Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
Catlan had been right, of course. It came out on the front page of The Standard the next Friday: "OUR RUSSIAN VISITOR TO TAKE LOCAL WIFE". The story, published with the permission of its principals, told how Mr. Kalnikov had learned not only the ways of American mining, but also the ways of its women. These latter were seemingly found by Mr. Kalnikov to be superior to those of the women in his own country and so he had asked Mrs. Brown to become his wife and accompany him back to his native land. Mrs. Brown had graciously accepted.
The story further noted that Mr. Kalnikov was a relative of the Tsar of Russia and so, by this connection, Mrs. Brown would become not only Mrs. Kalnikov but Princess Elaine as well. This was real news as no one in Devil's Shaft had ever heard Mrs. Brown's Christian name before and no one had any idea that Mr. Kalnikov was of royal blood.
Towards the end of the story Mr. Byers felt obliged to point out that Prince Kalnikov was 37th in line for the throne and so it was unlikely that he and their very own Mrs. Brown would ever actually sit on the Golden Throne of the Holy Russian Empire.
Mr.--now Prince--Kalnikov accepted congratulations and
hand shakes in the hallway before the evening meal. Once in the dining room
however, each man took his usual place and the meal was passed in silence as
always. J.J. thought that Ah Man seemed more withdrawn than usual and he
wondered if Mrs. Brown intended to take him with her to
the meal Ah Man served coffee and some sort of nondescript, soggy sweet in the
parlor where Mrs. Brown sat on the davenport and accepted her congratulations.
Everyone wanted to know what was to happen to the boarding house but no one
dared ask directly. Mrs. Brown did offer that she and Mr. Kalnikov would not be
Their well-wishing complete, J.J. and Luke decided to go down to the Devil's Heart and see what was being said there. Jason Byers was often to be found there on Friday nights and he might know more than he had told in his story. They ran into Rusty at the door and he decided to go along, too, at least for a while.
The Devil's Heart was crowded but they managed to find space at one of the big tables while Rusty went up to the bar and got their beers. Their luck was good and shortly after they sat down Jason Byers came in and found himself a place at the same table, right next to Luke.
"The boy Catlan certainly is concerned for you," Mr. Byers said to Luke, making himself comfortable.
"For me? Why's that?"
Mr. Byers smiled. "Seems he's afraid you won't have a place to sleep once Mrs. Brown becomes a princess and leaves us."
Luke laughed. "Well, you can assure him we'll find someplace to lay our heads, even if we have to pitch a tent somewhere."
"He'd never hear of that, Luke. I think he plans to offer you shelter at his place--although I doubt he's consulted with his sister on the subject as yet."
J.J. leaned across Luke. "You have any idea what she's going to do with the boarding house, Mr. Byers? She hasn't said to any of us."
"Don't rightly know, J.J. She'll probably want to sell it but I don't know who'd buy it just now. Lot of properties for sale in the town although I don't know just why that should be." He drank the last of his beer and pushed back his chair.
"Here, I'll go," Rusty said, reaching for Mr. Byers beer glass. "Mine's empty too."
Mr. Byers flipped him a four bit coin. "Buy for all of us," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Russian gossip gave us a pretty good day with The Standard today."
Rusty gathered their glasses and made his way to the bar. J.J. noticed that he went down to the far end, where he had a good view of one particular table.
"Do you suppose Mr. Kalnikov really is a prince?" Luke asked Mr. Byers.
"Oh, no doubt about it. No doubt at all."
"Well then, who is the Tsar?" Luke stumbled over the word, pronouncing it tee-sar.
"That's Tsar, Luke, like it was spelled z-a-r. That's what the Russians call their king." Mr. Byers spoke knowledgeably although he'd had to look the word up in his dictionary--and had some trouble finding it.
Rusty came back with their beer.
"Who were you watching so close at that table over there?" J.J. asked him as he handed J.J. a beer.
Rusty's cheeks turned a deep pink. "Uh, just one of the girls," he stammered. "There, see, she just stood up."
She was a pretty young woman, with light colored hair and a narrow waist. The dark red frock she wore was deeply cut, revealing ample cleavage.
