Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
It was just by J.J.'s silver watch but it was already getting chilly. The road, such as it was, wound through a thick stand of great, tall pine trees which filtered the sun and made the light greenish and dim. Then, suddenly, the road turned hard right and emerged from the forest, making them blink.
"Well, there it is, boys: Devil's Shaft," Mr. Gentry chuckled. "What do you think?"
They looked down into a narrow valley several hundred feet below them. At first it looked like the buildings of the town were simply scattered with no rhyme or reason but, on looking closer, they could see that the main cluster of them was spread out along three or four roughly parallel streets with several other streets cutting across them at various angles. Farther away, across the valley and on the opposite slope, the buildings were scattered, with only vague foot paths connecting them. Across and to the West, at the top of the slope, was a tight cluster of larger buildings, some of them with tall chimneys spilling out black or white smoke.
"That there's the Devil's Shaft proper," Mr. Gentry said, pointing to the buildings on the slope. "That one with the metal roof and the chimney puffin' steam, that's where the main shaft of the mine comes out. All that steam's from the donkey that pulls the ore carts up."
"What's in that really big building there towards the bottom of the hill?" J.J. asked, shielding his eyes from the sun glinting off it's roof.
"That's the stamping mill. Crushes the ore for most of the mines around here. You hear it? Runs day and night like that."
They both became aware of a sound like thunder, only lower, almost too low to hear and more like something felt deep in the pit of the stomach. Even the dog seemed to be aware of it, cocking her head and looking into the distance, trying to find its source.
Mr. Gentry laughed. "You'll get used to it in a week or two, won't even hear it. So I hear tell anyway." He shook the reins, urging the team forward. "Now we better get along," he said, "we still got a way to go 'fore we get there."
The road descended the steep hillside in a series of sharp switch backs, then leveled out on the valley floor a half mile or so west of the settlement proper. The grade of the road made travel fairly easy but the switch backs were quite sharp; Mr. Gentry and the horses had to work in perfect harmony to keep the long, heavy wagon from disaster.
When they finally came out on the nearly level ground of the valley floor they encountered the first of the town's buildings--a large structure of rough hewn boards with a large sign over the door proclaiming it to be The First Saloon and Brewery of Devil's Shaft. A bearded man sat on the porch, whittling. Mr. Gentry waived and Ina gave a bark of greeting as they passed by.
"That's ol' Bob. Been here as long as anyone can remember. He brews about the best beer there is and if it wasn't gettin' so late we'd stop and have a couple with him. But we got to get on into town, get this stuff delivered."
road gave way to
They made their first stop at a very large store near the beginning of the street, Mr. Berber's dry goods store. There they unloaded several large crates of Mr. Levi's denim trousers. Mr. Berber said these jeans were the only ones the miners seemed willing to buy anymore. Trouble was, he said, they lasted pretty good so he didn't get the repeat business like he did with some other trousers. But these were what they wanted. Miners would throw their gold away on cards and women and whiskey but not on jeans that didn't last.
Mr. Berber's they went on down
"Well, thank God, Gentry. Another day and there wouldn't have been a Tuesday edition of The Standard this week. Don't know how I came to do it, but I left the ink tub without its cover and now it's ruined. Completely gone." He shook his head and smiled. "Town would probably perish without knowin' who shot who and which drunks got overnight lodging at Sheriff Cain's fine establishment."
Mr. Byers invited them in but they had to decline. They had several more deliveries to make and dusk was coming on fast. Being down in the valley the way it was, the town didn't keep the light as long as might be expected.
From The Standard they crossed the dusty street and left several cases of lamps and chimneys with Mr. Davidson at his general merchandise emporium, then they turned the team around and went back to the first cross street where they left cases of canned goods at the grocery. From there they headed toward the stables, stopping one last time at Mr. Taylor's hotel with his new table linens.
At the stables Mr. Gentry arranged with the owner, Mr. Stilton, for Luke and J.J.'s trunks to be locked away in his storage room until such time as they might be needed. A man called Dusty took charge of the team and said that he'd see to it that they were well brushed, watered and fed before they were put into stalls for the night. He put a pan of water down for Ina, who seemed to know him and, by the wagging of her tail, to be his friend.
"You all goin' to eat up to Miz. Brown's?" he asked, scratching Ina behind the ears, just where she liked it.
"Thought we would," Mr. Gentry said. "These boys have to find a place to stay and I thought her place as good as any. At least for their first night in Devil's Shaft."
"I reckon. Well, I'll be closin' up around ten, right after I change horses for the stage." He grinned at Mr. Gentry and went into the barn to tend the horses, Ina right at his heels.
walked back towards the main part of town, up
They stopped at a white painted building on the corner. It had a long, shallow porch running along the front and they could see that the door had an etched glass pane set into it. Mr. Gentry led them up the three steps and knocked loudly on the door.
