Third Sons: April 1886
Joe was trouble from the day he first stepped into St. Patrick’s school. He managed to complete six grades in his eight years in attendance. Joe and the priests at St. Patrick’s tangled every day of those eight years. Joe’s relationship with his father was slightly more peaceful. Boru McCready was a fixture on the city’s busiest docks, where his short stature, broad back, and sturdy limbs were put to much good use.
At 14, Joe was already an inch taller than his father, and his shoulders were nearly as broad as Boru’s. Joe saw no reason to stick around. Joe told the captain he was 18 and worked his way to Seattle on a clipper ship. Once there, Joe signed on with a lumber crew for the season. Come winter, Joe’s back on a clipper, southbound and weighed down with six months of wages. Then six months in San Francisco, spending it.
With the spring, Joe sets sail for the Puget Sound and another timber camp. At the first sign of snow, he’s cashed out and southbound again. It was during one of Joe’s winters in San Francisco that he met Mary Bartoli. At St. Patrick’s church, of all places. Because of a promise. A promise Joe made to his mother. That he go to mass at least once a year. And stay through the benediction. And not be stinking of booze.
Joe was looking his best that sunny spring Sunday when Mary Bartoli first caught his eye. He caught hers right back. Two smiles sealed it. “You are the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Joe is ready to tell Mary when a rough hand spins him around by the shoulder. Joe steps back. Joe’s right arm is cocked and ready to fire when he remembers he’s in a crowded church. The man who spun him around is slowly sizing him up.
“Irish dere,” the man says, pointing his thumb at the other side of the aisle. Joe takes another look at Mary, who looks back a bit scared.
“You must be the church usher,” Joe says. “You’re a bit large for an altar boy.”
“Irish,” the man snarls. “Your side.”
Joe takes a big bow. As he returns to his pew on the Irish side of the church, Joe sneaks a look at Mary. Most of her dark hair is visible under her small hat. Joe wills Mary to look at him over her left shoulder. She keeps gazing at the hymnal in her lap. The large man occupies the pew behind her.
A wheezy organ plays the processional. The congregants stand as Father Laurent enters. Joe focuses on Mary. Finally, she glances at him. What Joe sees in Mary’s eyes is a promise, a question, a challenge, a proposal, a warning, an invitation. Joe tries not to let his jaw drop.
Father Laurent stops in the aisle, blocking Joe’s view of Mary. It’s as if he senses a disturbance. Once he passes by, Mary has looked away.
It’s the longest mass Joe ever sat through. He spends the time straining for another glimpse of those lovely brown eyes across the aisle. But Mary studiously avoids Joe’s glance. By contrast, the large man sitting in the pew behind Mary has been giving Joe plenty of attention.
As the mass concludes, Joe keeps his eyes on Mary as he exits his pew, but she exits hers even faster in the other direction. He’s nudged. Then he’s nudged again, harder. It’s the large man who was sitting behind Mary. Behind him is a smaller man. Both wear long, dark coats. The man is pushing Joe toward the altar. Joe’s about to start pushing back when a familiar voice says, “Leave him.” Joe thinks, damn priest!
“You need to teach your ushers some manners, Father,” Joe tells him. “They’re much kinder at St. Mary’s.”
“Confession,” the priest replies.
“Isn’t that one of those voluntary sacraments?”, Joe asks.
“You’ve sinned,” says the priest. “I bore witness. Purge your soul, McCready.”
“My soul’s feeling pretty good, really, Father,” Joe says and starts inching back down the aisle. The large man in the coat blocks his way. “You want to call off your bouncer, Father?”, Joe asks. Father Laurent waves the man aside.
As Joe passes, the man grabs him with one hand, growls in his ear, “Stay away from the girl, Irish!” Joe stomps his heel onto the man’s toe. As he yowls, Joe breaks free and runs.
Not a chance, thinks Joe as he runs down the aisle toward the church’s front door. I’ll be gazing into those brown eyes again by this time tomorrow. How hard can it be to find one beautiful Italian girl in San Francisco?
Joe makes his way to his sister’s flat on Rincon Hill. He finds her in the summer kitchen with a mess of her brood and a pile of vegetables. Alice McCready Laffingstock is chopping her way through the makings of a stew. “You look happy,” she says to her brother as he strolls in.
“Nothing like Sunday mass to cheer you up,” Joe says, reaching for a piece of carrot.
“When were you ever cheered by a mass?”, Alice asks.
Joe ignores his sister’s question. “This suit’s grown snug,” he says. “Can you recommend a tailor?”
“Yes,” Alice answers. “Me, one dollar.”
Still ignoring Alice, Joe continues: “Didn’t there used to be a shop nearabouts run by the Italians?”, he asks.
“A dozen or so,” Alice says. “That’s just on the next block.” She looks at her brother. “When did you ever get a suit tailored? What happened at that mass?”
“Nothing ever happens at a mass,” Joe replies. “The priest walks in, the priest walks out. The bell rings, they line up for chow. Don’t forget taking up the collection. Some singing, organ music. Sprinkle in the priest’s caterwauling and you got a show.”
“That’s sacrilegious,” Alice says, though she can’t keep from laughing a little. Joe takes off his coat, sits on a stool next to his sister. Alice eyes Joe warily. “I know you still have money,” she says, “so you must be looking for a favor.”
“Just some stew for lunch,” Joe says.
Alice stops chopping the vegetables. “Who is she?”, she asks. “Naught but liquor and women get you this worked up. You’re sober as a judge. So it must be a pretty girl. Italian, which explains your curiosity about tailors. If you--.” She stops. Her eyes widen. “Stay away from her,” Alice tells her brother sternly.
“Who?”, Joe asks.
“You won’t get her name from me,” Alice replies.
“Whose name?,” he asks.
“And stay out of St. Patrick’s while you’re at it,” Alice adds. “Take the streetcar to Sts. Peter and Paul next Sunday.”
Joe smiles, stands. “That’s a long ride on a Sunday morning,” he says. “I’m sure Father Laurent can find room for me at St. Pat’s.” He walks toward the door.
“Come with me this evening,” Alice says to her brother as he leaves. “To see Madame.” Joe waves and keeps walking. Alice crosses herself.
Alice sits in the shade of Madame Bouchet’s long, low back porch. It’s much warmer than usual for a late-April evening in San Francisco. “It has to be the merchant’s daughter,” Alice says to Madam Bouchet, “the one who does embroidery.”
“Joe McCready at the mass?”, Madame asks.
“I sent him,” Alice says. “I thought--”, she trails off.
Madame Bouchet tsks loudly. “Not that church,” Madame says. “Not that Laurent. The storekeeper. He is good. His brother, he is hard. The brother is a brute, sometimes, on the quays. Teodoro Bartoli.”
Bartoli, thinks Alice. The dry goods merchant off Second Street. With the daughter who embroiders. “Mary,” she says to herself. “Oh, lord.”
Madame sighs. “This will be trouble,” she says. “Worse than police.”
Alice laughs, “We could get him arrested.”
Madame looks up at the sky. “Gold,” Madame says. “We send him chasing it.”
Alice perks up. “That might work,” she says. “We start a rumor of a rush, and off he goes. Where do we send him?”, she asks.
“Someplace safe. The middle of nowhere. But not too far away.” Madame smiles. “Los Angeles,” she says.
“Los Angeles?”, Alice asks, “Where’s that?”
Madame replies, “A little town, south. Nothing happens there, until we discover them some gold. You get your brother over here,” she tells Alice, “I will forbid him to believe the wild stories, tell him he must stay for his sister.”
“Joe’s still got plenty of lumber gold in his purse,” Alice says. “I’m not so certain he’ll be willing to up and leave town again so soon.”
“Teo Bartoli will not be so friendly to Joe,” Madame says. “And Joe is too young, too proud to keep away from Teo’s favorite niece. But fortune, adventure,” she continues, “Joe’s head turns for these, I think.”
Alice clutches the neck of her oversize sweater. “If there’s a way to get in trouble in this Los Angeles place,” she says, “Joe’s sure to find it.”
“Believe me,” Madame reassures Alice, “nothing is there but dust and a big church.” The women gaze out at the back yard. “And wind,” she adds.
“And gold,” Alice adds with a straight face. Then both women crack up.
“I hope not,” Madame says finally. “For Joe’s sake. And for Mary’s.”
That night, Alice is sitting at her kitchen table, letting out the hem of her oldest daughter’s dress. She hears her brother on the stairs. Alice holds the hem close to the lantern light. As Joe enters the kitchen, she says, “We missed you at Madame’s this evening.”
Joe stops. “Bouchet’s mission?”, he asks, “Why would I go there?”
“I’d say you owe that woman a courtesy call,” Alice says. “Considering.”
Joe scratches his beard, then he pours a cup of water from the bucket. He drinks half the cup, looks at Alice, and says, “You may be right." Joe finishes the water and sets down the cup. “Perhaps I’ll bring her something,” he says, “for the old boys. Maybe some nice salmon steak.”
“That would be thoughtful,” Alice tells her brother. She looks up from her sewing. “A few dollars would be nice, too, if you can manage it.”
“With pleasure,” Joe says, trying to sound sincere. “I’ll do anything for Madame, you know that.”
“Joseph,” Alice says, “this is me now. I’ve been listening to your malarkey since you could babble. You’ll be nice to Madame because it suits your purpose.”
Joe smiles and says, “It suits me to stay on your good side. So I guess I’ll be stopping by Madame Bouchet ‘s tomorrow.”
Now Alice smiles. “Do me a favor,” she tells Joe. “Don’t bring your nephew Deuce along.” She puts down her sewing. “In fact,” she adds, “leave the kid be.”
“He tags along like a puppy,” Joe tells his sister. “If you want to keep Deuce home you’ll have to tether him.” He laughs, “Or nails maybe. Then he’ll slip out of his shoes and leave barefoot. No, your son’s not the standstill type, Alice. You’ll have to face it.”
“Following in his uncle’s footsteps,” Alice says.
“Better my footsteps than his father’s,” Joe replies. “Where is he working this time?”
“New Mexico, mostly,” Alice replies. She picks up her daughter’s dress and resumes sewing. “A bridge this time, I think he said. No tunnel. Tunnels are the worst. He said no more tunnels after the last one.” She focuses on the hemline. “Too many,” she says. “Dead. In the tunnels.”
Joe places his hand lightly on her shoulder. “Not that old possum. He won’t snuff it in any tunnel. Not Andrew Laffingstock. He’d brush a ton of rocks off his shoulders like dust. Wouldn’t muss the crease of his collar.” Joe sits at the kitchen table across from his sister. “You married a railroad man,” he says. “They got a peculiar way of looking at things.”
Alice keeps poking the needle at the hem of the dress. Joe leans back in his chair and smiles. “Give me tree butchering any day,” he says. “There’s no end to those northern forests. And the bosses aren’t so bad once they see you know what a saw’s for. Most, anyway.”
“That’s all very well and good,” Alice says, folding the dress and placing it in her lap. “But I’ve got mouths to feed, and you’re overdue.”
“I haven’t been overdue for anything since I pawned my watch,” Joe says with a laugh.
“Oh, you did no such thing!”, Alice laughs right back.
“Only cuz I never owned a watch worth more than two peanut shells."
Alice squints her face. “Take Madame back her pot,” she says. “Please!” Alice stands and places the folded dress carefully on the chair seat.
Joe doesn’t budge. “Oh, you mean now?”, he asks.
Joe takes his time strolling down Rincon Hill toward Mission Creek. The bay is crowded with boats, bunched all the way past Steamboat Point. Five minutes later, Joe turns into the cul de sac that ends at Madame Bouchet’s house. He walks into the back yard and up the porch steps. Joe doesn’t see Madame sitting in her low chair until he’s in front of her. She looks past him into her yard. “As lovely as ever,” he says. Madame motions for Joe to take the seat next to her. “Where is everybody?”, he asks as he sits down.
Madame keeps staring into her yard. “Everywhere,” Madame says after a pause. “Including here. You don’t see them, so they don’t exist, yes?”
Joe gives Madame a sideways look. “Are you well?”, Joe asks her.
“I am,” Madame replies.
“Did I do something to upset you?”, he asks.
“Not yet,” she answers, “soon enough.”
Joe leans back in his chair. “You’re probably right,” he says. “But that doesn’t alter the fact that it’s quieter than usual around here.”
“Chasing dreams,” Madame says, still gazing into the yard. “More dreams, always dreams, always they wake up empty. And then back they come.”
“Like those fools in the Comstock,” Joe says and hmphs. “There’s some idiots still straggling over there years too late.” Now Madame hmphs. Joe waits for Madame to explain. When she doesn’t, he asks, “So where are the fools running off to this time?”
“You don’t,” Madame replies.
“I don’t what?”, Joe asks.
“Go,” Madame answers.
“I don’t even know where there is.”
“Such a lucky young man you are.”
“You don’t think I’m fool enough to chase after those dirt eaters,” Joe says.
“Not until you fill yourself with whiskey,” Madame tells him.
“I am feeling a might dry,” Joe says.
On cue, a large woman exits the back door. She carries a tray holding a pitcher and two empty glasses. “How did you--. Never mind,” Joe says to Madame as the woman sets the tray down and fills the two glasses with lemonade from the pitcher. The woman walks back into the house without a word. Joe hands Madame a glass and takes a sip from the other. They listen to the birds sing. “You can do something for me,” Madame says after a time. Joe turns his head toward her. “Your nephew,” she says, “keep him off the boats.”
“Deuce, you mean?”, Joe asks. “What’s Deucy doing on boats?”
“Not now,” Madame tells him, “later.”
“Which boats?”, Joe asks.
Madame sighs. “All boats,” Madame says calmly. “And the water. Keep him off that, too. It’s not good for him on the water. Better he stays on the land.”
“The kid’s a regular fish,” Joe tells Madame. “You couldn’t keep Deuce off the water if you chained a 20-pound cannonball to his right leg.”
“Your sister gives you a home,” Madame admonishes, “and you give back to her what?” She cuts off Joe’s reply. “Grief is all,” she tells him.
“You can’t put all Alice’s grief on me,” Joe says. “Begging your pardon, but her husband’s off for months at a time laying rails all over.” Madame cocks her head. Joe continues: “Leaving the woman to raise--,” he hesitates. “How many are there now? Six?”
“Surviving,” Madame says.
“Surviving,” Joe repeats. They regard Madame’s wide back yard. “Deuce does what he can,” he says. “Hawking newspapers and such, and school.”
“School, not so much,” Madame says. “Too much he thinks he’s his wild lumberjack uncle. Drinking, gambling, girls. Deuce is none of that.”