Catching on to the object of their attention, Mr. Byers leaned across Luke and said, "That's Maybell Lee. Fairly new around here but best kept away from I'm told."
"Why's that," J.J. asked.
"She's a wild thing they say but turns crazy sometimes, when she drinks too much. Headstrong, too. Not one for you boys."
Luke laughed. "No sir, that's for certain. We'll see to it we keep our distance." He did not, however, speak for Rusty who had abandoned his beer and was following Maybell Lee out the door.
talked on for a while, speculating about what Mrs. Brown might find when she
When they got back to the boarding house they asked Ah Man if Rusty had come in yet. Ah Man said he hadn't seen him. Both J.J. and Luke felt an aloofness about Ah Man which bothered them. They wondered if he even knew what was in store for him.
The next day, during the break, Luke took Mr. Byers' advice and had a little talk with Catlan. He explained that no matter what happened, he would have a good place to sleep and good meals to eat. The part about the meals was somewhat weakened by the fact that he had to throw away most of his mid-day meal because the pork chop was spoiled and the bread was moldy.
He also thanked Catlan for telling him the news before it even came out in the paper. That, he said, showed how well he paid attention to things, a very good sign in a boy. By the time he was through, Catlan felt seven feet tall.
In the meantime, at Mr. Wilde's bakery, Mrs. Wilde was reading to J.J. from her husband's latest letter, received only the day before. It seemed that Mr. Wilde had had an almost mystical reconciliation with his brother Daniel and all had been forgiven on both sides. Now, what with his father's passing, he was determined to bring his brother back to Devil's Shaft with him.
It didn't take J.J. a second to figure out what all this meant. Mr. Wilde's brother had been trained as a baker, just as Mr. Wilde had, and it only made sense that he would want to bring his brother into the bakery.
J.J. sighed. "When does your husband plan to be back in Devil's Shaft?"
Mrs. Wilde knew J.J. had understood the implications of what she had been reading to him. "Two weeks, perhaps three depending on how quickly he and his brother can pack up their father's things and dispose of whatever is left." She folded the letter and put it back in its envelope. "I'm sorry, J.J. You have been a God-send to me, and to the bakery, while Mr. Wilde has been gone these past months. But blood is thick and you must understand what a happy occasion it is for Mr. Wilde and his brother to finally reconcile, to finally be together as family again."
"Oh, I do understand, Mrs. Wilde. I do." And he did, too. He had often imagined how terrible it would have been if Eliot had reacted differently to what he learned from Hiram Rodale. His heart would be heavy indeed if he were cut off from loving his brothers. No, he was happy for Mr. Wilde, even though it meant he was soon to be without a job.
"I'm so glad," Mrs. Wilde said, the relief obvious in her voice. "Now I must get on about finding suitable quarters for Mr. Wilde's brother and preparing for their arrival." She was anxious to leave and J.J. realized how sorry she had been to have to bring him this news.
"Please, Mrs. Wilde, don't worry about me. I'm sure I'll find something with no trouble. Now you go on about your errands. I'll close up the shop." It was Saturday, the day they always closed early.
"Thank you, J.J. I will." She hurried out, hating to have been the messenger of such bad news for J.J.
Later that afternoon, as J.J. was locking up the front door, Mr. Guill limped across the street to talk with him. Mr. Guill owned the wholesale liquor company and, it was said, limped from a bullet lodged in his leg during a duel he'd fought once, over rights to a horse.
"Afternoon, J.J. Seems a bit cooler today, don't you think?"
"Yes, sir," J.J. said. "But the nights are still awful warm. Not like they are near the coast where I come from."
"Yeah, stays hot all night sometimes. But wait until winter. You'll wish for some of this heat then." He pulled out his handkerchief and mopped at his brow. "Say, what I came over here about--I'm looking for some young man to take on as stockman and delivery man. Not much of a job but the pay's okay and you get to filch a bottle or two of good whiskey every once in a while," he laughed, his face turning red in the August heat, "so long as I don't catch you doing it."
"What happened to Jeb?" Jeb had been Mr. Guill's stockman for as long as J.J. had worked in the bakery.
"Don't know. Told me he was taking a day off a couple of weeks ago. Haven't seen him since. No one else has, either. Stiffed his landlady for a week's rent."
