were promised a generous wage of five dollars for each night that he played – but that bastard Senor Leroy cheated us in the end. So we left.”
“Aye-yi-yi,” the bandit leader whistled in sympathy, as an interested murmur of Spanish rippled among the others of his gang. “You were cheated … such is not an unknown occurrence, but usually not inflicted upon those of their own kind. But I am a gentleman and a merciful one – unlike those gringos …” he reached into the large bag which held everything that his men had looted from O’Malley and Fredi, and scattered a random handful of coins at their feet. “Thus, I return to you a portion. Alas, we are poor men ourselves, and cheated of our rights on every hand, or else I would return even more. We will leave you with your wagon and the mules. Count yourself fortunate, my friends, that we have no use for them. But we do languish for music and amusement …”
“Oh?” Fredi regarded the bandit chief with wary courtesy. “We don’t have a piano – or anything but a penny-whistle. What would you have us do?”
“If your Senor O’Malley would come with us, for a few hours,” the bandit leader replied. “There is a rancho … some little distance from here, where there is a piano, but no one there alive to play it.”
“They want you to come with them, to play the piano,” Fredi relayed to O’Malley, who nodded briskly, and seemed to fear no peril. Fredi wondered exactly how often O’Malley had been in tight, dangerous situations; he certainly seemed cool enough.
He handed the bundled overcoat with Nipper in it over to Fredi, saying, “Keep the little doggie safe with you – for he may try to run after me and become lost.” He looked as if he were about to say more, but thought better of it.
“Fetch him a mule,” the bandit leader jerked a thumb at the nearest of his men. In a few moments they had unharnessed the four mules, scattering three of them into the darkness with shouts. O’Malley mounted the fourth, while Nipper whined in Fredi’s grip.
“Mind the wagon,” he said only. “The mules won’t go far – but take care of Nipper,” he added over his shoulder, as the bandits let him away.
Gone out of sight in an instant, out of hearing in another, muffled hoof-beats falling soft on the dust of the road – and Fredi was alone, save for Nipper. At least the dog was not struggling to get free any more, but burrowed deeper into O’Malley’s coat. Fredi put him back into the wagon, and getting down on his hands and knees, felt in the darkness near to the wagon wheel for the coins scattered at their feet by the bandit leader.
He much regretted the loss of his revolver – but at least the bandits missed the shotgun under the wagon seat. Fredi sat back on his heels, struck by a little niggling thought, a sense of something not quite right. He could have sworn that there had been more in the bag containing their stake. The bandit leader had been disappointed with what was found in the wagon … surely there had been gold coins in their stake. Yes, he was certain of that; he had the price for Paint in gold eagles, and O’Malley was paid the same for his piano-playing. He reviewed the brief moment when the dusty bag was emptied into the larger; had he seen anything like the bright glint of gold? And when the bandit leader threw down a fistful of money at random, surely there would have been at least one gold half or quarter-eagle among them…
But there was not – only copper pennies, with a few silver three-cent pieces and half-dimes. Fredi retrieved a tin lantern from the wagon, lit the candle within and searched the ground on hands and knees for any coins he might have missed. Nothing … and he wondered just what O’Malley had been about to say to him, before the bandits vanished into the night with him.
Well, for us, it started with the fall market in Bulverde in October, and now it is ramping up to full steam ahead. The Christmas Market in New Braunfels is this weekend, then Thanksgiving (and blissfully, no market scheduled), then Goliad on the first Saturday, for Christmas on the Square, and a final arrival—puffing breathlessly—at the Boerne Market on the second Saturday. Then we can all sit down, count up the take and see if we have come out ahead. These are the events to launch Lone Star Sons, of course. I try and organize my writing and books so that there is a new one to take around to the Christmas market events.
So far so good; a nice round of sales at the Bulverde Craft Fair last weekend, not so much at the library sale at Harker Heights, and a fair amount in Bulverde at the fall market. The next three, being closer to Christmas, I have somewhat higher hopes for. And I have already bought my Christmas present to myself – a set of china for every-day use. After the Bulverde craft fair, we looked in on another sale – mostly of odd bits of ranch equipment, rusting machinery, moldering furniture, and unidentifiable oddments, all sitting out in a field. But there was some stuff arranged on tables underneath a canvas pavilion roof, which didn’t protect it much as the breeze was blowing intermittent rain-showers, and among them was a soggy cardboard carton half-full of china, with a stack of luncheon plates, bread-and-butter plates, saucers and eight tea-cups on the tabletop nearby. They were white, with a random and pretty blue-flower pattern; kind of European-peasant folk-art in appearance. It looked like someone had started to inventory the box and lost interest.