“The kid’s what, 11?” Joe protests. “He’s not thinking about those things.”
Madame Bouchet listens to the leaves clattering in the wind. “Your sister will have another baby,” Madame tells Joe. “When you are north. So it will be to Deuce again to mind the little ones for her.”
“You know this?”, Joe asks. “How?”
“I know this,” Madame replies.
“Old Andrew wasn’t home but a week or two,” Joe says. “That poor woman.”
“Poor woman,” Madame echoes. “So many burdens. Children, husband.” Madame turns and glares at Joe. “Brother,” she says.
Joe shakes his head. “So you say,” he replies, betraying a little ire. “I say my sister’s happy to have me stay with her. I pay for my board, and then some.” Joe’s tone softens. “I suppose if she’s having a baby,” he says, “putting me up could be imposing.”
“Your purse,” Madame says, “she needs.” “You,” Madame continues, “she needs not so much.” She gives Joe a sideways glance. “There’s something I need from you,” she says. “A task.”
“Anything but well-digging or poetry,” Joe says. “Who would you like me to clobber?”
“No clobbering,” Madame replies. “Retrieving. South.”
“Who’s South?”, Joe asks.
“South is where,” Madame replies. “Borbier is who.”
Joe waits for Madame to elaborate. She doesn’t. He laughs, “Pleasant evening.” Madame doesn’t react. “Borbier, you say?”, Joe asks. “Doesn’t sound familiar.” Madame is as still as glass.
“No matter,” Madame says finally. “You go with the cousin, Griggerson. You make sure Borbier doesn’t persuade cousin to chase dreams, too.”
“This is getting complicated,” Joe says, “and I don’t even know where I’m supposed to be going yet.”
“Not at all complicated,” Madame says. “You go with one, you come back with two.”
“Burpier and Griddleberg,” Joe says. “Any particular reason I’m doing this?”
“Borbier and Greggerson,” Madame corrects. “Wife of Borbier has new baby, no money. Borbier quits dock, goes sout’. He’s gone tree months.”
“What’s down south?”, Joe asks.
“Not’ing,” Madame replies. “Borbier t’inks gold. Why? Someone t’inks too many workers. Brings down wage. Starts tales of strike someplace far, not too far. Some place called Los Angeles. Just say ‘gold,’ fools fly away.”
“Los Angeles?”, Joe repeats. “I heard of that place. It’s a cowtown.” He turns to Madame. “Somebody made a strike?”
“Idiot!”, Madame shouts. “I just tell you,” she says more calmly, “It’s rumor to run dockworkers off, raise wage rate. Send fools like Borbier chasing dreams.”
“So Borbier leaves his wife and child behind when some stranger tells him tales of gold strikes in Los Angeles,” Joe says. “Why do we care?”
“I care,” Madame replies, “because wife and baby now live in my house. With no money. You care because I pay you to bring him back north.”
“This isn’t just a ruse to get me out town, is it?”, Joe asks Madame.
“What matter?”, she asks back. “Wife and baby here, husband gone. You do me a favor, I tell you all about her. When you return.”
Joe sits up. “You know her?”, he asks.
“When you return,” Madame repeats.
“When I return,” Joe says, “they’ll have her holed up in a convent.”
“No,” Madame replies. “Borbier stays gone, wife and baby stay here. So no name now.”
Joe watches dusk settle on Madame’s broad back yard. “So, what’s in Los Angeles, besides no gold?”, he asks.
“Never been there,” she says.
“What if--,” Joe begins, but Madame cuts him off.
“Go, get, back,” she says. “Then I tell you about her, then you can make a big trouble again.”
“Two more questions before I go,” Joe says. “What if they pinch me for a kidnapper, and what if Greggerson’s a stiff?”
Madame stands slowly. “He is,” she says, looking out at the dark yard, “and they might.” She turns and heads for the door. “Better bring money for the bribes.”
“Can I meet her, at least?”, Joe asks. Madame stops. “Not her,” Joe adds, “Mrs. Borbier. So I know how hard to look for her wayward hubby.”
“She and baby are sleeping,” Madame says. “Come to breakfast tomorrow, before your train.” She continues into the house, but stops at the door. “Don’t look for the girl from the church tonight, Joseph,” Madame says. “You won’t find her. And don’t get drunk at the saloons, either.”
“Early abed, sober as a judge,” Joe lies. He stands and bows to Madame. “I’m happy to serve, even if it entails a journey to Los Angeles.”
The next afternoon, Joe McCready is struggling to get comfortable on the passenger car’s wooden bench. Across from him sits Ox Greggerson. Ox can’t hide his glee at leaving San Francisco for Los Angeles. He’s barely out of his teens, and his nickname belies his slight stature.
“What are you so happy about?”, Joe asks.
Ox is surprised by the question. “I ain’t happy,” Ox replies. “Who was it told you I was happy?”
“Coulda fooled me,” Joe says under his breath. He decides against engaging Ox in further conversation. The train rolls past the greenish-brownish hills.
Three days later, Joe is sitting on a bench outside Peoples Store on Spring Street. Ox Greggerson sits next to him, adjusting his new shoes. “Big flood, they said,” says Ox without taking his attention off his shoes. “Wiped out all the bridges.”
Joe almost replies, decides against it. He looks up and down the street. “Getting here’s not so easy,” he says. “But once you scale those hills, Los Angeles is not bad at all.” Apart from his habit of repeating himself regularly, Ox wasn’t so bad a guy. Joe came to this conclusion a day into their train ride south. “What was that town we were stuck in?”, Joe asks, still watching the activity on Spring Street.
“Santa something,” Ox replies. “Mordecai?”
“Mordecai wasn’t a saint,” Joe replies, “No saints ‘til Jesus.”
Ox stops fiddling with his new shoes. “I don’t know any bibles,” he says.
“We’ve established our lack of religious affiliation,” Joe says as he stands, “let’s do our Christian duty and find your wayward cousin.”
“What’s so wayward about him?”, Ox asks, still seated. “He knows where he is. We’re the wayward ones. And what’s a ‘fullision’ or whatever?”
Joe squints through the dust of Spring Street. “Never mind,” he says, waving for Ox to stand. “Where’s your cousin staying again?”, he asks.
“His letter said he was bunked some place called Echo Park,” Ox replies. “Got work on some reservoir.”
“No mining?”, Joe asks.
Ox laughs. “Mining,” he repeats, “in Los Angeles. That’s a good one. What’s he mining for, taters? Sure not gold, nor silver. Naught to dig for here.”
“Huh,” Joe replies. “What’d Borbier come down here for?”
Ox stands. “Coulda been him not having the $50 he owed to that Italian,” he says.
“What Italian?”, Joe asks.
“He didn’t say, but whoever he is, he ought to know Bo never had anywheres near fifty bucks in his whole life.”
Joe picks up his satchel. “Let’s find our ride to Echo Park,” he says. “I don’t imagine it can be hard to find -- small town like this one.”
“I’ll wager Bo’s long gone from Echo Park,” Greggerson says as he stands up. “There’s a good chance he’s had a run-in with the law by now. I suggest we start looking for him at the county jail, then head for the infirmaries. We’ll finish up at the undertaker's.”
“Right the first time,” Ox whispers to Joe. They’re standing in front of a tall desk, behind which sits a large, thickly bearded policeman. It took Joe and Ox only a half-hour to find the Los Angeles County Jail, and only ten minutes to wait for the officer to acknowledge them.
“Larceny,” is the officer’s one-word reply when Joe asks him whether they have a Boris Borbier in custody. Joe waits a good minute for more. “He sees the judge in the morning,” the officer adds.
“What’d he steal?”, Ox asks him.
“A hat!”, the officer roars, then ignores them again.
“Morning,” Joe repeats under his breath.
Ox has already started for door. He motions for Joe to follow him. “We’ll be next,” he whispers.
“Why?”, Joe asks. “We haven’t broken any laws.”
“That don’t matter,” Ox screeches. Joe hesitates, then follows Ox out of the police station.
Once they’re outside, Ox says, “These Los Angeles police, not so friendly.”
“A hat,” Joe says. “Who gets pinched for stealing a damn hat?”
“Bo’s luck appears to be holding steady,” Ox says. “Skips town up north, lands in the hoosegow down south. Gold in Los Angeles,” he laughs.
“You gotta try hard to get locked up for stealing a hat,” Joe says.
“Depends on the hat, I suppose,” Ox replies. “Or who you stole it from.”
“Or where you stole it, I’m thinkin’,” Joe adds, looking over his shoulder at the police station. “He was awful unfriendly, even for a cop.”
“I wouldn’t mind getting a little further removed, in case you were wondering,” Ox says.
“All I’m wondering is who set me up,” Joe replies. “Supposin’ we do bring your shiftless cousin back north,” he says to Ox as they walk, “he’ll be lit out for anywhere next chance he gets.” Joe stops outside what looks like a livery. He peers in. “That’s what I should do,” he says.
Ox asks, “What’s that, get a horse or a stall?”
“Light out,” Joe says roughly. Quieter: “Head back north. Find that pretty Italian girl in the church before they remove her to a convent.”
“Go on ahead, for all I care about it,” Ox replies. “Let Bo fend for himself with the judge. I bet that dang’ed hat didn’t even fit him.”
“You make a good point,” Joe says after deliberating for a full second.
“I do?”, Ox asks. “About what, my brainless cousin or the judge?”
“About Bo facing the judge all on his lonesome,” Joe says. “Couldn’t hurt to give the hat lover some moral support.” He looks up the road. “But we gotta find a new flop,” he says. He turns and looks the other way. “Head north once he’s....” He looks back again. “Where are we?”
“Look at that guy’s mug,” Ox says to Joe.
“Quiet!”, Joe hoarse-whispers. “You never been in a court before?”
“First time,” Ox whispers back.
Ox is right, thinks Joe as the judge take his seat. The man’s face is misaligned, like it was taken apart and put back together in the dark. The judge’s name is as jumbled as his visage: Zreklot. Despite his glower, Judge Zreklot speaks calmly, lowly as the arrestees parade by.
An hour into the morning’s proceedings, Ox nudges Joe and says, “Here he comes.” Boris Borbier appears, notably hatless. Ox waves meekly. Borbier appears not to notice them. He’s wearing someone else’s clothes: shirt too big, coat too small, pants too long, mismatched shoes.
“Larceny of a silk bowler hat,” the Judge reads in a low voice. He glances up. “How do you plead?”
“Whatever you say, sir,” Borbier says.
Joe stands and speaks: “Your honor, beggin’ your pardon, might I inform the proceedings as regards the aforesaid?”
The judge looks troubled. He says slowly and softly, “What is your relation to the accused?”
Joe replies, “I was dispatched to return him to San Francisco.”
“By whom were you dispatched?”, the judge asks.
Joe fidgets. “By a church woman, your honor,” he says. “Madame Bouchet. She runs a mission.”
The judge looks at Joe sideways. “Are you after a bounty?”, he asks.
“No, your honor,” Joe replies. “I’m escorting his young cousin here.” Joe grabs Ox by the shoulder and yanks him off the bench. “Greggerson’s his name,” Joe says. “Reuniting Mr. Borbier with his young family.”
The judge address Borbier: “What is your purpose in Los Angeles?”
“At present, your honor,” he replies, “to get out, begging your pardon.”
“Your purpose in coming?”, the Judge clarifies.
“Work, sir,” Borbier answers. “Heard there was work at the ports. Slow up north these days.”
“You left a wife and family?”, the judge asks. Borbier nods. The judge looks to the bailiff. “Did the victim get his hat back?” He nods too. The judge turns back to Borbier. “Why did you take the hat?”, he asks.
“To sell it,” Boris replies. “For back wages for dredge work nearby.”
“You were in the victim’s employ?”, the judge asks.
“I don’t know about that,” Bo answers, “but I did some work for him. For wages, sir.”
The judge’s soft tone is unchanged. “The victim withheld wages you had earned as a dredger?”
Bo nods. “Echo Park it was.” He points vaguely. “Eight dollars and 25 cents is owed me,” Bo tells the judge. “Figured the hat might fetch six maybe.”
“May I assume you made a wage demand?”
“Mostly, I made a pit, your honor,” Bo says tentatively. “Got six bits when I started, promised six bits a day. ‘Tomorrow’ he tells me. He even took my clothes for launderin’,” Bo continues, growing bolder. “Sold ‘em, I’ll wager. Left me with these.” He holds up his arms.
The judge takes this in with no change of expression. He turns to Joe, who is back in his seat. “What is your name, young man?”, he asks.
Joe stands and says, “Joseph McCready, your honor.”
“Have you funds sufficient to procure Mr. Borbier proper attire?”, the judge asks him.
“We do, your honor,” Joe replies, “speaking on the behalfs of Mr. Greggerson here and the Madame Bouchet up in San Francisco.” He coughs.
The judge turns his attention back to Borbier, who’s trying to figure out who Joe is. “You are released into the custody of... Who again?”
“Joseph McCready, your honor,” Joe says.
“Joseph McCready,” the judge repeats. “And return to San Francisco, with or without your $8.50.” The judge gives Joe a good long look. The gears turn in Joe’s head, finally clicking into place. Joe nods solemnly, and the judge nods back.
“Eight dollars, 25 cents it was, your honor,” Borbier says.
“Next case,” the judge says softly. The bailiff points Borbier toward the exit. Joe also waves Borbier toward the small courtroom’s door, but Borbier is still looking at the judge, who is holding a loose stack of papers.
“What just happened?”, Ox asks too loudly. Joe simultaneously motions Ox to be quiet and Borbier to head for the exit. They both ignore him. “He let him go?”, asks Ox, volume still too high. The bailiff returns with the next accused and is surprised to find Borbier still there.
“You like it here, do ya?”, the bailiff asks. “We could arrange a longer stay.” Borbier finally gets the message and shuffles to the door. Joe and Ox shuffle out right behind Borbier.
“Well, that about beats the lot,” Joe says in the court’s matchbox lobby. “Me, a constable.”
Ox and Borbier speak simultaneously: “You a what?”, asks Ox as Bo asks, “You’re who now?”
Joe answers Bo: “I’m the guy getting you clothes.” He half-pushes Borbier and Ox out the courthouse door onto the dusty street. “Then we’re gonna collect your unpaid wages,” he says to Bo.
Two hours later, Joe, Ox, and Borbier are finishing a generous early lunch, topped with their third round of beers. Bo is nearly snoozing. Joe is happy to see Bo has gotten through one meal without staining his new suit. Joe taps Bo’s foot with his. “So tell me,” he says loudly, “Who’s this fellow owes you eight dollars twenty-five?”
