Luke & JJ
by Greg Bowden
Chapter Twenty One
If anything, the weather seemed to be getting hotter. Both Luke and J.J. had expected that it would cool off towards September but if it was going to there was certainly no sign of it yet.
Being Sunday, they'd had a breakfast of flapjacks and bacon at the Devil's Heart and afterward decided to go down to their special place along the creek. At least there, when the heat became unbearable they could splash around in the water and cool themselves.
decided it would be cooler to walk along the water so they cut over to
As they approached the bridge Luke put a hand on J.J.'s shoulder and stopped him. "Did you hear something?"
J.J. shook his head but then began to listen. He sorted out the stamp mill--a sound which was always with them--the sounds of the water, running over the rocks along the bank, and of the leaves, whispering in the almost non-existent breeze. "Wait. Yes." He caught a faint sound, like a groan but quiet, like it was weak or far away.
Luke cupped his hand to his ear and moved his head slowly, trying to find the source of the sound. "Under the bridge, I think. Let's go see."
They pushed through the weeds and made their way down to the bank, where the thick wooden bridge supports had been driven into the mud. It was dim there, the light held back by the tall undergrowth and the closely spaced timbers of the bridge itself. They found nothing until J.J. noticed a form in the mud on the other side of the water.
"I think it's a man."
"I think you're right. Come on."
They worked their way back through the weeds and undergrowth until they could climb up the bank to the road. It was easier to get down to the creek on the far side of the bridge; someone had made a rough path down, probably to make it easier to get water.
It was a man J.J. had seen. It looked like he had tumbled down the path and then stumbled under the bridge. He was lying in mud, covered with it from head to foot, and groaning softly. He was naked except for his drawers.
"Probably drunk and fell down the path trying to cross the bridge," Luke said, squatting down beside the man.
"Wearing just his drawers?" J.J. laughed.
"Well, look where he was coming from," Luke said, waiving to indicate Birds' Walk. He stood up. "You stay with him, J.J., and I'll run get Doc. Norris."
While Luke scrambled up the path and went to look for the doctor, J.J. took off his shirt, wet it in the creek and began to clean the man up. It didn't take much cleaning before he realized that the man was their friend Rusty and that he was hurt, not drunk. By the time Luke and Doctor Norris got there, J.J. had rinsed most of the mud off Rusty's face and chest.
Norris went over the man carefully, feeling for broken bones. "Seems
okay," he said when he finished, "nothing's broken. Got cut up a bit in the fall but probably won't need any stitches.
He's going to have one hell of a headache though, judging by the lump here on
the back of his head." They cleaned the rest of the mud off of him as best
they could and then eased him onto one of the blankets the doctor had thought
to bring along. J.J. saw that Rusty was wearing the
same blue and white stripped drawers he'd admired so much that morning on the
the blanket as a sort of stretcher they managed to get Rusty up the path and
then carried him down
"Not as bad as it could be," the doctor said, going over Rusty again. "Here, hand me that bottle there," he indicated a large jar of alcohol mixed with iodine, "and we'll get these cuts washed out and bandaged. It's probably just as well that he's still out--this stuff stings like the bite of the devil himself."
Before they had finished Rusty began to groan loudly and try to move around on the table so that Luke had to hold him down. Then his eyes opened.
"Oh, Jesus," he whispered. "Sweet Jesus, it hurts." Tears began to flow from his eyes.
"It will, for a while. You hit your head pretty hard there, young man. Probably when you fell. Now you just try to lie still while I finish with these cuts." The doctor went back to his ministrations.
Rusty closed his eyes and bit his lip as the last of his cuts were washed out with the iodine and bandaged. The iodine stung and that helped to distract him from the terrible pain in his head.
"Well, that's the last of them," the doctor said, standing back to survey his handy work. "You'll heal up fine in a couple of days. Now let's see if you can sit up."
Rusty tried and almost fell off the table from the sudden increase of throbbing pain in his head. J.J. caught him. "Easy, Rusty, easy. Take it slow."
"You know the lad?" the Doctor asked. "Know where he lives?"