J.J. thought for a second. Was this some kind of fate? He decided it wasn't and shook his head. Then he thought again. "You know, Mr. Guill, I just may know the perfect man for the job. Strong back, easy temperament, reliable and knows how to handle a team."
Mr. Guill fanned himself with his hat. "That's my man."
"Name's Rusty. Rusty Clark. I'll send him around to see you quick as I can find him."
"You do that, J.J. Quick. Being my own stockman is killing me."
Mr. Guill smiled to show that he was making a joke but J.J. could see it was probably true. The man wasn't used to lifting crates of liquor or moving kegs of beer around. He was better suited to the buying and selling aspect of his business.
J.J. thought Rusty would be at Mrs. Brown's although he wasn't certain. He hadn't been there for breakfast.
When he got to the boarding house he sought out Ah Man who was in the kitchen trying to decipher a hand written recipe for pastry.
"Madam no longer make sweet. Too busy."
looked around and saw a bowl of ripe peaches on the drain board. Obviously some
form of peach pie was in the offing. "Let me,
Ah Man looked pleased at being relieved of the pie and began shelling some peas. "Oh, yes. He come after breakfast, very tired, very happy." Ah Man smiled to himself as though imagining what had made Rusty so happy. "He in room."
J.J. took a dish towel, sprinkled flour on it and began to roll out the pastry. When it was ready he fit it into the waiting pie plates. "I'll go get him, then I'll finish the pies."
J.J. ran up the back stairs and knocked on Rusty's door. After a moment he knocked again. The third time he heard Rusty's groggy voice calling him to come in.
Rusty was on the bed and was still half asleep. His eyes were bleary, his hair was wild and he had what looked like a two day growth of beard. He'd taken his shirt off and J.J. could see long red scratches across his back. He went to the wash stand and wrung out a cloth in the cool water.
"Must have been some night," he said with a laugh and spread the cool cloth over Rusty's face.
Rusty took the cloth and sat up, scrubbing at his face. "It was, J.J.," he said with a grin. "It was. Now what are you doing here?"
J.J. gave him a quick sketch of his conversation with Mr. Guill. "You interested?"
Rusty jumped off the bed and went to the wash stand. "Of course I am." His cheeks colored a little. "I guess Maybell Lee sorta got all I had last night." The color in his cheeks deepened. "I mean... Well, I mean I gave her everything I... Oh, hell, J.J., you know what I mean. I ain't got no money left. Now where do I go about this job?"
"You make yourself presentable and then come down to the kitchen. I'll walk over with you."
Back in the kitchen J.J. busied himself with peeling the peaches for the pie. Ah Man had finished shelling the peas and was sitting quietly at the table, staring out the window.
do you think it'll be like in
Ah Man shook his head and continued to stare out the window. J.J. had never seen him like this.
"You are going with her, aren't you?"
Ah Man shook his head again and turned away from the window. "Of course I must accompany Madam," he said quietly, "although I am not yet told of the arrangements." He took up an onion and began to peel it. J.J. thought the moisture in his eyes was not all the result of the onion.
pies were in the oven by the time Rusty came down and J.J. asked Ah Man to
watch them and take them out when the lattices were brown. Then he washed the
flour off his hands and walked Rusty over to
Late that afternoon, as Luke was coming back from the mine he encountered Rusty on the steps to Mrs. Brown's. Rusty's shirt was damp with sweat and he was carrying a strong canvas bag. "Rusty. Where've you been, working up such a sweat?"
Rusty beamed. "Work. J.J. got me a job with Mr. Guill, you know, across the street from the bakery. I'm his stockman and I'll be doing the deliveries, too." They went inside and climbed the stairs to the second floor. "This here's for J.J." He held up the canvas bag. "From Mr. Guill. He's thanking J.J. for finding me. Imagine." Rusty seemed about to burst with pride.
"Well, come on in. J.J. will be pleased."
J.J. was pleased although he wondered just what he was going to do with four bottles of whiskey. He thought of taking one down to Ah Man, to see if it would cheer him but, since he had never seen the Chinese take whiskey, he decided against it. Maybe Chinese couldn't tolerate it he thought, same as the Indians.
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.