Borbier, who’s only about half roused, answers “Hmpf? Uhn. Feintz.”
“On a fence?”, Joe asks. “What kinda name is-”
“Feintz!”, Bo shouts. “With a zee, he says, the lout.”
“Forget the name for now,” Joe says. “Where might we find him, whatever his name is?”
Borbier stares off into space. “That’s where!”, Bo says.
“It is?”, Joe asks him.
“What’s where?”, Ox asks.
“I can’t tell you,” Borbier says, “but I can show, I think. Los Angeles isn’t all that big a town. I’ll find it.”
“You’ll find what?”, Joe asks patiently.
“Where,” Borbier replies.
“Where what?”, Joe asks.
“That’s what I asked him,” says Ox, “Didn’t I?”
“You asked him what’s where,” Joe says to Ox. “I asked him where what.”
“Oh,” says Ox.
They wait. “Somewhere in Los Angeles,” Joe says as he drains his mug of beer.
“Told you I’d find it,” says Borbier. It’s midafternoon the day after his surprise reprieve from the Los Angeles County Jail. “Right there.”
“I don’t see anybody,” says Ox.
“Is this a dump?”, asks Joe.
“It’s a pit,” Borbier answers. “A tar pit. It’s got bones, they say. Big’ns. He keeps a shack up around here.” Borbier takes a step toward the pits.
“Hold on, now,” Joe says, grabbing Borbier's shoulder lightly. “You don’t want to muss your new suit of clothes with tar,” Joe says. “Not a likely place for your employer to stash his money box, anyway.” Joe scans the area. “There’s a watering hole not too far away,” he says. “I can smell it. Let’s let this dog find us for a change, eh boys?”
“We got dogs trailin’ us?”, Ox asks.
“You didn’t say nothin’ about any lost dogs,” says Borbier.
Joe smiles. “It’s an expression,” he says. “No doubt about you two being kin,” he adds as he starts walking in a promising direction. “Your boss is sure to circle back here sometime. We find ourselves a shady spot,” Joe says as they walk, “then we wait for the lout to stroll by with Bo’s money in hand. Easy pickings.”
Rather than a shady spot, the three find a makeshift saloon made out of driftwood and wagon parts. In an old baby buggy is a barrel of beer. The proprietor speaks to them in an unintelligible mix of Spanish and English. His gaze is constantly shifting left-right-left-right-left.
“I’ve had worse,” says Joe after he drains half his wooden cup.
Borbier and Ox are slower to take to the place. “Something smells,” Ox says.
“How we gonna find Mr. Feintz in here?”, Borbier asks.
“Like I said,” Joe replies, “let the dog find us.”
“Smells like the dog died,” says Ox.
“What kind of dog?”, Borbier asks?
“It’s an expression,” Joe says, eying the beer barrel.
“Never heard of no Nespersian dogs,” Bo replies.
Joe takes his cup over to the shifty-eyed proprietor for a refill from the barrel. Bo whispers to his cousin, “Why’re we lookin’ for a dog?”
“I still don’t know why we’re lookin’ for your old boss,” Ox replies.
“I’m owed wages is why,” says Bo. “Judge told this guy to go get ‘em.”
“Joe?”, Ox almost shouts.
Joe turns around and asks him, “Ready for a refill?”
“What?”, Ox asks.
“Why’d you call me?”, Joe asks.
Ox stares, then collects himself. “Bo here tells me that judge deputized you,” he says.
“Everything but the badge,” Joe replies.
Ox narrows his eyes. “Then what does that make us?”, he asks.
Joe rejoins them with his cup filled to the brim. “Well,” he says, “I suppose you’re my posse.” Joe points to Borbier. “And he’s my witness, else how will I know this Fiendzy character when I see him?”
Bo is struggling not to nod off. “Nice hat,” he says suddenly.
“Thanks,” Joe replies, “but I’m not wearing a hat.”
“Feintz,” he says quietly.
“The one you stole?”, Joe asks.
“Very same,” Borbier half-burps. Then he mumbles and nods off.
Joe turns his attention to Ox. “Mind your cousin here for a bit,” he says. “I’ll see if I can’t spot a man in a fancy hat. Before he spends all of Borbier’s money.”
“Here?”, Ox asks, “With the dead dog?”
“He won’t bite,” Joe says. Then he points at the proprietor. “Him I’m not so sure about.” Joe pats Ox’s shoulder and heads toward town.
Walking gives Joe a jolt of energy, even with a belly full of cheap beer. He gets a quarter mile down a dusty trail when he spots a cabin. Joe thinks, Why not? and makes for the cabin’s low front door. He knocks sharply and waits. No reply. Joe shrugs and returns to the trail. He takes a few steps along the trail and then stops. He turns around and heads back to the cabin. When he gets there, he tries the door. It’s open.
Joe cracks the door and peers inside. Darkness. He steps across the threshold and waits for his eyes to adjust to the low light. As the interior of the cabin comes into view, Joe notices a long table piled high with objects he can’t quite make out. He squints. Hats. Joe walks over to the table and picks up one of the hats. “Nice,” he says.
Joe starts when a woman replies, “Hands off the merchandise.”
“Pardon me,” Joe replies, still unable to find the source of the voice.
“No retail,” says the voice, which Joe guesses belongs to a woman.
“I’m looking for someone who might be a customer of yours,” Joe says, still looking around. “A tall man. Thin. Owns a very nice Stetson.”
Joe hears the voice say something he can’t understand. It sounds like it’s coming from under the table. He looks but sees nothing but dust. A door opens in the middle of the cabin floor. Joe waits for someone to pop up, but there’s nothing but a gray hole and floating dust bits.
Joe steps over to the hole and peers inside. Nothing. “Hello?”, he near whispers.
“Ain’t seen him,” the voice says.
Joe inches even closer. “What are you doing down there?”, he asks. “Who haven’t you seen?”
“Fancy Stetson,” the voice replies. A head appears in the door opening. “Lit out, I heard,” the woman says as she climbs out of the hole. “Still have one of his toppers around the place.” She looks at the table.
Joe can’t make out the woman’s features in the cabin’s dim light. She’s wearing several aprons over a floor-length cloak. “Who?”, he asks.
The woman mumbles a reply Joe can’t make out. She’s sorting through the hats. “Beg pardon?”, Joe asks.
The woman turns and shouts, “Bumronner!” Joe’s first thought is that the woman looks younger than she sounds. “Fancy Stetson,” she says, “that’s his name.” She returns to the hats.
“Bomberger?”, Joe asks.
“Bumronner,” the woman corrects him, still shuffling through the hats.
“Lit out, you say?”
The woman holds up a hat. She considers it for a second, then says, “Nah,” and puts it back on the table.
“Bum Ronnen,” Joe says, “fancy Stetson, lit out. What’s your name, ma’am?”, he asks. “I’m--”.
“Not a ma’am,” the woman replies. “I’m a miss. Brigid, if you please. Bridie, if you don’t.”
“Bridie,” Joe says with a smile and a bow, “I’m Joseph McCready, Joe, no matter who it pleases.” He walks to the table. “Yours?”, he asks.
“If you’re askin’ did I make ‘em,” Bridie replies, “some, yeah. My sisters the others, what aren’t the store-bought ones in need of fixing.”
Joe picks up a bowler from the table. “Nice,” he says and puts it back. “Who runs this place?”, he asks.
“Nobody,” Bridie replies. “Lately. Mr. Todischini used to be. Dropped off hats, picked ‘em up fixed for his millinery.” She steps over to the trap door. “C’mon up,” she shouts into the trap door.
A head appears a second later. “He’s not hear for the hats?”, the woman asks.
Bridie laughs. “Says he’s looking for Bumronner,” she says, still laughing. “Or maybe just his Stetson.”
The second woman climbs out of the trap door. “If you’re not here for hats,” the woman asks Joe, “what are you after?”
“Bumronner, he says,” Bridie replies before Joe can say anything.
“I’m after back wages,” Joe blurts out, “for my companion.” Joe is about to ask the woman’s name when another head pops through the trap door. Just as quickly, the head disappears.
“Come, Reezy,” Bridie shouts. “He’s harmless enough.” The head reappears. Joe tries to look harmless.
Reezy climbs through the door in the floor, keeping her eyes on Joe. Joe holds up both hands and smiles meekly. “Harmless, see?”, he says.
Reezy is unconvinced of Joe’s harmlessness. Joe turns to the second woman. “I know Bridie’s name and Reezy’s name,” he says, “who are you?”
“Bernadette?”, the woman replies tentatively. “Bernie,” she corrects herself, “not my name. What I’m called mostly. Is that what you mean?”
“I just--” Joe starts before Bridie interrupts.
“She’s Bernie from Bernadette, I’m Bridie from Brigid, and that one’s Reezy from Theresa.” Bridie pokes Joe’s shoulder with her finger. “And you’re Joe from Joseph, I’m guessin’,” she says. “We make hats. What do you do for work?”
“Lumberman,” Joe replies. “Up in the Cascades, mostly.”
“A lumberman in Los Angeles,” Bridie says. “You’ve been misinformed, Mr. Cascades.”
“Still too cold for tree butcherin’ this time of year,” Joe explains. “I’m here on a mission, returning a lost soul to the bazoom of his family. Deputized by the Court of Los Angeles County to repatriate said soul’s illegibly constrained wages, rightly earned,” Joe adds, puffing up.
“Deputy, eh?”, Bridie says, squinting at Joe.
“Practically,” Joe replies. “The judge all but swore me in.” Bridie keeps squinting at him. “This Bumrummer took a flyer with my charge’s wages,” Joe says. “Borbier’s his name. He makes off with the fancy’s hat, or tries, anyhow.” Bridie’s expression shifts from suspicious to confused. “Borbier’s pinched, we arrive just in time,” Joe continues, “that is, Ox and me.”
Bridie’s eyes glass up. Joe forges on: “Ox is Borbier’s cousin who came down with me. As I said, we arrive on the eve of Borbier’s hearing. I explain the circumstances to the judge, he lets Bo go, and gives me leave to seek amendments for Bo’s wages.” Joe pauses.
Bridie puzzles over this. “You’re here to lay a claim on Bumronner’s hat,” she says. Joe nods. “There’s a claim ahead of yours,” she adds. Joe waits for Bridie to explain. “Ours!”, she says with a snarl. Then she shrieks a laugh. Bernie cackles along with her. Reezy just stands.
Joe looks slowly from Bridie to Bernie to Reezy. From biggest to smallest, oldest to youngest, boldest to shyest, plainest to prettiest. All three women wear multiple layers of clothes that cover them entirely, save for their faces, fingertips, and a few loose strands of hair.
Joe looks at the toppers overloading the table. He picks up a bowler and examines it. “You certainly have inventory,” he says to Bridie.
“Mr. Todischini is overdue,” Bridie tells Joe. “He generally comes by every other to pick up, drop off, reprovision.” Her voice trails off.
“Every other day?”, Joe asks.
“Week,” Bridie replies. “Expected him last Thursday.”
“Today is Thursday,” Joe says.
“Two weeks,” she answers.
“You’ve been here on your own for two weeks?”, Joe asks.
“Three, more like,” Bernie says.
“A month,” Reezy chimes in, then gets shy again.
“Bah!”, Bridie replies to Reezy. “No month, though the cornmeal is low.”
“Eggs are gone,” Bernie adds. Reezy starts to speak, then stops. The three women look at Joe. He looks from one to the other. Bridie is defiant. Bernie is expectant. Reezy looks like she’s ready to pounce.
“I can help you reprovision,” Joe tells the women, “but then I must take Bugroper’s hat and return to my charge.”
The women don’t budge. “While you’re gathering our victuals,” Bridie says, “would you ask after Mr. Todischini?”
“Gladly,” Joe replies, “if you can point the way.”
“Bernie’ll point you well enough, I suspect,” says Bridie. Bernie perks up at this news. She nearly jumps through the door in the floor. Joe sneaks a glance through the door. He sees nothing, but he hears sustained rummaging. “Not the sateen,” Bridie shouts down to Bernie.
A minute later the rummaging stops. Five minutes after that, Bernie reappears wearing a worn but well-tailored print dress and matching hat. Joe is impressed by Bernie’s transformation, which is complete save for her stocking feet. “Where are your shoes?”, Joe asks.
Bernie frowns. “Bernie’s particular about her footwear,” Bridie interjects.
Bernie scowls back at her. “Particular meaning they should fit?”, she asks.
“Says she prefers traipsin’ in her bare feet,” Bridie continues, ignoring Bernie.
Joe says to Bernie, “Let us find you a proper pair, eh?”
Bernie smirks at Bridie and makes for the cabin door. As she does, Reezy breaks into silent sobs. “Oh, now,” Bridie says, “what’s this?”
Joe looks at Reezy’s tired boots. “Two pair,” he says. Reezy’s breathless weeping subsides, replaced by a shy smile. Joe then eyes the hats. “Why don’t we take a few of these hats with us?”, Joe says to Bridie. “To test the market.” He looks around.
“Take a duffel,” Bridie says. She begins to dump hats from the table into a canvas bag that’s almost as big as she is.
“Might you have a smaller satchel?”, Joe asks.
Bridie spills hats out of the duffel until it’s about half full. She cinches it closed with a small tug of rope. Joe sizes up the parcel. “How far am I lugging this?”, Joe asks.
“The Swede's place isn’t more than a mile,” Bridie replies. “We’ll have dinner waiting, as such.”
Joe lifts the duffel. Not as heavy as it looks, he thinks. Bernie scurries for the door. “Keep a close watch on that one,” Bridie tells Joe.
“I’ll guard her honor with my life,” Joe says and laughs. “If she promises to do the same for me.” He winks at Bernie, who almost blushes. Joe is about to follow Bernie out the door when he turns back to Bridie. “If two forlorn souls should happen by,” he says, “bar the door.”
“Forlorn we got to spare,” Bridie replies, but Joe and the duffel have vanished. Reezy pouts. “There’s my point proved,” Bridie tells her.
“Here ‘tis,” Bernie says as the road they’ve been walking widens into a rough square. A mix of about a dozen humans and animals idle about.
Perfect, thinks Joe. These hats were just starting to get heavy. “Which way to Mr. Todischini?”, he asks Bernie.
She stops, looks around, points at the only two-story building on the small square. “There, I think,” she says. She eyes another low structure opposite it. “Why don’t I get myself a sass’prilla while you tender your affairs,” Bernie says.
Joe sets the duffel down. “Here’s a counter,” he says. “Why don’t we both find Mr. Todischini, then we’ll tender our business and get a couple of steaks to go with our sass’prillas.” Bernie’s not sure of what to make of Joe’s proposition. “Besides,” Joe adds, “you’re the only one of us knows who the eye-tie hat maker is.”