Luke answered. "Yea. He stays at Mrs. Brown's, same as us."
"Just down the street? Good. With your help he should be able to make it that far." He turned his attention back to Rusty who had allowed J.J. to help him swing his feet off the table. "You want to try and walk, lad?" Rusty tried to nod but couldn't because it hurt too much. He managed a few steps though, supported between Luke and J.J. The pain in his head was bad but tried to push it away, not think about it.
"I think we can get him there," Luke said. "We'll take it slow and easy." He glanced at Rusty, as if for confirmation, and then turned back to the doctor with a smile. "Would you happen to have a pair of britches he could borrow? Just until we get him to his room?"
Doc. Norris chuckled. "I guess that would be a good idea, wouldn't it. Might upset some fine lady out for a stroll, meeting up with him that way."
They managed to get Rusty into the shirt and jeans that the doctor brought out from his closet although it wasn't easy since Rusty completely lost his balance if he wasn't holding on to something. When they were finally ready, Rusty managed to mumble his thanks to the doctor.
"No thanks necessary," Doctor Norris replied. "Just bring along my fee of four dollars when you return the clothes and I'll be happy."
They managed, slowly, the walk to Mrs. Brown's where they found Ah Man in the front hall; he helped them get Rusty up the stairs and to his room. Together they got Rusty out of the doctors clothes and the mud stained drawers and into bed. He still had some mud on him, especially where his drawers had covered him, but it had dried and Ah Man insisted he get in the bed anyway. He would have a proper bath tomorrow, Ah Man said, and the bed clothes could always be taken to the laundry.
Ah Man left them for a moment and then returned, carrying a large mug of steaming liquid. He carefully raised Rusty up and handed him the mug. "You drink, you sleep. Be better after sleep."
Rusty tasted the liquid and made a face but Ah Man made him drink it all. By the time he finished his eyes looked a little dreamy and the lids heavy. He laid back on the pillow and his eyes slowly closed.
"He sleep now," Ah Man said.
was too late to go back to the creek so Luke went to sit on the porch with some
of the other men and J.J. wandered into the kitchen to see if he could help
Sunday dinner was always a large meal and this afternoon was no exception. They had roast chicken with bread stuffing and fresh corn, still on its cob. There were also two vegetables and some biscuits J.J. made to go with the chicken gravy. For the sweet there was a raspberry cobbler that J.J. had shown Ah Man how to make.
When the meal was finished most of the men went back out on the porch or into the parlor to nap in the comfortable chairs there. Ah Man, carrying a tray holding a silver pot and three coffee cups, stopped J.J. and Luke. "Madam wish you have coffee with her," he said. "In study."
Both J.J. and Luke had a sudden feeling of dread. It had been a week now since J.J. had made his offer to Mrs. Brown, a week in which she had said nothing to either one of them. They both assumed this was to be a formal rejection of the offer.
In the study they were asked to sit and were offered coffee which Mrs. Brown poured herself. When they were comfortable, and Ah Man had been dismissed, Mrs. Brown began.
"I have, as I promised, thought about your rather unexpected offer, Mr. Williams." She included both of them with her eyes. "I have also sought counsel from one or two others whom I trust in matters of this kind and," she stirred her coffee, adding a lump of the dark sugar she favored, "of course I have discussed it with Mr. Kalnikov. It is this last which poses some difficulty for me."
J.J. tasted his coffee and wondered if he knew what the difficulty was.
Mrs. Brown set the spoon in her saucer and looked up. "As you know, Ah Man has been my servant for a number of years. During that time he has always been loyal, obedient and helpful to me, asking nothing in return. During those years I have grown fond of him, and yes, grown to feel some responsibility for him." She sipped her coffee, weighing her next words. "I find now that Ah Man will not be permitted to accompany me to my new home. Oh," she held her hand up, baring interruption, "it is not that Mr. Kalnikov will not allow it. No, it is the government which blocks the way, as governments so often do. So. I must look out for Ah Man, yet I cannot do that from so great a distance."
There was a long pause.