"Yes, what do... Oh my stars, it's you. I didn't expect to see you for another week or more." The woman who stood at the door looked to be in her mid-forties. She was dressed much as J.J.'s mother dressed, with a long, dark skirt, a white blouse and a long apron covering it all. Unlike J.J.'s mother however, Mrs. Brown also wore enough jewelry to stock a good part of Mr. Clifford's store. Not only did she have rings on all of her fingers, she also wore several dazzling bracelets on each arm, a glittering pin at her bosom and a large cameo at her throat. What appeared to be crystal drops from the chandelier dangled from her ears and her neat, dark hair harbored at least four combs encrusted with stones that caught and flashed the light.
"Well, come in," she said, throwing the door open. "And who might these young men be?"
"These are the Williams brothers, friends of mine. They're looking for a place to stay." He put his hand on J.J.'s shoulder. "This here's J.J. and that one's Luke. They've come to Devil's Shaft to make their fortune." He laughed and squeezed J.J.'s shoulder.
"They'd do better to stick with you and learn the freight business, if you ask me," Mrs. Brown sniffed. "But then, no one's asking me, are they?" She turned and started down the hall. "Well, come on. Supper's just about on the table. I suppose you're just here for meals as usual," she said to Mr. Gentry who nodded. "Well then, it's just you two who'll be wanting rooms, isn't it," she said to J.J. and Luke, stopping at a small desk. She opened a large book and thrust a pencil out in their general direction. "If you can write your name do so, if you can't just make an 'X' and we'll sort it out later. Then get washed," she pointed to a small room to the left, "in there. Supper in ten minutes." She disappeared through a door at the back of the hall.
They did as they had been told and then Mr. Gentry led them to the other side of the hall and into the dining room. There, around a large rectangular table they found six others and four empty places. "That there one belongs to Mrs. Brown," one of the men said, nodding at the place set at the head of the table, "so I reckon them's yours." He pointed. "The Chink just set 'em."
As they went to sit, the door opened and Mrs. Brown swept in. She had removed her apron and added a large silk rose to her bosom. As one the men rose from their chairs, catching Luke and J.J. off guard. One of the men held Mrs. Brown's chair for her. Once seated she waived the men to their seats, bowed her head and said a perfunctory grace. She then rang a small silver bell which had been placed next to her plate. The door opened and a tall Chinese man entered, carrying a platter of roasted meat. He served Mrs. Brown and then put the platter in the middle of the table so the others could help themselves.
The same thing happened with the bowls of vegetables, potatoes and the gravy. Each was personally served to Mrs. Brown first and then placed on the table for the others. Even the rolls, which were already on the table, were first offered to her before any of the men took one.
There was no conversation during the meal and the men ate quickly. At the sound of the silver bell, the Chinese man came in and removed the plates, Mrs. Brown's first, of course. He then brought in coffee and the sweet: a heavy, cloying cake which Mrs. Brown proudly announced she had made that very afternoon and which J.J. judged to be inedible.
After the meal Mrs. Brown assigned them rooms, expressing pleasure that both Luke and J.J. could actually write their own names. She asked for payment in advance of course, eight dollars from each of them for a week.
Seeing the startled look in the young men's eyes, Mr. Gentry suggested that perhaps they could secure a lower rate if the two of them shared a room.
why didn't you say so? Being brothers, I guess you're probably used to bunking
in together. Now I have a very nice room, on the front, which I'm sure will be
suitable. The rate is five dollars each. Does that suit you well enough?"
She looked at them and they nodded, seeming relieved. "Now, the rate
includes only your breakfast and supper. Mid-day meal is your own
responsibility. And I expect you to be on time for all meals--this isn't a chop
stand I'm running here, you know. Breakfast is at six and supper at six-thirty.
You get one bath a week which you can arrange with
room was nice, furnished with a comfortable bed, a wash stand, one chair and a
tiny desk. From the windows they could look down on
"Well, my boys," Mr. Gentry said when they had looked the room over, "let's go on over to the Devil's Heart and I'll buy you a drink. Just one, mind you. Then I'm gonna put this ol' bone to bed but not," he chuckled as though at a private joke, "to rest, I think." Neither Luke nor J.J. got the point but they let it pass.
Mrs. Brown was standing at the little desk in the hall, putting the ledger away, as they left. "Now don't you be late," she said, not looking up from what she was doing. "We lock the door at , precisely."
walked up a block to
"Drinks cost a bit," he said, putting the glasses on the table, "but they never got change for a two bit piece so you always get cheated on an odd number. Probably need a chaser anyway with this whiskey."
J.J. asked about the dance hall next door, wondering who there was to dance with.
Mr. Gentry laughed and laughed. "You surely are from a backwoods town, my boy," he said, propping his feet up on an extra chair. "There's lovely ladies to dance with of course, always lots of 'em, just waiting for the likes of you to come along and give 'em a twirl. Course, you have to pay for it, maybe two bits, maybe more. And then you have to buy 'em a drink to boot. But they're there, any time you want. Most of 'em selling a mite more than just a dance or a little company at the bar, too."