Joe moves the duffel from his left shoulder to his right. He holds out his left hand to Bernie. “Let’s go tender some business,” he says.
Bernie hesitates before she takes Joe’s hand and follows him through the small square. “I just sew,” she says, “I don’t tender, gen’rally.”
“Dead,” says the man behind the counter.
“Pardon me?”, Joe replies.
“The milliner,” the clerk says without looking up. “Two weeks ago now. Todischini. That’s who you’re asking after?” Joe nods. “Found him in his shop, if you can call it that.” He bustles off.
Joe turns to Bernie, who is paying no attention to either of them. “Where’s Mr. Todischini’s shop?”, Joe asks. Bernie shrugs, looks away.
Joe looks for the store clerk. Bernie says, “I know who might know.”
“Do you know who he sold his hats to?”, Joe asks her.
She shrugs again. “I know who might know,” Bernie repeats. She points in the direction of the long, low building across the square.
Joe sighs, “Sass’prilla.” He leads Bernie out of the general store, toting the duffel over his shoulder.
As they cross the small square, Joe notices a crowd forming. About a dozen people, mostly men, cluster outside the door of the building Joe and Bernie are heading for. “Wait here,” Joe says to Bernie. Joe can’t see past the crowd, but he hears shrieks and wood splintering. He also picks up strains of a familiar language.
Joe grimaces. “Swedes,” he says, followed by every cuss word he knows, some repeated three or four times. He notices Bernie has joined him. “Don’t imagine they sell much sass’prilla in this...,” Joe hesitates, “folderol.”
“Whatever they’re selling,” Bernie says, “I’m drinking.” She steps into the crowd milling in front of the door. Joe notices she has taken off her stockings and is now barefoot. Then she’s gone. Joe makes for the spot Bernie just vacated, still lugging the half-full duffel. He wriggles through the crowd, but can’t reach the door.
Now there are more loud voices coming from inside the building than crashing sounds. When Joe makes it to the door, he can’t see a thing. By the time Joe can discern the outline of figures jostling inside the wide, low-ceiling room, he’s struck by an odd aroma. Fish? Flowers? Joe marvels at the odor’s ability to repulse and attract him at the same time. He hesitates, not knowing whether to gag or grab a plate.
A swift push from behind propels Joe and the duffel through the door and smack into a clutch of people inside. This ignites more scuffles. Joe manages to find a quieter corner of the room. He sets the duffel down and takes in the scene as his eyes adjust to the lack of light. It doesn’t take long for Joe to spot Bernie in her bright yellow dress and bare feet. She’s seated at a table with several happy young men.
Bernie is clearly enjoying herself, laughing, downing the contents of a large wooden cup. Joe thinks, I doubt that’s sass’prilla in there. He decides waiting is a bad idea, so he hoists the duffel and squeezes through the crowded room toward Bernie’s table. The odd odor hovers.
Bernie sees Joe coming and turns her back to him. “What is that smell?”, Joe asks her when he reaches the table. He puts the duffel down. Bernie pays Joe no mind as she flirts with one of the men at the table.
“You can’t leave your kit there,” one of the other men tells Joe.
“It’s not my kit,” Joe replies, “and I’ll leave it where I damn please.” He taps Bernie lightly on the shoulder. She brushes his hand away. “What is that strange smell?”, Joe asks again.
Bernie looks at him over her shoulder. “Soup,” she says impatiently. “Stinky Swedish soup.”
“What was all the to-do about?”, Joe asks as he settles into his chair. He looks at Bernie’s cup. “What’s that you’re quaffing?” No reply. “Somebody better pipe up,” Joe says, “I got no end of questions and I don’t mind sharing them all with you.”
One of the men points, grunts. “Much obliged,” Joe says to him. He looks at Bernie. “Mind the hats,” he tells her and walks toward a table in a crowded corner of the room. The treacly sour smell grows more pungent the closer Joe gets to the table. He elbows his way to the front, where three stout women stand. Joe holds up one finger to the women and reaches in his pocket for a coin. They ignore him and tend to other customers. Joe holds it higher. The women pay Joe no mind. He waves the 25-cent piece he took out of his pocket.
Finally the woman in the middle, the shortest, points left. “Sign up dere,” she tells Joe. Sign up for soup? Joe thinks. He holds the coin in front of her. She shakes her head. “No money,” she says. The woman repeats: “Sign up. Den soup.”
“Where do I sign up for beer?”, Joe asks her. The woman narrows her eyes. “OK,” Joe says, “sign up.” He heads in the direction the woman pointed and finds a tall man sitting at a low table lit by a dim oil lamp. “Where do I sign?”, he asks.
The man points to an open ledger on the table. “Two days,” he says, “not an hour less.” Joe notices most of the ledger entries are marks.
“Two days of stinky Swedish stew?”, Joe asks.
“Two days of hard labor,” the man answers seriously. “Stew before for strength you will need.”
“That must be some stew,” Joe says, looking around for an escape. “Laboring isn’t in my plans at the moment. I’m looking to sell some hats.”
“Are dey good ratters?”, the man at the table asks.
“Good what?”, Joe asks back.
“The ones you’re selling.”
“What hats?”, the man asks, growing irritated.
“The ones I’m selling,” Joe answers.
“With the cats?”
“No cats, hats.”
“Find me some cats.”
“I don’t have cats,” Joe replies, “I have hats.”
“I don’t need hats,” the man says, “I need cats. Good ratters. Go find.” He waves Joe away.
Joe looks at the man sideways. “A buck each,” he says finally.
The man looks up. “Four bits,” he says.
“Six,” Joe counters. The man nods. Joe holds out his hand. The man shakes it unenthusiasticly. “Joseph McCready,” Joe says. The man grunts in reply. “And you are?”, Joe asks.
“Boss,” the man belches.
“Is that Mr. Boss?”, Joe asks sincerely.
“Just Boss,” he says, even less clearly.
“Just Boss it is,” Joe tells him. “By this time tomorrow,” he continues as he walks away from the man, “you’ll be up to your knees in rodent-hunting felines. Real killers.”
Joe wends his way through the dark room, looking for Bernie and the duffel of hats. He spots the duffel sitting where he left it. No Bernie. Joe notices the crowd has thinned out, but if anything, it has gotten darker in the long, low room. He picks up the duffel and looks around. Joe’s looking for a young woman in a canary yellow dress and stocking feet. How hard could that be?, he asks himself. He circles the room.
The longer Joe circumambulates, the meaner the looks on the faces of the men staring back at him. Not just no Bernie, he thinks, no women. A line of light catches Joe’s eye, glinting by a clump of figures standing in front of a makeshift opening in the back wall of the building. The “door” is a handful of planks leaning against a gap in the wall. Joe pushes his way between the boards, hats in tow, into the sunlight.
Joe blinks as his eyes adjust to the sunlight. He’s standing on a patch of dry dirt about 30 feet square. He hears voices but sees no one. Two men appear from the side of the building Joe just exited. “Say, gents,” Joe asks, “have you seen a young lass in a yellow dress about?”
“Priests come for ‘em,” one of the men answers as they walk past.
“For who?”, Joe asks.
“The women,” he replies. “All of ‘em, up and gone. I heard they paid the Swede a bounty,” the man adds. “Two bits a head.”
“What priests?”, Joe asks. “What Swede? Where’d they take ‘em?”
“St. Vibiana’s, I reckon,” the man says, then he turns and hurries to catch up with his companion.
Joe hefts the duffel of hats and laughs. “Found one, lost one,” he says to no one. “So far, the trip’s a wash.” He thinks of the girl in the pew in St. Pat’s back in San Francisco. I gotta get back, he tells himself, before I miss another Sunday. He hoists the duffel over his shoulder, thinking: Step one: get rid of the hats.
“Mr. Todischini is dead,” the woman says loudly.
“I know,” Joe says. “I have his hats.”
“What are you doing with his hats?”, she asks him.
“They were made to order by the sisters,” Joe says. “Bridie, Bernie, and Reeza.”
The woman looks at him like he’s crazy. “Nuns?”, she asks. “Whoever heard of nuns making hats?”
“Not nuns,” Joe says, “sisters, like family, in that cabin by the tar pits.” He points.
The woman looks confused, then she regards Joe’s duffel. “Hats, eh?”, she asks. “Well, let’s see ‘em.”
Joe empties the duffel onto a table. The woman examines the hats one by one. They’re a mix of men’s and women’s, fancy and utilitarian. Joe spots a short-billed cap, puts it on.
Once the woman has worked her way through the hats, she sets the last one down and considers the pile. “Seventeen dollars and 75 cents for the lot,” the woman announces.
“Thirty,” Joe responds reflexively, not knowing what the hats are worth.
“Twenty,” the woman replies just as quickly.
“Twenty-five,” Joe says back.
“Twenty-two 50 and you can keep the one on your noggin.”
Joe likes the cap’s fit, so he leaves it on. The woman places the hats into large cartons. “I’ll get your money,” she says when she finishes. She leaves and returns a few seconds later. In the woman’s hand is a leather pouch, from which she counts out $22, placing the bills in a stack on the table. Joe watches and waits. The woman takes a fifty-cent piece out of the pouch and places it atop the stack of bills. Joe picks up the lot and tips his new cap to her.
“Just don’t tell me how much you took us for,” Joe says with a smile. The woman ignores him. “Did you work for Mr. Todischini?”, he asks.
“You could say I was his landlady,” the woman replies. “I’m minding his affairs until his kin arrive.”
Joe asks, “What of the milliners?”
“Until you arrived I knew nothing of them,” the woman answers testily. “Have never made their acquaintance, and don’t particularly care to." She adds, “Despite their obvious talent.”
Joe realizes he has to find and retrieve Bernie before he can deliver the hat payment to Bridie. He turns to bid the woman good day, but she has disappeared into the small shop’s back room. He grabs the empty duffel as he hurries out.
That’s one impressive church, Joe thinks when he gets his first look at St. Vibiana’s. Now where might they have corralled all those women? Joe circles the cathedral, looking for signs of a trap. After two trips around, he tries a side door and finds it open. He glances inside. Instead of dark and quiet, Joe is surprised to find the inside of the church bustling and full of light. Several pews are filled with women.
It doesn’t take long for Joe to realize the women are in the pews next to St. Vibiana’s confessionals. Almost as quickly he spots Bernie. Joe works his way into the pew behind the one Bernie is sitting in. “Bernie,” he whispers, “let’s go.” She turns around, sneers, turns back. “I sold the hats,” Joe continues a bit louder. “We can be back to your sisters by sundown.”
“I’m not going back,” Bernie replies. “Ever. The priests are sending us to school.” Bernie slides closer to the confessional.
“They’re sending you to a workhouse,” Joe says. He grabs Bernie around the waist with one arm and lifts her out of the pew. She barely moves as he carries her out the church’s side door. Once they’re clear of St. Vibiana’s, Joe sets Bernie down. “I got twenty bucks for the hats,” he tells her, as if that explains everything.
“They were gonna hear me confessin’,” Bernie says and pouts.
“Are you even Catholic?”, Joe asks.
“Said I was,” she replies. “Lied a little.”
Joe thinks, lied to get into a confessional. What’s the penance for that? Two laps in the baptismal font? Five rings around the rosaries? “Priests are bad luck,” he says, looking around. “In my experience, anyway. Say, we best be getting back to your sisters, and to my, um...” Joe thinks, What do I call them? “Travel companions,” he says.
“I’ll go,” Bernie says, “but I’m done stayin’ in that hole in the ground.”
“Where you stay isn’t my concern,” Joe says. “I’ll fill this duffel with victuals and deliver it and you back to that hole in the ground. Along with whatever’s left of the twenty dollars,” he adds, “Then I’m on my way back to San Francisco.” And Sunday mass at St. Patrick’s.
“Take me!”, Bernie shouts. “To San Francisco. I’ll pay with my share from the hats.”
Joe can only sputter, “N-n-n-n-n-” Bernie kisses him. “Hey!”, Joe shouts when he separates from Bernie’s unexpected embrace. “Two minutes ago you were in line for confession. That’s some shift.”
“Take me with you,” Bernie pleads, reaching for the lapels of Joe’s coat. “We have family up there, or might, last we heard from a letter.”
“I’m a tad overburdened, escort-wise,” Joe says. “I was hunting a man in debt to my companion when I was wrangled into the hat business. And I’m looking to get myself unwrangled directly so I can hitch up with my companions, as I said.”
Bernie stares at him. “I don’t know about your wrangles and hitches,” she says, “but if you get me to San Francisco, I will show you a time, indeed I will.”
Joe regards Bernie, from her dusty bare feet to the chin-high collar of her banana-yellow dress. “I’ll leave that to your sisters,” he says.
Bernie pouts. “They’ll want to come, too,” she says. “We’re well through of Los Angeles. Nothing but mud, dust, and vermin around here.”
Joe takes Bernie’s hand and leads her like a child down the trail leading back toward the dusty square. “One thing at a time,” he sighs.
“Twenty dollars?”, Reeza asks. “That’s not very much, eh?”
Bridie recounts the money. “More than we ever got from Mr. Todischini,” she says.
Joe and Bernie made it back to the small cabin two hours before sunset. Some of the groceries they brought are stewing slowly on the fire. Joe considers the chances that Ox and Bo are within shouting distance of the lean-to tavern by the tar pits. “I gotta go,” he says suddenly. “Save a portion of the stew, if you please,” Joe tells Bridie. “I’ll be back with my charges directly. And I apologize for them in advance.”
Any worries Joe has about Bo and Ox being hard to find vanish before the makeshift tavern comes into view. Their snoring shakes the leaves. Joe’s about to rouse the two drunkards when he notices they’re in their skivvies and stocking feet. He looks for a sign of the proprietor. Instead, Joe spots the beer barrel tipped over, the baby buggy in pieces. He considers leaving Bo and Ox to sleep it off, decides against it.
If I left ‘em ‘til morning, Joe thinks, I’ll come back and find ‘em naked and shivering in the dew. “Up!”, he shouts, “find some vestments.” The snoring continues. “Up I said!”, Joe shouts, hoping he won’t have to shake either one of the miscreants. Ox begins to rouse himself. “Who made off with your wardrobe?”, Joe asks Ox. Bo’s snoring has become a persistent buzz.
Ox looks around, scratches his head, snorts. “Where’s my clothes?”, Ox asks nobody.