"My course is clear. I will not sell this house except to someone who will guarantee to me that they will care for Ah Man for the rest of his life. That means," she held up her hand again, "that means he must be allowed to work, to be of use, and then he must be cared for when he can no longer work. It is a great responsibility, gentlemen, and I wonder if you are truly prepared to take it on."
Luke and J.J. looked at each other. Both of them had assumed that Ah Man would accompany Mrs. Brown to her new life.
"Why don't you simply give the house to Ah Man?"
Mrs. Brown gave a brittle little laugh. "No Chinese would be allowed to own a property in this--or any other--town. He would be run out or cheated out of it--which amounts to the same thing--within the week. No, Mr. Williams, that is no solution to my dilemma."
Luke turned in his chair. "J.J.?"
A long moment passed between them and then J.J. nodded.
The exchange was not lost on Mrs. Brown. "Then I shall ask Mr. Harper to draw up the necessary papers immediately. As to Ah Man, I take your word as your bond."
They both gave a solemn nod.
"But what about Ah Man?" Luke asked. "What if he doesn't want to stay with us?"
"Ah Man will do as I tell him. He will believe, I am sure, that I have sold him to you, along with the house. But I think he will also be happy," she said with a small sigh. "I think he has been feeling some dread at the prospect of a long journey and new surroundings. He also seems to have grown genuinely fond of the both of you."
They spent the next several hours going over the proposed transaction and settling the details of just what would be included and what Mrs. Brown would take away with her. By the time they were finished both Luke and J.J. were a little in awe at what they had done. On the fifteenth day of September, 1880, the date they had all agreed upon, they would become the owners of Mrs. Brown's boarding house. They would own the land on which the boarding house stood and its contents, with the exception of those furnishings and other items which Mrs. Brown considered personal. They had even drawn up a list of those items and initialed it so that there would be no question or misunderstanding later.
They also agreed that Mr. Harper, at the bank, would draw up the actual papers and witness the transfer of the deed.
When they were finished, Mrs. Brown poured them each a tiny glass of Sherry wine which she had had Ah Man bring from the pantry. They touched their glasses, one to another, sealing the transaction. The price had remained at five hundred dollars.
It was late when Luke and J.J. left Mrs. Brown in her study. J.J. had said, just before leaving, that Ah Man seemed worried about something and he wondered if it might be uncertainty over what was to happen to him. Mrs. Brown thought that was probably the case and decided to talk with him as soon as they left her.
Upstairs, they first looked in on Rusty and found him deep asleep. Then they went to their own room.
"I can hardly believe it," Luke said, taking J.J. in his arms. "We're really going to own a boarding house."
J.J. laughed. "Me, too." He was suddenly serious. "Can we do it, Luke? Do you think we can?"
Luke held him at arm's length and looked in his eyes. "Sure we can. We can do anything we want to do. But you know, J.J., it's going to be mostly you doing it. I think I should keep working up at the mine, for a while at least. But you'll have Ah Man to help. That's probably the best news of all."
J.J. went and sat on the bed. "It is. If he'll stay with us... You know, I had sort of wondered if she'd take him with her. I mean, there must be all kinds of servants where she's going; it's supposed to be a palace and they always have servants, don't they?"
They were interrupted by a tap on the door. When Luke opened it Ah Man entered and bowed deeply and formally, first to Luke, then to J.J.
"Mr. Williams. Mr. Williams. Madam inform me I now belong to you." He bowed again.
J.J. jumped off the bed and stood beside Luke. They both returned Ah Man's formal bow. "You don't belong to us, Ah Man, but we hope you'll stay with us. We want you to stay, to help, as you did with Mrs. Brown, but we have no desire to hold you if you wish to go on your own."
"I stay, take care of you as with Madam," he said with great dignity. Then he bowed deeply and left, closing the door behind him.
Early the next morning there was a tap on the door and Ah Man entered, carrying coffee on a tray, just as he had their first morning. "You will be rising for breakfast, as always?"
"Yes, Ah Man," J.J. said, accepting one of the steaming mugs. Nothing will change, at least not until Mrs. Brown has left."