Both J.J. and Luke seemed a bit mystified by this until it finally dawned on them, at about the same time, just what Mr. Gentry was talking about.
Seeing the expression on their faces, Mr. Gentry dropped his feet off the extra chair and sat up straight, becoming serious. "You know, men," he said, "I got a bit of advice for you. Give yourselves two, three weeks of nosing around, getting to know the place, before you embark on any adventures. Like all gold towns, there's lots of opportunity to make some money and lots more opportunity to loose it all and then some. You're new in town and it shows, always does. There's some that will take advantage of that and you got to learn to spot 'em, before they get you." He downed his whiskey, glanced over at the clock above the stove and then studied his glass for a moment.
"Oh, hell, plenty of time for one more." He pushed his half empty beer glass across to J.J. "Finish your whiskey and I'll get us another."
"No, let me." Luke dug in his pocket and pulled out a few coins, carefully selecting a pair of two-bit pieces.
"Put 'em on the bar first so's there's no mistake about what whiskey you want."
They watched as Luke went and stood at the bar, ordering. When the glasses were put in front of him and the whiskey poured, he said something to the barman, who shook his head. Luke spoke louder, reached for the money he had put down on the bar and turned to walk away. The barman caught Luke's arm and Mr. Gentry tensed, ready to interfere but holding his place, watching. The barman said something more to Luke and then smiled, topping up the glasses. "Guess I underestimated the boy," Mr. Gentry said quietly, under his breath.
"I see now what you were saying," Luke said as he put the glasses on the table. "Barman tried to short us."
"You handled it well, Luke. Very well. But that just proves what I was saying. You got to watch out. Especially with the gals. You go to the other side of the creek, up to Birds' Walk, you be damn careful and sure you know who you're with. Some of those gals, they'd as soon kill you for your money as give you the pleasure you're payin' for. Another thing to watch for," he took a sip of his whiskey and gestured towards the back of the saloon, "is behind them curtains. If you have any money at all you can sure get rid of it fast back there. Games here in the Devil's Heart are pretty honest, I hear tell, but even here you got to be careful." He downed the rest of his whiskey. "Don't think I mean there aren't lots of good people here 'cause there are. But some bad ones too. Just watch yourselves and give yourselves time to learn who's who." He stood. "Well, it's near ten and I better get along if I know what's good for me. Now don't you two sit around here all night and get drunk and forget all I told you."
"Wait," Luke said. "We'd better go, too. Mrs. Brown said the door is locked promptly at ten and we sure don't want to get locked out."
Mr. Gentry laughed as he saw Luke was genuinely concerned. "You needn't worry. Ah Man, the Chinese, guards the door after it's locked. Sleeps on the floor in front of it so no one gets in or out without him knowing. No, my lads, you won't have to sleep on the street. Just knock quietly so's not to wake the rest of the folks. Ah Man will let you in directly." He turned and strode out, into the street.
They did stay for a while, drinking beer and watching the men come and go. They even made friends with the barman, who bought them a beer on the house by way of apology for shorting the whiskey earlier.
When they got back to the boarding house it was quiet and dark except for a flickering light coming through the fancy glass in the door. Luke rapped softly on the heavy oak panel.
A sudden shadow passed across the glass pane and they could see the gauze curtain pulled back just a tiny bit. A moment later the door opened a crack and a high voice called out quietly, "Who?"
"It's us, the new boarders," Luke called out.
"Ah, Mr. Williams and Mr. Williams." The Chinese servant, Ah Man, opened the door wide and bowed them in. "You very late." He lit a candle from one burning on a console table and handed it to J.J. "You wish tea? Coffee, perhaps?"
"No, thank you,
The Chinese smiled, his teeth bright in the candle light. "Please, you will call me Ah Man. Chinese here have no Mister, only... name."
Luke nodded and smiled. "Then you will call us," he pointed, "J.J. and Luke."
"Yes, Mr. Luke." He bowed to them again.
"Mr... Uh, Ah Man," J.J. asked curiously, "why do Chinese people always bow like that?"
Ah Man held himself rigid, the smile fading from his face. "Is sign of respect," he said, a coolness in his voice.
It occurred to J.J. that he meant subservience, not respect.
"Then it is we who should bow to you," Luke said, practicing one. "You are our elder."
"And I think perhaps our better as well," J.J. added, trying a bow himself.
Ah Man's eyes sparkled like polished black stones as he studied them for a long moment. Then he smiled, deciding they were sincere. "I thank you," he said, "but I show you proper way. Is more head and shoulder, like this." He demonstrated. Both Luke and J.J. watched him carefully and then each of them tried it again, this time more to Ah Man's satisfaction. Two more repetitions and Ah Man was satisfied that they would quickly have it right. At that moment the clock in the hall struck .
"It grows late. You must go to bed," Ah Man said, gently steering them towards the stairs.
Luke and J.J. turned and bowed. "Good night,
Luke and J.J. did not find sleep so quickly.
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.