“Wake your cousin,” Joe says. “I’ll have a look around about for your boots and coats.” He walks out. Joe knows he won’t find anything worth the effort, still he paces around the ramshackle tavern. All for that girl in the church, he thinks. Thinking about her makes Joe impatient all over again. He goes back inside the tumbledown tavern. Boris and Ox are snoring in syncopation. Send one worthless cousin after the other, thinks Joe, and put me to minding the both. A fiddle doesn’t get played the way Bouchet plays me.
Not to mention my sister Alice, Joe reminds himself. She thinks she’s sparing me from those Italians. What are they doing south of the slot? Not long ago you wouldn’t find any Italians on Rincon Hill, except those being chased back down again. Joe thinks, someone’s paying someone.
“Up! Now!”, Joe shouts, a little angrier than he intended. Bo and Ox respond by working themselves to their feet, slowly and unsteadily. “Hang the suits,” Joe says to himself. “And the boots.” He looks the cousins up and down. “A bath and a fresh start are what you two need.” Joe gets no argument from either Bo or Ox. He’s not sure they’re conscious. “C’mon,” he says. “You’ll be missing your boots in no time.”
The three make it to the milliners’ cabin an hour before sunset. “Wait out here,” Joe says to Bo and Ox. “You’re not presentable presently.”
Joe stumbles over what he takes to be parcels just inside the milliners’ cabin. Before he gets a word out, Bridie says, “We’re coming with. And that’s the last word on the matter. Bernie told us all about Mr. Todischini dying. That 20 dollars is full good to get us north where we were determined all along.”
Joe doubts these are Bridie’s last words on the matter. Bridie proves Joe right. By the time she stops to take a breath, Joe has been told their misadventures from the Maritimes to Los Angeles. “It’s time,” Bridie concludes. Joe waits, knowing an explanation of sorts is forthcoming. “We got to where we were set to get to all along.”
“San Francisco?”, Joe offers. “Train leaves for there most days. I’ll take you to the station.” Joe doesn’t mention the tracks being out.
Bridie looks at Joe warily. “The station in San Francisco?”, she asks.
Joe laughs. “No, ma’am,” he replies. “The one here in Los Angeles. As I told your sister, I’ve got these two lost souls I’m porting back north, and they are the extent of my capacities. Right now, they’re both in need of a scrubbing and a fresh set of clothes. They’re likely half-frozen standing out there.”
“They’re outside?”, Bridie asks. “Well, let’s get a look at them.” She makes for the cabin door.
“Wait, now,” Joe protests. Bridie doesn’t. Joe follows Bridie out of the cabin. They find Bo and Ox sitting in the dirt, shivering. Bridie sizes them up. “I’ve seen worse,” she says. “Fair deal,” Bridie says to Joe, latching onto the two prone figures. “We shine up these two, and you escort us north to San Francisco.”
By now Bernie and Reeza have joined them, all four gawking down at the spectacle of short, stocky Bo and long, lanky Ox. The two stare back. Joe wonders how he’ll explain these three young women to Madame Bouchet. Plenty of time to come up with something. “Deal,” he tells Bridie.
“Reeza,” Bridie barks, “heat the water. Bernie, fetch the lye and the brushes.” The women can’t hide their glee as they set to their work.
Once again Joe’s thoughts go back to the smiling face of the girl in St. Patrick’s. Why wouldn’t Madame tell me about her? Why send me here? To give them enough time to get her out of town, Joe tells himself, or at least under wraps. And I fell for it, that story about Borbier. Abandoned his wife and baby, Bouchet said, to work a gold claim in Los Angeles, of all places. Escort his kid cousin to retrieve the idiot. Ox couldn’t retrieve a snotball from his left nostril, thinks Joe. And there the two cousins sit in the dust, near naked, seriously hung over.
“Up!”, Bridie shouts at the two. “There’s a pump around back. Go!”, which they do. She regards Joe. “Help yourself to the stew,” she says.
Joe eats nearly half the stew in the pot, paying little attention to the splashing and giggling going on behind the cabin. Bridie shouts something. When Joe walks behind the cabin to investigate, he finds Bo and Ox standing, naked, covered in soap suds. The giggling resumes. Bridie is taking playful swats with a wooden scrub brush at her two giggling sisters. “The indecency!”, she says, laughing along with them.
Joe tosses a bucket at Bo and Ox, who are gaping at the sisters. “Rinse yourselves off, boys,” he says. “Show’s over. Find some clothes.”
“Where?”, Bo asks.
Joe looks around, scratches his cap, walks over to Bridie. “We need to get them clad up,” he says. “For the trip north.”
Bridie scratches her head with the brush. “The skivvies’ll be a problem,” she says, “but we got a trunk of old suits might do ‘em nicely.”
Joe tosses two dusty horse blankets to Bo and Ox. “Cover yourselves,” he says. “And stay out of sight.” He follows Bridie into the shack.
A half-hour later, Bridie and Joe return with their arms full of clothing. “First,” Bridie says as she hands some articles to Bo and Ox.
“These are bloomers!”, Ox shouts as he holds up the garment.
“Best we could do in the underwear department,” Bridie says. “Quick, please.” Bridie tosses Bo a wide, floral scarf. “This’ll do for a shirt, for now,” she says. “Your patron will see to your boots.” She looks at Joe.
“First thing tomorrow morning,” Joe replies. He’s thinking what a fine couple of dandies Bo and Ox will make on the train to San Francisco. Joe looks over at Bernie and Reeza. “What about them two?”, he asks Bridie.
“They’ll be more presentable than your charges,” Bridie replies.
And so they prove to be the next morning as the six set out from the ramshackle cabin. Bernie and Reeza look as fresh as a pair of daisies. The two young women can’t contain their glee at departing. Bridie is all business, seeing to their meager luggage, closing up the cabin.
In contrast to Reeza and Bernie, Bo and Ox don’t look ready for much of anything. Their suits fit as you’d expect pulled out of a trunk. Joe looks the two up and down. “The cravats,” he shouts to Bridie, “they don’t replace a shirt and collar.”
Bridie comes over to Bo and Ox. Quick as a wink, Bridie reties the scarves around the necks of Bo and Ox, tucks the ends into their high-button suit coats, and steps back. “That’ll have to do,” Bridie says, still sizing up the two cousins.
“Remarkable!”, Joe announces. “How’d you do that?” Bo and Ox get shy.
Bridie ignores Joe’s question. “We best be off,” she says. “Accout these two, and get them others reshod.” She points at Bernie and Reeza. “Then to the train station,” Bridie adds.
“Wait,” says Joe, “what about the shoes I bought yesterday?”
“Too durned fancy,” Bridie replies.
An hour later, Joe is thinking, I’m spending a lot of time in this store with naught to show for it but a lighter billfold. He looks around. Bridie is fussing over shoes for Bernie and Reeza. Bo and Ox are nowhere in sight, which troubles Joe a little. He glances toward the door. There stands a man in a fancy hat. Bumronner, thinks Joe. He looks again to make sure Bo isn’t in view, then he watches Bumronner stride in.
When Bumronner walks past him, Joe decides on the direct route. He knocks Bumronner’s hat off his head and trips him as he reaches for it. Instead of being on top of Bumronner, Joe finds himself flipped, with Bumronner pinning him down, his right fist aimed square at Joe’s head. As Joe braces for the punch, a two-by-four lands hard on the back of Bumronner’s head, wielded by Ox, who stands grinning over them both.
“Mr. Fancy Hat,” Ox says, grinning wider.
“Get him off me,” Joe says.
The proprietor arrives. “Take your quarrel out of my store,” he says.
Bridie, Bernie, and Reeza look on from a slight remove. Ox helps Joe to his feet. “Let’s get him outside,” Joe says, “before he wakes up.”
Joe and Ox haul Bumronner out of the store and deposit him in the dusty street. “Go find Bo,” Joe tells Ox. “Quick, before we draw notice.”
Bridie leads Bernie and Reeza out of the store. They stand behind Joe and peer down at Bomrunner. “Is he dead?”, Reeza asks. “He looks it.”
“Not dead,” Joe reassures Reeza. “When he wakes up he’ll need a bigger hat size for a month or two.”
Ox exits the shop, dragging his cousin. “This one was readyin’ to light out on us,” Ox says, yanking Bo by the collar. “Says he’d rather take his chances down here in Los Angeles.”
“Did you forget your wife and baby?”, Joe asks Borbier.
“He’s got a wife and baby?”, Bridie asks Joe. She doesn’t wait for him to answer. Bridie rushes Bo, who’s still being held by Ox, and starts smacking him about the head. In an instant, Bernie and Reeza join in the assault. Bo puts up only a token defense, but considering the feebleness of the attack, not much is needed. Bo looks more embarrassed than pained.
Joe’s so amused by the spectacle, he doesn’t realize Bumronner has roused himself and is looking around for something. “My hat,” he mumbles.
Joe stands over Bumronner and says, “You owe that man,” he points to Bo, “Boris Borbier, eight dollars and fifty cents honest earned wages.”
Bumronner squints at Bo, who’s still being pummeled by the three ladies. “Borbier?”, he says. “He’s changed.”
“Eight-fifty,” Joe repeats.
“Find my hat,” Bumronner says, “and I’ll pay you ten.”
“Ox!”, Joe shouts, “unhand your cousin and find Mr. Bumronner’s hat.” Ox obliges him.
“The dredging business must be pretty good,” Joe says to Bumronner, who’s slowly standing.
“What did you hit me with?”, Bumronner asks him.
“You were about to brain me, remember?”, Joe asks.
“I was?”, Bumronner asks back. “Why?”
“I’m deputized to collect back wages,” Joe says.
Bumronner steps back. “You don’t look like no deputy to me,” he says.
“It’s a special kind of assignment,” Joe answers. “You’re obliged.”
“Where’s your paper?”, Bumronner asks. Joe throws a left that flattens Bumronner’s nose, dropping him back into the street. Joe frisks him, finds Bumronner’s wallet, removes ten dollars, and puts the wallet back.
Ox exits the store carrying Bumronner’s hat. Joe looks around. “Collect your cousin,” Joe says to Ox, taking the hat from him and dropping it on Bumronner’s prone figure. “We best be off before he’s up.”
Joe waves to Bridie, who stands huddled with Bernie and Reeza several feet away. “No time to dawdle,” he says. The women just look at him.
“Was that necessary?”, Bridie asks as Ox returns with Bo in hand.
“Just as necessary as us getting a move on,” Joe replies. “If you please.”
“If who pleases?”, asks a voice behind Joe. He turns and sees two constables on horseback.
“Thank goodness you’re here, officers,” Joe says.
One of the constables alights and looks down at Bumronner in the street. “Your work?”, he asks Joe.
“In a manner of speaking,” Joe replies. “Two days ago I was deputized by Judge Zreklot,” he explains, “to collect wages owed to him,” he points at Borbier, “by this Bumronner. We encountered him there,” Joe points at the store, “and proceeded to, um, enforce the order. We were requested to extricate ourselves. Which we did, and have now fulfilled our court-appointed duty.” Joe smiles.
The constable looks at Bumronner, then at Joe. “Deputized?”, the constable asks. His partner alights and stands next to him. “What’s your name, Deputy?”, the partner asks.
Joe squares up. “Joseph McCready,” Bridie shouts from the sidewalk. She rushes up to stand next to Joe. “My husband,” she adds.
“Your what?”, Joe asks her. Bridie ignores Joe and addresses the constable. “We came to get him,” she points at Bo, “who worked for that one,” she points at Bumronner. "That one,” Bridie points again at Bumronner, “stiffed him for dredging work.”
“By Echo Park there,” Bo offers.
The constable is dumbstruck. The second constable points over at Bernie and Reeza. “Whose are these, then?”, he asks Birdie.
She nods to the young women in succession. “Bernadette is married to that one,” Bridie indicates Bo, “Theresa is married to that one,” she motions toward Ox.”
The constable frowns. “This one, that one, these ones,” he says, exasperated. “Somebody tell me how that one there came to be prone in the street.”
“Self-defense,” Joe offers. “I had to clobber him before he clobbered me, on account of the demand for back wages not being of much effect.”
One constable points at Bumronner on the ground and asks the other, “Does he look familiar?”
The other leans forward to take a closer look. “Hard to tell,” the second constable replies, “with that nose so busted up.”
“Is that his hat?”, the first constable asks Joe. Joe nods.
“Well, now,” the second constable says. “There’s others looking for this one.” He takes hold of Bumronner and lifts him roughly to his feet.
Joe helps the constable lift the semi-conscious Bumronner onto the back of the constable’s horse. Joe asks, “Might there be some reward?”
“Don’t press your luck,” the constable tells Joe as he leads the horse carrying Bumronner away. “You can keep his hat,” he adds and laughs.
Once the constables carrying Bumronner away disappear, Joe asks Bridie, “Husband?”
“Think about it,” she answers. “We got a ways to go yet. Three men, three women,” Bridie says to Joe. “Traveling by train to San Francisco. Together.”
“I’m not marrying that hoo-hah,” says Bernie. She takes a step away from Bo, eyes him warily.
“You couldn’t anyway,” Joe tells her. “He’s already married. We were sent to fetch him.”
“I ain’t nobody’s lost dog,” Bo objects. “I come and go however I please.”
“Not anymore you don’t,” says Joe. “Not without Madame’s leave.”
Bridie interrupts: “Time’s awastin. We got a train to catch. You can sort your madams on the way north.”
“There’s just the one,” Joe says. “Madame,” he continues. “Bouchet. Runs a kind of mission. She’s a friend of my sister Alice.”
“Spare me the family history,” says Bridie.
Joe smiles. “You’re takin’ this pretend-wife thing to heart,” he says.
“Don’t you wish,” Bridie replies and storms off. Her sisters follow.
Joe picks up Bumronner’s hat and tosses it to Bo. “See if this might keep the dust off your ears,” he tells him.
Bo tosses it right back. “Don’t want his old hat,” Bo says.
“Isn’t this the hat you got arrested for stealing?”, Joe asks.
“I don’t want to be reminded,” Bo replies.
Joe hands the hat to Ox and says, “All yours.” Ox puts the hat on, smiles, looks around. His eyes lock on Reeza. Her eyes lock right back.
“Awastin’!”, Bridie repeats.
Joe coaxes Bo and Ox to follow the three women. Bo obliges him, but Ox just keeps gaping at Reeza. Joe laughs. “I know that look,” he says as he nudges Ox a bit harder. He looks at Reeza, then back at Ox. “That’s one damn impressive hat,” he says.
“Doesn’t anyone in this part of the state know how to patch a railroad bridge?”, Joe asks nobody. The six of them are waiting for a wagon. A day has passed since their encounter with Bumronner outside the store. They’re stuck once again in Santa Monica. Same collapsed bridge.