This was the one thing I was interested in, as it looked like there was a full set of eight place settings, if the teacups were anything to go by. Once upon a time, I had bought six or eight of everything in the basic white-with-a-blue stripe restaurant china from Reading China and Glass, when they had a store in the outlet mall in San Marcos. Thinking that it was a well-established place, and would go on forever and ever-amen, I assumed that whenever anything broke, I could replace it readily, piece by piece. Alas, this was not how it turned out; the Reading China and Glass store closed, vanishing like the mists of dawn under the morning sun between one trip to San Marcos and the next. For a while, I was able to get the same thing through Williams & Sonoma, at approximately twice the price per piece, and then Williams & Sonoma stopped carrying the white and blue-striped bistro-style china. Meanwhile, my stock of everyday china dwindled gradually – a drop to the concrete floor here, a crack in the dishwasher there – and soon we reduced to a random assortment of survivors, augmented by a set of jewel-colored glass plates and bits and pieces that my daughter picked up at a yard sale.
Enough of random – I wanted a full set of pretty blue and white china for every day, and enough plates of various sizes so that I wouldn’t have to wash them incessantly. The stuff in the soggy box would do just fine. I asked for a price on the whole lot – it was from a good manufacturer of fine Japanese china – and got it, having sufficient in my Paypal account from recent sales to get it.
Of course, once we got home, and looked up the manufacturer and the pattern … we wondered if we shouldn’t have been wearing masks and brandishing menacing weapons, for I got the whole lot for only ten dollars more than a single dinner plate in that make and pattern sells for on the discontinued china pattern websites. But – random assortment out to the garage in a cardboard carton (what – I should be wasteful of perfectly good albeit random plates?!) and we’ve been eating off the new stuff ever since. Blondie says, “Good eye, Mom.”
So, my own books and the Teeny Publishing Bidness are doing rather well in these last few months – to the point where I have enough money on hand to consider spiffing up the little suburban cottage that has been our home for practically longer than anywhere else that I have ever lived. No kidding – in the military, the longest stretch I was ever in one place and one home was six years. Growing up, the longest period of time in one house was only a couple of years longer than that – in the Redwood House, which was taken by freeway construction when I was in high school. Anyway, the last round of heavy redecorating – painting the walls, new curtains, and slipcovers and all … that was in 2003, when my daughter was in Iraq for the start of the second Gulf war … and there’s been a lot of wear and tear and dogs and cats on certain items since then. Now we are researching the costs of new kitchen cabinets and countertops, having reached peak exasperation with what was originally installed by the contractor who build the house. In the meantime, as we try to find out the real cost involved in doing the kitchen, we are messing around with the small stuff.
Like the window coverings. The house came with a set of extraordinarily cheap and cheap-looking plastic venetian blinds, which lasted only as long as it took me – after buying the place, courtesy of the GI Bill – to rip them down and put in home-made white and blue striped fabric curtains with an insulating liner. Alas, those curtains reached their own limit – and window by window, we’ve been replacing them with those 2-inch wooden blinds available from Home Depot … or as my daughter calls it, Home Despot. A bit on the pricy side, as Home Despot goes, especially since all of our windows are odd sizes, but they let a greater amount of light into the rooms, block the outside heat/cold … and look amazing … clean and less fussy than my curtains. The profits from a couple of projects let us complete installing the last blind in the biggest window this last weekend. And – it looks amazing.
This last weekend, we also trekked up into the Hill Country, to Spring Branch/Kendalia, to where one of my daughter’s good friends has a weekend job at another animal-charity oriented shop; The Goose is Loose Antiques and Collectables. Kaz ran a wonderful resale shop in Boerne, where we first met her until it closed because of having the lease on the building increasted, and then another one in that same city, which had the bad taste and bad judgement to fire her, but The Goose is Loose has the excellent good taste to hire her on a part-time basis. Kaz works social media like a pro, and my daughter had spotted a charming small table with folding leaves which would fit in the dining area admirably – but we would have to take a look at it, before I would commit to spending on it. Fortunately, the table was even more appealing in person, and a good fit for the dining area, which is even smaller and more cramped than the kitchen itself. We lined up the chairs, and put a beaten copper bowl shaped like a lotus flower in the middle … no, nothing breakable anywhere that the cats are likely to lounge in the sunshine, after clearing away anything that will take up space better used (to their way of thinking) for a cat’s many leisure hours.
The first definitive day of fall/winter has finally gotten here , and never been more welcome than here in South Texas. It has actually been cool to chill … and even more welcome … rain. It’s been raining more or less constantly since about 9 PM last night; from sprinkles to drips, to heavy downpours and back to sprinkles and drips again. I presume that the plants in my garden are reveling in the abundant moisture, after a good few weeks – or maybe it has been months – of a little grudging moisture alternating with day after day of bone-dry. The arrival of this happy moisture and chill coincides with a good few days of us not having to go anywhere, after a solid week of long-distance trips to Killeen in one direction and Brownsville in another. And I have a book project to work on for a Watercress client, another (a reprint of an existing book) to shove out the door as soon as possible, a third waiting for the client to review and for me to request the art-work for – all so that I can clear the decks for yet another client, the one with an extensive autobiography with lots and lots of pictures to incorporate … Alice would have been so happy to know of this project, and of the other potentially big one, coming up. (Also involving a lot of pictures and a complicated lay-out and a generous budget.) All the better that I have this week and most of next week to concentrate on it all.