Joe thinks of his brother-in-law James Laffingstock, builder of railroad trestles of every description. He’d make short work of that bridge. Joe slowly realizes Bridie’s been talking to him. He nods and strains to pick up the thread of their one-sided conversation. Her sisters. Something about how different they are. Joe looks at Bernie and Reeza as Bridie rattles on. Reeza and Ox are lit up. Bernie just glowers.
“Those two are enjoying themselves,” Joe says.
Bridie swats him on the arm. “That’s what I’ve been saying,” she says. “You mind that Ox.”
“Him?”, Joe asks. “He’s harmless. Just turned twenty.” He looks again at Reeza. “She can’t be older than sixteen.”
“Eighteen,” Bridie says.
“Eighteen it is,” Joe replies. “So maybe you have an idea how to get us to San Francisco.”
“Yes I do,” Bridie replies. “Wait for the wagon.”
“Did it occur to you that the wagon may not arrive for hours?”, Joe asks Bridie. “Or days?”, Joe adds.
Bridie says, “It certainly did not.”
As if on cue, a large coach driven by six horses pulls up to the train platform. “Frisco-bound?”, the driver asks.
“Six,” Bridie replies.
“Climb in,” the driver says with a raw smile.
“What about our hats?” Bridie asks.
“Hold onto ‘em,” the driver replies. “I got a schedule.”
“The duffel,” Bridie says, pointing to the large bag on the ground. The driver motions for her to hand it up to him. She looks over at Ox.
Ox looks back at her for a second, then says, “Oh,” and picks up the bag. The driver takes it from him and piles it with others atop the cab. Joe holds open the wagon door for Bridie, then follows her inside. After come Bernie, Bo, Reeza, and Ox, all in their new clothes and boots.
The driver starts the horses before they’ve had a chance to settle. The six of them jostle and bounce into their seats, laughing as they do. Joe attempts to help Bridie settle herself in the rolling wagon, but she swats his hands away. “We’re just play-acting marriage,” she says. “Don’t get any ideas,” she adds, though she’s mostly amused.
Joe notices Ox and Reeza gabbing away about nothing, both smiling broadly. By contrast, Bernie sits as still as stone on the seat next to Joe, across from Bo, pointedly ignoring everyone, especially her faux beau.
Joe motions to Bernie and says to Bridie, “This one can’t get there fast enough.” He nods toward Reeza and Ox. “Who knows where they are.” Joe regards Reeza and Ox sitting across from him in the wagon, aware of only each other. Then he looks at Bo, squeezed in beside Ox, glum. Bo is as far from Bernie as he can manage in the cramped space of the wagon. Joe turns sideways to look at Bridie and Bernie next to him. He looks back at Reeza, then again at Bridie and Bernie. “Sisters?”, he asks.
“Us,” Bridie replies as she points at herself and Bernie. “Cousin,” she says, pointing at Reeza, who looks at her briefly in response and then turns her undivided attention back to Ox. “Orphan. Came west with us,” Bridie goes on. “Just a girl. We taught her needlework.”
“Where’d you learn to sew?”, Joe asks.
“Family,” she replies.
“Why’d you come west?”, Joe asks.
“Lost our family,” Bridie replies. “Typhus, mostly. Aunt Fiona died in childbirth.” Bridie stares blankly. “We’re what’s left of the Drennan clan,” Bridie says with a wistful smile. “Us three wandering seamstresses.” The wagon rocks violently. The jolt sends the wagon occupants bouncing into each other. Reeza squeals in delight as Ox clutches her tighter. Bo nearly loses his seat. Bridie comes down nearly in Joe’s lap. They end up in an embrace that lingers long after the wagon settles. Slowly, calmly, their lips lock.
So it was for the remainder of the journey north to San Francisco: Joe and Bridie cuddling, Ox and Reeza bubbling, Bo and Bernie grumbling.
On the streetcar heading to Rincon Hill, Bridie asks, “Who is this Missus Biscuit again?”
“Madame Bouchet,” Joe replies. “From Louisiana. She runs a mission of a sort."
“How’re you going to explain us?”, Bridie asks, pointing to Bernie and Reeza.
Joe shrugs. “With Madame Bouchet,” he says, “there’s not much need for explaining. She pieces things together pretty well all on her own, generally.”
The streetcar stops at the opening of the cul de sac leading to Madame Bouchet’s property. Joe helps each of the women in turn with their bags. From the front, the broad house looks nearly deserted, but as Joe leads his five companions around to the back, they feel the bustle build.
As they enter the yard, Bridie and Reeza get shy, Bernie gets excited, Ox looks around bug-eyed, and Bo appears to be planning his escape. Joe leads his five companions up the back porch stairs, motioning for them to wait there. Before he can open the door, a young woman exits. The woman is startled to see Joe standing in her path. Then she spots Bo coming up the steps and her mood changes to shock, and then fury.
Bo notices the woman a split second before her hands wrap around his throat. “Rotten thief!”, she shouts. “Where’s my grandmother’s ring?”
With much effort, Joe and Bridie manage to separate the woman from Bo. The woman slowly calms down. “Must be the missus,” Joe tells Bridie.
Bo tries to talk as he coughs and struggles to keep from falling back down the porch steps. The woman glares at him over Bridie’s shoulder.
“Mrs. Borbier,” says a solemn voice through the open door. The woman comes to attention. Madame Bouchet steps onto the porch, looks at Bo. “Attend your husband,” Madame continues, still regarding Bo. “He appears to be unwell.” Madame turns to Bridie.
“Kindly allow me,” Joe says. “Madame Bouchet, this is Bridie Drennan.”
“Brigid,” Bridie corrects him. She curtsies and points, “my sister, Bernadette.”
Bernie straightens up and gives Madame a good, long look. Madame’s weary-happy expression doesn’t change. Finally, Bernie curtsies stiffly.
“Our young cousin, Theresa,” Bridie says, pointing at the woman who’s standing shyly on the bottom porch step.
“How young?”, Madame asks.
“Just turned 19,” Bridie replies.
Madame steps closer to Reeza. “When is your birthday?”, she asks her.
Reeza looks to Bridie, then Bernie, then up at Madame. She blurts, “Last day o’ March, they figure.”
“The year?”, Madame asks.
“Eighteen...,” Reeza hesitates. “Sixty....” Reeza doesn’t know where to look. Her eyes settle on Madame’s shoes. “Nine,” she finishes meekly.
“Eighteen sixty-nine,” Madame smiles. “How nice.” Madame takes Reeza by both hands. “You just turned 17.” She turns to Bridie. “What brings you to San Francisco?”
“Seamstress work,” Bridie answers nervously. “We’re seamstresses. Well, Bernie and me are, and Reeza, she’s near as good as us two lately. We did work for a milliner in Los Angeles, until he died,” Bridie continues, less nervous now. “That’s where we met Joe and these others.”
Madame Bouchet gives Joe a quick, sharp glance and then turns her attention to Mr. and Mrs. Borbier, who are at opposite ends of the porch. “Boris Borbier!”, Madame barks. Bo walks tentatively toward her. “You will never leave your wife and child again,” Madame tells him. “Why?”
Bo is stunned by Madame’s question at first, then he replies, “Because you’ll send somebody to fetch me back again?”
“Correct,” says Madame. She turns to Bo’s wife. “Tomorrow your husband works the docks again,” she says. “Saturday he says a confession. Sunday we go to Mass. Young ladies,” Madame says, holding her arms out to Bridie, Bernie, and Reeza. “Welcome.”
Madame’s visage transforms when she faces Joe. “Simple instruction,” Madame whispers harshly. “Go with one, bring back two, not five.” Joe starts to reply. “Go!”, Madame cuts him off, “Your sister. Stay with Alice,” Madame adds more calmly, “I will come tonight. Another boy comes to her this fall.”
“Again?”, Joe says. “The poor woman. How do you know it’s a boy?”, he asks.
Madame ignores the question. She herds the women through the back door. Bo and Ox follow meekly. Joe stares at the closed back door. “I guess I’ll go visit Alice,” he says to nobody. He looks at the sky, calculates the hour. “In a bit.”
The saloon is exactly where Joe remembers it being. The boiled eggs and oysters take the edge off Joe’s appetite. The beer is fresh. Heaven. By the time Joe makes it up Rincon Hill to his sister’s flat, the sun has set. He finds Alice and Madame Bouchet drinking tea in the parlor. Alice’s oldest surviving son, Deuce, is minding his young siblings in the kitchen. Madame looks at Joe, rolls her eyes. “Whiskey,” she says.
“Beer,” Joe corrects Madame. “And I’m not drunk, either. Just relaxed.” He smiles at Alice. “I wouldn’t come drunk to my sister’s house. Not while her fine children are still awake,” he adds. He looks over and sees Deuce standing in the kitchen doorway, the brood behind him. “Save for that oldest boy of hers. What’s his name again? Dutch? Pooch?”, Joe asks playfully.
Alice waves her six children into the parlor. “Deuce,” she says, “say hello to your uncle.” Deuce smiles, walks up to Joe, and offers his hand. Joe wraps him in a bear hug and laughs. Alice’s five younger children trail Deuce out of the kitchen. Joe tries to scoop them all into his arms at once, ends up on the parlor rug. The children squeal as they pounce on their uncle like he was a trampoline. Joe squeals along with them.
“Enough!”, shouts Alice, smiling. She lifts her youngest off Joe’s boot, where the child was attempting to chew the laces.
The commotion stops the moment Madame stands up. The children return to the kitchen without being told. Madame regards Joe, who remains sprawled on the rug. “Please explain,” Madame says.
“I did as you instructed,” Joe replies, “or would have, if you knew the particulars of the young ladies’ predicament.” He stands, stretches. “I kept young Borbier out of the county jail,” he says. “Judge as good as deputized me.” He smiles.
“And the seamstresses?”, Madame asks.
“Ah, you see,” Joe explains, “I was after this Bumronner who owed Bo for the dredge work, and the cabin I took for deserted, then the hats.”
“Hats?”, Madame asks.
“The cabin was full of ‘em,” Joe says, “and Bumronner’s was what got Bo pinched, and there’s Bridie who made them, or fixed them, anyway. And Bridie’s sisters, of course, including the sister who’s a cousin,” Joe rambles. “Todischini’s landlady paid top dollar for the hats. Add that to Bo’s dredging wages we collected from Bumronner, and altogether, I’d say our Los Angeles excursion was fruitful.”
“That is what you call an explanation?”, Madame asks.
Joe looks at his sister. Alice looks at Madame. “I did what you asked,” Joe replies.
Alice nods at Madame. “Perhaps not exactly as you asked,” Alice says. “Sounds like those sewing girls were in a tight spot, on their own.”
Madame Bouchet regards Alice, a little bit sentimental, a little bit proud. “All heart, no head, your brother,” she says. “Off again soon.”
“Good thing, too,” Alice says. “He’ll find trouble before the week’s out.”
“It finds me,” Joe says. “I’m a peace-loving fellow at heart.”
“You don’t sail north before the sisters are situated,” Madame tells Joe. “They are your charges now.”
“Bridie’s no one’s charge,” says Joe. “Bernie’s the one needs a short lead. It’ll take an anchor to keep her out of San Francisco’s finer dives.”
Madame straightens. “Three young women are brought to a city they don’t know,” she says calmly. “The young man who brings them will ensure their well-being.”
Joe smiles weakly. “The young man’s wise sister and her wiser friend help the man settle the women, who forced him into it, I might add.”
“You will talk to Father Laurent tomorrow,” Madame says. “Whatever price he asks for helping the seamstresses, you will be happy to pay.”
Joe’s smile weakens. “I’ll talk to the priest,” he says, “but he won’t get me in that confession box again. Damnation can’t be any worse.”
Madame turns and nods to Alice, who stands and starts for the door. Joe holds up his hand. “Speaking of seeing to the sisters,” he says, "I thought I’d take Bridie for a stroll this evening, show her around South Beach.”
“Priest first,” Madame says, “then walk.”
Alice returns from seeing Madame out and hands her youngest to Joe. “Get to know your namesake,” she says. “Joseph McCready Laffingstock.”
Joe lifts the child above his head. “Kid,” he says, “you better be handsome or you’ll embarrass me.” Young Joe looks back at him blankly.
“He better be smarter than his uncle,” says Alice, “or he’ll embarrass the lot of us.”
Joe sets the baby on his knee. “Not too,” he says.
The next afternoon, Joe and Bridie are sitting on Madame Bouchet’s back porch. They watch the bustle in the large yard. “Well?”, Joe asks her.
“This here priest dudn’t sound on the up-and-up,” Bridie replies. “Last time we worked for the Italians it didn’t work out so fair for us.”
“Before or after Mr. Todischini died?”, Joe asks.
“We were brung there under pretenses,” Bridie says, “and got took serious advantage of. So you can understand,” Bridie concludes.
Joe nods. “That’s reasonable,” he says. “What else do you have in mind?”
Bridie considers this. “When we were waylaid down in Los Angeles a time back,” Bridie says, “we made the rounds of the tailor shops, asking about work to be had.”
“That didn’t turn out so good,” says Joe. “You wound up with Todischini.”
“Kept us alive,” Bridie replies.
“Stuck in a mud hole,” says Joe.
“Right where you found us,” Bridie says, sounding almost shy.
Joe stands. “How would you like a gumdrop?”, he asks. “Sweets for the sweet.”
Bridie laughs her assent. Right on cue, Madame Bouchet appears at the back door. “You have money for one gumdrop,” she asks, “not three?” Standing behind Madame are Bernie and Reeza.
“Three gumdrops, sure,” Joe says. “The more the merrier.” Madame sees his enthusiasm sagging.
The three young women skip down the porch stairs, happy for the outing. Madame whispers to Joe, “No saloons. Three leave, three come back.”
“Safe and sound,” Joe replies. “We won’t go within earshot of the ale houses.” He follows the women down the stairs and into the evening.
Before he leaves the yard, Joe says over his shoulder, “I haven’t forgotten about the girl in St. Pat’s. I’m owed. A deal’s a deal.”
As Joe follows the young seamstresses out of the yard, Madame says under her breath, “Tell it to the priest.”
She hears someone sniffling, turns to see Ox standing behind her, looking forlorn. “Is Reeza gone?”, he asks.
Madame replies, “For now she is.”
“For good?”, he asks.
“Not for good,” Madame says. She walks Ox back into the house. “You like Reeza,” Madame says.
“I guess,” Ox replies. “Where’s she off to?”
“To the candy store,” Madame tells Ox.
“I coulda got her candy,” he says as they move into the kitchen. “I coulda took her there myself.”