My daughter is adamant about using some of the profits from the big projects to renovate the kitchen. Not in any way complicated, or involving extensive rebuilding, but incorporating more efficient cabinets and a nicer countertop. The kitchen in the house is relatively tiny – about 9 feet by 9 and U-shaped – and it has always annoyed us that the two corners on either side of the stove are wasted space. The original builder just whanged in some relatively narrow rectangular cabinets at right angles to each other, slapped some cheap laminate countertop over the null space in the corners and called it a day. Everything in the kitchen was basic contractor grade stuff, and brought into the development by the box-car load, and now it is more than twenty years old. I repainted the doors, and the fronts of the cabinets more than ten years ago, which made it look at least OK, but it didn’t help the basic bad layout any. So – researching means of upgrading to something more useful and visually attractive, and for a fairly reasonable price, as these things go. I am working on that as well, running out to the kitchen with the tape measure every now and again, to see exactly how far (to the half-inch) the windows, the pantry door and the plumbing stack are from everything else.
We are tending towards some elements from Ikea – like an archaic looking range hood, and a country sink – and maybe some of their cabinets or countertops. I think that assembling such cabinets is within our abilities, and hiring some local handymen who have redone kitchens in the neighborhood is within the realm of possibility. Or buying some quality cabinets already assembled from an outfit like Kitchen Resources Direct may also be doable. It’s not like we’ll be needing a whole lot of them anyway. Get the knobs and drawer pulls from a local place we know, organize the countertops from one of the big-box stores which has a nice selection. We did consider going to them for the whole thing, because of the veteran discount, but we made the mistake of showing up and asking for a consult after walking the dogs and working a bit in the garden, and I think the consultant took one look at us and figured that we weren’t a good prospect at all. The lack of enthusiasm and interest was thick enough to cut into slabs, even though we had a whole raft of necessary measurements. Ah well – cut-rate place here we come.
This one not as long as the trip to Brownsville on Monday/Tuesday, which was more in the interests of Watercress business rather than a book event – but anyway, it was long enough; to the main library in Harker Heights, which seems to be a bedroom slipper to Killeen. We zipped up there in the wee hours of Saturday morning, with a tub of books and some freshly-printed postcards, on the promise of about eighteen other authors, and a very popular local event – a book sale to benefit friends of the library. Alas for us – the event was one of those which ask $1 for hardback books, .50 for paperback, and no one staggering away from the main event with a bulging bag of books and change from a $20 bill seemed inclined to pay full price for any of ours. But I handed out a lot of postcards about my books, and talked to other authors, and on the way back … we decided that we would stop in Round Rock and enjoy the Ikea experience.
Well, not enjoy as one thoroughly enjoys something like a clever Disneyland ride … This was more like a Teutonically-organized forced march through an endless household goods warehouse, following the arrows on the grey linoleum pathway which took you through precisely every department, even the ones you weren’t interested in. Ve Haf Vays Of Making You Shop!
There are shortcuts available – but they are not obvious, and seem to be a secret held only by the employees on the floor. They will cheerfully point them out to you, upon asking … but still, this is not a store where you can run in and pick up just one or two small things and run out again in fifteen minutes. No, this is an expedition which requires a significant degree of planning, most of an afternoon … and a certain amount of money. Not terribly that much of that though; to be absolutely fair, even if someone setting up a whole house of Ikea-sourced stuff must be prepared to write a large check. This must be where the yuppies who turn up their nose at Walmart but haven’t very much change to spare come to shop. To be honest, the goods on offer were of good quality, attractively designed and priced very fairly. They were the sort of thing that my daughter and I remembered very well, from seeing them in Europe when we were stationed there. But by the time we had staggered three-quarters of the way through the store – after looking at kitchen cabinet options and stuffing ourselves on a most-welcome lunch in the Ikea cafeteria – we were moaning, “I’ll buy anything, I promise – just let us out!”
We did escape, eventually – discovering the cash stands at the end of the long trail winding – and a small deli-grocery store on the other side of them, where they stocked all kinds of Swedish delicacies – including the lovely small Swedish meatballs featured in the cafeteria. And they were scrumptious. We came away with a family-sized bag of them, frozen for later use … for when we don’t feel like driving up to Round Rock …
Up in the wee hours for us – no sleeping in this Saturday! For I have a book event at the Harker Heights Library, tomorrow morning from 9 to 1 in the afternoon. The library is at 400 Indian Trail, Harker Heights, Texas … and at a stretch is about a two-hour-and-a-bit drive. There are other Texas authors promised to be there, and there will be a Friends of the Library book sale going in, in addition. Now, I don’t think the sale will be as totally massive as the yearly NEISD book sale in the NEISD indoor basketball court here in San Antonio … but books!
I’ll have copies of all of my books, including plenty of copies of Lone Star Sons … so, see you there!