“Reeza will be fine with Mr. McCready,” Madame says. She motions for Ox to sit at the kitchen table. Ox hesitates, then sits stock still. “Do you have work?”, Madame asks.
“I pick up jobs here and there on the wharfs,” Ox replies. “Since my family went north it’s me and Bo. Then Bo got wedded, then the work dried up, then Bo lights out, and we fetch‘m, then I met Reeza and we come back here.”
“And now what?”, Madame asks.
Ox stays sitting bolt upright. “Now I wait for Reeza to get back from the candy store,” he says, “if I may.”
“When you find work,” Madame says, “when you make a home, then you see Reeza, take her for gumdrop, not before.”
Ox frowns, moans a little. He tries to formulate a counter argument, but just stutters, “Why-why-why-”.
“Tomorrow you go with Bo to see the Catalonian,” Madame says.
This statement changes Ox’s expression from sadness to confusion. “The catalog?”, he asks.
Madame stands. “Bo will talk for you,” she says.
“Did you say cattleman?”, Ox asks as Madame leaves the kitchen. “I don’t run stock,” his voice ebbs, “even if I’m boarding in the barn.”
Ox can’t figure Madame Bouchet. The woman owns a mansion, full of people coming and going, but it’s not like a boarding house or a mission. “She hosts me inna barn sose I went get comfortable,” Ox says to the empty back porch. “Feeds me just enough sose I don’t starve entirely.” While he grumbles, Ox feels a smile starting to form as he remembers Madame’s many kindnesses to him, his cousin Bo, and Bo’s wife and baby.
Ox’s frown returns when he thinks of Madame’s admonition that he couldn’t see Reeza again until he finds work and gets himself settled proper. He looks around the yard, nearly empty now that evening has set in. He misses Reeza. A voice behind him says, “Don’t get any idears, cuz.”
“Idears about what?”, Ox asks without turning around. “You’re the one forever lighting out for ungodly places.”
“Not what, who,” Bo says. “She’s headin’ for the nunnery, I heard. Reeza and them other two as well.”
Ox turns and glares at his cousin. “Bah,” he snarls.
“Madame made the arrangements with the priest, Laurent,” Bo adds. “Up in Benecia, sewin’ for the Dominicans.”
Ox stands up, sits down again. He stutters, “Beneesh... Minicans...” He shoots to his feet, yells “Hurry!”, leaps off the porch. “Hurry!”, he repeats.
“Where?”, Bo asks.
Ox stops, turns. “We gotta get ‘em before the priest ships ‘em out to the Benicans,” he says.
“Good riddance,” says Bo. He takes Ox’s seat.
Ox groans lowly and runs out of the yard. Bo waits a beat, then he gets up and runs after his cousin. He thinks, there’ll be beer, I bet.
Bo catches up with Ox a block later. “What do you say to a bucket of beer before we gather up them seamstresses?”, he asks.
Ox ignores him. “I’m headin’ straight for the candy store,” he says, “get Reeza out from the Benicans.”
“Bring ‘em ‘round to Dooley’s,” says his cousin.
“I’m not takin’ Reeza to no ding-ed saloons,” says Ox, not breaking his stride.
“Then where are you takin’ her?”, Bo asks.
Ox slows, frowns. A second later, his face brightens. “I betcha Joe McCready knows a good place to take ‘em,” he says.
Bo smiles and nods, “He just might.”
When Bo and Ox make it to the candy shop, there’s no sign of Joe or his charges. “Tell you what,” says Bo, “I walked myself up a thirst. I’m heading for a drop at Dooley’s. You may head where you please.”
Ox turns in a circle, looking around. Bo watches Ox pirouette, shakes his head, and walks away. Ox steadies himself and stumbles after him. “Supposin’,” he says, “Reeza and Joe.”
“Stop your supposin’ right there,” says Bo as they walk. “McCready’s sweet on Bridie, and verse viceroy. Get supposin’ on finding us work.”
“You got me started on it,” Ox says, “tellin’ me about Reeza gettin’ carted off to the Benicans.”
“Dominicans,” Bo corrects, “in Benicia.”
“Just the fellers,” says Joe as he claps Bo and Ox on their shoulders. “Not a moment too soon. I tell ya, these three needlers are a handful.”
“We thought you was takin’ them for gumdrops,” Ox says as he gazes around Dooley’s. “What’s ‘come of Reeza? They’re fixin’ to lock her up.”
“Lock her up?”, Joe asks. “Why? What’d Reeza do?”
“First things first,” Bo interrupts. “Who’s the guy ‘round here I see about getting beer?”
Joe points over his shoulder. “The Pole,” he says, “the skinny guy in the apron. Make sure you ask for the Steam, else you’ll get bilge.”
“Ask the pole for steam so I don’t get bilge,” says Bo. “That don’t make no sense at all.”
“Do you want some beer or don’t you?”, Joe asks. Bo scowls back at him. Joe laughs and says, “Follow your damn nose, then meet us yonder,” he points. “I’m gonna reacquaint Ox with Reeza." Joe turns to Ox and asks, “How long has it been, two hours since you left her? An eternity, eh?” Joe laughs as he leads Ox toward a bench.
Instead of tables and chairs, Dooley’s was filled mostly with rows of benches, arranged like backless pews in a smokey, low-ceiling church. Half the benches are empty, but they’re filling up fast. In an inconspicuous corner sit Bridie and Reeza. Joe follows their gaze to Bernie.
Bernie is standing two benches over, smiling and laughing with a group of young men, all tow-heads dressed in short coats and high britches. “A girl after my own heart,” says Joe to himself. He turns to Ox. “See to those two,” Joe says, “while I rescue Bernie from the heathens.”
But Ox is already heading for Reeza with eyes popping. Reeza stands waiting for him, her smile wide and shining. Joe gives Bridie a wink. Bridie is not happy to see Ox, who pays her no mind as he walks past her and sits on the bench close to Reeza. Joe heads for Bernie’s pals.
Bernie is sitting snug between two of the young men, and three others are facing her on the bench across. Joe joins these three, smiling. “I said I can’t help but notice the interest you’ve taken in my young friend,” Joe says much too loudly. The men mumble together in Swedish. Joe leans close to Bernie and says, “You best get back to your sisters, now.” He places a firm hand on each of the men sitting next to her.
Bernie gets Joe’s meaning and hops off the bench. Joe knocks the bench and two Swedes over. He turns just in time to avoid a wild punch. The Swede who threw the punch trips over the tipped bench and his two fallen comrades. Joe is set to square off with the last two standing. Somebody gets Joe in a bear hug and lifts him like a sack of nothing. Just when Joe’s sure his ribs are breaking, he’s propelled forward.
Joe slams into one of the Swedes, his ribs still in a vise grip of unknown origin. Just as quickly, the whole pile is shoved backward again. Bo has launched himself into the fray, causing the whole pile to crash over the fallen bench and prone Swedes. He’s now swinging wildly. Whatever was squeezing Joe’s ribs has loosened, so Joe can almost breathe. Crashing into the front of him are Bo and the Swede Bo’s bashing.
Slamming Joe from behind are whoever’s been breaking his ribs and whoever’s been making the rib cracker yowl. The whole pile is collapsing. The five conjoined brawlers crash in slow motion. Each teeters in turn on tipped benches and flattened Swedes. Joe scrambles to his feet. He notices bits of Ox sticking out from under one of biggest humans Joe has ever seen. The giant is flailing like an overturned turtle.
Joe figures the simplest way to liberate Ox is to help the giant to his feet and then knock him over the other way. The first part works. The second part of Joe’s plan works not at all. Once the giant’s back on his feet, he revives and resumes his assault on Joe’s midsection. This time Bridie comes to Joe’s rescue by dumping a half-full bucket of beer over the giant’s head. He staggers and drops Joe on his butt.
By now, drunken Swedes are scattered across a large section of Dooley’s sawdust-covered floor. Reeza is attending to Ox; Bo is not in sight. Standing amid the swirl and noise, Joe gets Bridie’s attention and nods toward the door while pointing at Ox and Reeza. Bridie nods back. Joe looks around the saloon but sees no sign of Bernie or Bo. He dodges a wild punch, then ducks as a bench takes wing. “Bernie,” he cusses.
Bridie’s young sister has a serious wild streak, Joe thinks as he crouches behind an overturned table. Talking up those high-pants Swedes. Joe peeks over the edge of the tipped-over table and sees the mayhem is diminishing. He takes a chance there’s a back way out of the dump. Joe sidles along the back wall of Dooley’s, stepping over bits of bench and puddles of spilt beer. He spots a gap in the wall 20 feet ahead.
The gap leads into a maze of storage areas and sleeping quarters. Joe smells beans cooking. He follows the smell, figuring it’s near a door. As he passes one of the half-curtained bunks, Joe notices it’s occupied. He’s two steps past it before he recognizes who it’s occupied by.
“Up, you two,” shouts Joe as he pulls the makeshift curtain back. Bo and Bernie are too busy kanoodling in the billet to pay Joe any mind. When Joe is finally able to break the two lovers apart, he sees Bernie is half out of her dress, and Bo’s trousers are missing altogether. Joe rips the curtain off the entry and hands it to Bo. “Cover yourself,” he tells him. Bernie looks at Joe defiantly, dress front wide open.
“I don’t see you adjusting to convent life,” Joe says as he admires Bernie’s perfect bosom. She smiles as she slowly rebuttons her dress.
Once they’re relatively dressed, Joe ushers Bo and Bernie through an open-air kitchen into a cluttered alley in dire need of a hard rain. Joe keeps the two drunkards moving down the alley toward the gaslit street. “How’d you lose your new trousers?”, Joe asks Bo as they walk.
“Got ripped up,” Bo replies, “in the scuffle. Come right off.”
Joe looks at Bernie. “I suppose the same fate befell your bloomers,” he says. Bernie hikes her dress to confirm Joe’s supposing. Joe sighs. “You keep your distance from those Swedes,” he tells her, knowing it’s futile.
The three make it to the end of the alley and stumble out on Brannan. Across the street and a half block down, a small crowd has gathered. Joe imagines he sees Bridie standing with Ox and Reeza near the crowd’s edge. “Hold onto that curtain,” he says to Bo as they move forward. The crowd’s attention is on the ruckus across the street in Dooley’s. Joe herds Bo and Bernie toward Bridie, who turns out not to be Bridie.
Joe is just a few steps away when he realizes his mistake. The woman he thought was Bridie looks at the three of them like they’re poxed. Joe’s about to beg the woman’s pardon when he spots the policeman standing next to her. Sadly, the policeman and Joe are old acquaintances. Joe’s hopes of vanishing before the cop spots him are dashed when the woman lets out a bellow at the sight of Bo, half-naked and draped.
Bo now has the policeman’s full attention. Joe considers leaving Bo to fend for himself, but decides Madame would skin him alive if he did. “Those damn Swedes near disrobed my friend here, officer,” Joe shouts in the cops ear, trying not to let the man get a good look at him.
“He best robe himself proper or I’ll run him up,” the policeman says, craning his neck to get a look at Joe. The crowd is thinning quickly.
“Blessed Mary, Jesus and Joseph, you’re back,” Bridie shouts as she hugs Joe. “The man’s a saint,” she says to the cop. He looks back dazed. “Delivered these two souls from peril,” Bridie adds, “at considerable risk to himself.“
Just as the cop starts to speak, Dooley’s erupts. The same giant who turned Joe’s rib cage into his own private squeezebox barrels out of what used to be Dooley’s front door, now splinters. The Big Swede’s booming exit is all the distraction Joe needs to spirit Bridie, Bernie, and Bo off Brannan Street and back up Rincon Hill.
Back to Madame Bouchet’s mission. Joe imagines how he’ll explain to Madame how a quick trip to the candy store became a late-evening carouse. Half way up the Hill, Joe tells Bridie, “I might just head to my sisters after I see you to Madame’s.”
Bridie frowns, “Quite the schemer.”
“Me?”, Joe asks innocently.
“Madame,” Bridie replies. “She’s got designs on putting us to work for her benefit. Just like Todischini did.”
“Madame can’t house you three,” Joe says, “not even in that creaky mansion of hers. She won’t put yuz out. Where else can she set you to?”
Bridie bristles. “Who says we’re hers to set to?”, she asks. “Either you don’t listen so good or you don’t remember so good. We got jobs.”
“Where might those jobs be?”, Joe asks, trying to sound sincere.
“San Francisco,” Bridie answers defiantly. “Somewhere,” she adds meekly. “We’ll make our way, the three of us,” she says, now sounding tired. “We’ll find seamstress work, we’re handy with a needle, you know.”
“It’s not so easy gettin’ settled in this town,” Joe tells Bridie as the troupe reaches Madame’s large house. “It helps to have friends.”
“What kind of friend coops you up in a nunnery basement working your fingers to the bone for free?”, Bridie asks, her combativeness back. “No, thank you indeed. That’s what we left back in Massachusetts. Their kinda friendliness gets you absolutely nowhere.”
Bridie leads Bernie, Reeza, Bo, and Ox into Madame’s back yard. Joe watches them march off, wondering how it was he got himself tangled up. Oh, yeah, he says to himself as he starts for his sister’s flat. The girl in St. Pat’s. A thousand miles, two weeks, three seamstresses. And he still doesn't know her name. She’s probably gone to the Benicans, as Ox called them. Joe decides to find her before he heads north.
Joe looks west and sees the fog is still hours away from Rincon Hill. He decides to take a stroll past St. Patrick’s before heading home. He hasn’t even made it off Rincon Hill before a tavern light on Bryant catches his eye.
Six hours later, Joe is toddling his way back up Rincon. He smiles when he thinks about his stroke of luck, finding a tailor in dire need. Joe cackles a bit when he recalls the look of relief on the man’s face when Joe told him about the Drennan sisters’ recent arrival in town. Joe praised the sisters’ skills with needle and thread. He feigned insult at first when the man offered him a finder’s fee to deliver them. The tailor kept Joe’s mug brimming with beer for a good three hours, celebrating their good fortune. Joe left him sleeping behind the bar.
Joe’s habit, when returning late to his sister Alice’s house, was to bunk in the summer kitchen to keep from disturbing her young children. Alice stowed two thick blankets there for that very purpose. Joe found a sheltered corner and was dozing in no time, sore ribs forgotten.
Joe wakes to find Alice’s daughter Gladys poking those very ribs. “Mama says I should poke you ‘til you groan,” Gladys says, then runs away. Joe lets out a mournful groan, not just to amuse Gladys. He now is acutely aware of the battering taken by his ribs and other body parts.
“I heard about Dooley’s,” Alice says the moment her brother ambles into the kitchen.
“And good morning to you, too,” Joe replies cordially.
“You could’ve got those poor girls killed,” Alice says as she chops a pile of cabbage.
“They’re not girls,” Joe says, “’Cept Reeza, maybe.”
“They’re your responsibility,” Alice says, ignoring Joe’s reply.
“They’re all set,” Joe says as he scans the kitchen for signs of breakfast.
Alice looks up from the cabbage. “How do you figure that?”, she asks.
“I found them work with a tailor shop over on Sutter,” Joe answers.
“Whose tailor shop?”, Alice asks suspiciously.
Joe thinks for a second. “Rabbit was his name, I think,” he says. “Or Robbit, maybe Rupert. I wrote it down somewhere,” Joe says, making like he’s checking his pockets. “Nice feller, says he’s got more needlework’n he can handle.”
“What pay did he offer?”, Alice asks, even more suspicious.
“I don’t recollect,” Joe answers. “Can’t say the subject came up, to think it.”
“You’re quite the agent,” Alice says, turning her attention back to her cabbage. “Lord protect those young ladies from more of your help.”
“They’re all set, I tell ya,” Joe says to his sister, trying to keep his tone light. “I’ll see they’re paid a fair wage, whatever that is.” He pours molasses onto the nub of a loaf of dark bread and starts gnawing away. Crumbs and syrup fly. Alice shakes her head, tsks, hmphs. “I thought you and Madame would be happy,” Joe says as he chews.
“Manners!”, Alice shouts.
Joe reacts like he’s never heard the word before. “My manners are impeccable,” he says as he licks a wad of molasses off his thumb. “I just don’t squander ‘em on family.”
Alice stammers, “M-manners of a r-rabid dog.”
Seven second later, Joe figures it out. “When’s the baby due?”, he asks his sister.
“Autumn,” Alice replies matter-of-factly. She looks up from her cabbage. “And you traipsing from here to Pago Pago.”
Joe sits at the table. “Don’t blame me,” he says. “The father’s been doing some traipsing himself.”
Alice dumps the chopped cabbage into a small wicker basket. “He was a railroad man when I met him,” she says under her breath. “Traipsing’s his line of work.”
“Parenting, not so much,” says Joe.
On cue, Deuce, Alice’s oldest child, all of nine years, scampers into the kitchen. “Will you take us swimming today, Uncle Joe?”, he asks.
Joe puts his hand on Deuce’s shoulder. “On two conditions,” he says. “First, if my head clears, and second, if the bay doesn’t freeze over.”
“Third,” Alice adds, “if your mother says you may. And fourth, after you and your Uncle Joe collect our grocery order.”
Joe winks and nods. “Does this market happen to keep gumdrops in stock?”, he asks, giving Deuce a big smile.
“I just hope it doesn’t stock beer,” says Alice.
Joe groans at Alice’s mention of beer. “I’m taking the pledge,” he says.
Alice laughs. Not cynically, but a genuine, lighthearted giggle. Deuce laughs along with his mother, and soon enough, Joe has joined in. “A pig’d sooner give up slop,” Alice says and laughs all over again.
Joe stands, stretches. “Let me attend to myself,” he says to Deuce, “then we’ll away to the grocer’s.”
“You stay outside,” Alice tells Joe. “Deuce can bring his wagon. You’re liable to start another brawl.”
Joe raises an eyebrow. “Never in my life have I ever started a brawl,” he says as he stretches, “in a grocer’s shop.” He smiles at Deuce. “And I do not intend to start now.”
Alice shrugs her eyebrows and grabs a new head of lettuce to chop. Deuce scampers to retrieve his wagon in the yard. Joe scratches, yawns.
On a beautiful April mid-morning, Joe finds himself walking down Rincon Hill along the same path he stumbled up a handful of hours earlier. He listens to the rattle of Deuce’s empty wagon bumping along next to him, Deuce barely able to keep it from rolling downhill on its own. “Where are you leading me, Deuce?”, he asks. Deuce points down the hill. “Ahh,” Joe says. “That explains it.” They continue in silence.
As he and Deuce walk down Bryant, Joe chuckles as he thinks of the seamstress sisters’ unlikely journey to San Francisco via Los Angeles. “They’ll own the place in a year,” he says.
“Huh?”, Deuce asks.
“I says,” Joe replies, “you got sweet potatoes growing out of your ears.”
“Who’ll own what place?”, Deuce asks.
Joe sighs. “The Drennan sisters,” he says, “they’ll own San Francisco by this time next year, I bet.”
“Own San Francisco?”, Deuce asks. “Who could own a whole city?”
“I can think of a person or two,” says Joe, “but that’s not what I meant. What I meant was they’re gonna like it here and make lots of friends.” He smiles to himself. “Especially Bernie.”
Deuce starts to say something but stops when he sees the bustle on Second Street. Joe puts a hand on Deuce’s shoulder. “Stay near,” he says. “How far is it to the grocer’s?”, he asks as people scurry every which way.
“It’s right there,” says Deuce, pointing halfway up the block.
Joe spots two cops he recognizes and two others he doesn’t standing in the middle of Second Street, not far from the store Deuce indicated. Joe and Deuce walk slowly toward the commotion. Deuce is first to notice the figures lying in the street where the police stand chatting. One of the cops notices Joe and shouts, “Hold there, McCready.”
“It wasn’t me,” Joe replies reflexively.
“We know who it was,” says the cop. He walks to where Joe and Deuce are standing. “Dooley’s,” the cop says, “last evening.”
“Can’t pin that one on me either,” says Joe. “Anyone I know?”, he asks, motioning toward the two lumps in the road.
“Dooley’s,” the cop repeats.
“I was at the candy store,” Joe says. “I got witnesses,” he adds, half laughing because it’s half true.
The cop returns his attention to the lumps in the road. “Eye-ties,” he says as he turns back to Joe. “You know any Eye-talians?”, the cop asks.
“Sure,” Joe replies, “lots.” Joe checks Deuce, standing yards behind. Deuce nods back at Joe to say he’s fine. Joe nods and says to the cop, “I’m fetching my sister’s grocery order, if I may.” The cop grunts.
Joe waves for Deuce to follow him down Second. Deuce glances at the bodies in the road as he passes. “Dead?”, he asks his uncle. Joe nods. Deuce’s attention shifts to the line of storefronts he and Joe are approaching. “Did my mother tell you about the butterscotch?”, he asks.
Joe marvels at his young nephew’s resilience. “What about the butterscotch?”, he asks Deuce.
“They have some,” Deuce says, “at Bartoli’s. In case you like butterscotch and want to eat some,” he adds. “Because it’s good. At Bartoli’s.”
“Butterscotch?”, Joe laughs, “Yuck! Now, if they have any peppermint, I might try a sample.”
Deuce considers this as he tugs his wagon along Second Street. “How much does a sample cost?”, he asks.
“Not a thing,” Joe replies.
“Can kids get samples?”
”Only if they ask.” Joe says with a laugh.
Deuce looks confused. As they reach the store, he says, “You’re pullin’ my leg.”
“You never know ‘til you try, do you?”, Joe asks seriously.
The store is deserted. The commotion in the street has drawn everyone’s attention. Deuce heads straight for a row of colorful glass jars. Joe looks around the small, cluttered market for a proprietor. He’s about to shout when a mousy woman bustles out from behind a curtain. The woman walks past Joe and Deuce to the store’s front door. She shouts out the door in Italian. Then she takes a seat behind the counter.
The woman hasn’t acknowledged Joe or Deuce, currently the market’s only customers. Joe approaches her and says, “We’re here for an order.”
“Name,” the woman says.
“My name?”, Joe replies.
“Order name,” the woman says, still not looking up.
“Laffingstock,” Joe says, “Alice.”
The woman rises slowly from her chair and disappears behind the narrow curtain. Deuce continues to study the contents of the candy jars. Joe takes in a 360-degree view of the store. Merchandise is stacked in piles with no discernible organization. Joe sees nothing of interest. He is about to ask Deuce which is the butterscotch when a commotion behind the curtain attracts his attention. He hears a familiar voice.
The voice seems familiar to Deuce, though he can’t place it. A young woman is speaking Italian, explaining, kindly, forcefully, confidently. The woman reemerges from behind the curtain. “Come later,” she says, “no good vegetable.”
Joe thinks at first the woman is referring to him. “We’ll take the order without the bad vegetables then,” Joe says. The woman retreats behind the curtains. The Italian conversation resumes. A few moments later, the woman returns and repeats, “Bad vegetables. Come again.”
Joe looks at the curtain. “Who’s back there?”, he asks. The woman ignores Joe’s question. “My nephew and I came down the Hill for these groceries,” Joe says. “Why should we make an extra trip?”
“Good vegetables come later,” the woman says slowly.
Joe looks to Deuce. “Why is she talking to me like I’m an idiot?”, he asks his nephew.
“They’re getting fresh vegetables this afternoon,” Deuce explains. “If we take old ones home, my mother’ll just send ‘em back, like before.”
“Ah,” says Joe, “Why didn’t she say so?”
“She did,” Deuce replies, “you gotta know how to listen.”
“Never saw the point to it,” Joe laughs.
The commotion continues in the street outside the store’s front door. The woman mumbles to herself in Italian as she watches the doorway. Joe looks back at the curtain, thinks he sees it move slightly. He takes two steps toward the opening before the woman blocks his path.
“No entry,” the woman says, holding her arms out to the sides.
“Who’re you hiding back there?”, Joe asks, trying to peer past the curtain.
At exactly the same moment, four large, overdressed men enter the store, and the curtain is pulled back, revealing the girl from St. Pat’s. Joe tries to speak to the girl, but the moment she sees the men who just entered, she whips the curtain back in place.
The men act fast. One of the heavy-coated gents stands in front of the curtain, more than filling the narrow space. Two others stand on either side of Joe. Joe knows the fourth big coat is the boss. This one hasn’t budged since he took his first two steps into the store. He just stares.
Joe looks over at Deuce, who’s standing stock still next to the jars of candy. Joe gives Deuce a wink as he asks the boss, “Who’s the girl?”
“You didn’t see a girl, McCready,” the man by the door says. “You’re mistaken, as usual.”
Joe tries to place the man, but comes up empty. “I recognize her from mass at St. Patrick’s,” he says as he takes slow steps toward the man standing near the door. “You ever been there?”
“We’re closed,” the man says. “Take your business elsewhere.”
Joe stops two feet from the man. “My sister’s owed groceries,” he says softly. Two of the oversized overcoats step toward Joe. He holds up his hands and says, “Okay, you’re closed.” Joe motions for Deuce to follow him. “We’ll come back later,” he says to the boss as he passes him.
The man grabs Joe’s arm and says, “Not you, just the kid.”
Joe breaks free. “I don’t know,” he tells the man. “Seems like a bad element has taken hold. Might not be safe for the boy.”
“He’s safe,” the man replies. “You,” the man adds with a crooked smile, “maybe not so.”
Joe guides Deuce out the store’s front door, keeping his gaze steady on the man. They retrace their steps down Second toward Howard. The police are still mulling about, but the two big lumps in the road are gone. Joe pays the police no mind, so Deuce attempts to do likewise. At Howard they turn left. Joe’s pace picks up. Deuce’s wagon rattles behind.
The gap between Joe and Deuce widens. Joe reaches a small alley leading north off Howard, back toward Bartoli’s market. Joe waves to Deuce. Deuce can’t tell whether Joe’s wave means he wants Deuce to follow him or to stay put. Joe disappears down the alley. Deuce hurries after. Deuce sees Joe stop at a tall gate off the alley. “This one, I bet,” Joe says as he tries the gate handle. It swings open. Joe slips inside.
Deuce sets the wagon handle down quietly and follows Joe through the gate. They’re in a narrow yard leading to big, barn-like double doors. As Joe and Deuce approach the doors, one of them opens slowly. Deuce expects the overcoats to reappear. Instead, out steps a young woman. Her long black hair seems to dance in the breeze. Her dark eyes sparkle as she takes in Joe and Deuce. “What took you so long?”, she smiles.
“You’re not easy to find,” Joe replies apologetically. He steps towards her, holds out his hand, and says, “I’m Joe.”
“Mary,” she answers.
They keep hold of each other’s hands, their eyes and smiles locked. “Mary,” Joe repeats finally. “I hope I never keep you waiting again.”
“Sometimes it feels like all I do is wait,” Mary says.
“For anything in particular?”, Joe asks.
“Yeah,” Mary replies, “to get out of here.” She looks toward the store, then she nods to Deuce. “Fresh produce is coming in an hour,” she says, “bring your wagon back around then.”
Joe takes both of Mary’s hands in his. “I’ll take you anywhere you want to go,” he tells her. “Pack your things. We’ll leave at midnight.”
Mary starts to laugh, then stops. “I believe you would,” she says.
“I believe you would, too,” Joe replies. “Maybe not tonight, but soon.”
“My father might have a thing to say about that,” Mary says.
“He’s busy minding the store,” Joe answers. “He won’t even know you’re gone.”
Mary looks down. “I’ll never get anywhere near a ship without my Uncle Teo knowing about it,” she says.
“You underestimate me,” Joe smiles.
“You underestimate Uncle Teo,” Mary says seriously.
“He’s never met the likes of me,” Joe replies. “I need to see you tonight,” he says.
Joe is now half-embracing Mary. She breaks away gently. “I spend most Saturdays at St. Patrick’s helping the ladies,” she says looking down.
“St. Patrick’s,” Joe repeats, then he whispers, “I’m getting you out of here. That’s a promise.”
Mary thinks, if you don’t get killed first. She shoos Joe and Deuce out of the small courtyard. Joe gives Mary a peck on the cheek, then he picks up Deuce and high-steps out the yard.
When they’re back in the alley behind Bartoli’s store, Joe puts Deuce down and says, “Mary. It figures, eh?” Deuce looks at him confused. “Like in the Bible,” Joe explains as they walk toward Howard Street. “Joseph and Mary. It’s destiny.”
“What’s ‘desnity’?”, Deuce asks him.
“Fate!”, Joe nearly shouts. “Kismet! Meant to be, Mary and me, at St. Paddy’s we’ll be, ever happily, ever aftery!” Joe dances a little jig.
“You’re not making sense, Uncle Joe,” says Deuce.
Joe stops where the alley meets Howard. “It’s love,” he says. “It never makes sense.”
As they head back up Rincon Hill, Deuce asks his uncle, “If love doesn’t make sense, what good is it?”
“Sense isn’t everything,” Joe laughs.
June 1900, continued
January 1967, continued
January 1974, continued
June 1900, continued
Copyright 2020 by Dennis Richard O'Reilly -- all rights reserved