Ah Man nodded and crossed the room, placing the second mug of coffee on the wash stand, where Luke was shaving. "Have you looked in on Rusty?" Luke asked, trying not to drip soap into his coffee.
"Mr. Clark sleep."
"Good. Best thing for him, I guess."
Not a word was said about the boarding house at breakfast. Mrs. Brown would announce the change of ownership in her own way, when she wished. What talk there was centered on Rusty and what might have happened to him. Dodge was of the opinion that he'd been held up and robbed but most of the men laughed at that. Why would a robber want to take your pants, too?
"Well," Robin snickered, "if the robber was Clark Hearn he might."
Even J.J. laughed at that.
Later that morning, after he had things pretty well under control in the bakery and Mrs. Wilde was there to help the customers, J.J. went across the street to Mr. Guill's to explain about Rusty. He'd already decided that he would offer to help out after he finished at the bakery for the day, if Mr. Guill needed it. He felt kind of responsible since he had brought Rusty to Mr. Guill.
He found Mr. Guill tending the counter. "Good morning, sir. I came about Rusty. See..."
"Rusty? He's out back, helping with the freight wagon. You'll find him there." He pointed to the open door at the end of the warehouse. "By the way, I gotta thank you again, J.J. Rusty's a right responsible man all right, just like you said."
J.J. hid his confusion with a smile and walked through the warehouse, emerging in the back courtyard where several men were unloading cases of champagne from a dray wagon. Rusty was directing them but seemed to be doing his share of the work, too.
Rusty put down the case he was carrying and waived at J.J. He looked pale and his shirt was stuck to his back with sweat. "Had to get this wine unloaded. Can't leave it out in the sun you know or it might explode." He smiled weakly.
J.J. nodded. "Come over to the bakery when you're through. I made some sweet rolls this morning. There's coffee, too."
"Find him?" Mr. Guill asked as J.J. came back through the warehouse. "Don't look so good, does he? I told him to go back to his place, rest for a day or two, but he insisted on gettin' that wine out of the sun and onto the shelves. Guess I'll have to kick him in the ass to get him out of here, huh?"
J.J. laughed. "I wouldn't do that, sir. I believe his ass is as cut up as the rest of him."
Mr. Guill sobered. "Any idea what happened to him, son? He wouldn't talk about it with me 'cept to say that he fell down. Pretty bad fall to leave a man cut up that way."
"I don't really know what happened, sir, but he did fall. Right down the creek bank, by the bridge. Fell into a lot of dried underbrush."
Mr. Guill shook his head. "Drunk, I suppose."
"Doubtful. Rusty doesn't drink much at all. Maybe a beer or two but not so's he'd loose his way and tumble down the creek bank."
"Well, I hope so. Can't have a drunk working around here, no matter how reliable he might be."
J.J. went back to the bakery and busied himself with cleaning one of the big ovens. He contemplated telling Mrs. Wilde about taking over the boarding house but decided against it for the moment. Once she knew it probably wouldn't be long before most of the town knew about it too.
Rusty came in a half hour later and sat on one of the high stools, watching J.J. work and eating a roll Mrs. Wilde had given him.
"You feeling all right?" J.J. asked him, looking him over critically.
"Well enough, I guess," Rusty replied, taking another bite of his roll. "Head still aches somethin' fierce," he smiled, "but then so does everything else so I guess it evens out."
"What happened to you, anyway?"
"Don't rightly remember, J.J. I took some brandy up to Maybell, and after a while we got to..." He blushed with the memory. "Well, you know. She pretty much drank all the brandy while she--well, we... sorta did stuff. Then when the brandy was gone she wanted me to go get more but I didn't have any more money. She got real mad at that and told me to get out and find some." He looked up, an odd, puzzled expression on his face. "J.J., I never seen Maybell look like that before, in her eyes, and I got kinda scared so I grabbed my drawers but I hardly got into them before she grabbed up her clothes iron and came at me. Man, she was mad, screaming at me and trying to hit me with that flatiron so I just run. Out her door and down the street with her right behind me, screaming' for everyone to hear." He shook his head. "And that's all I remember until I looked up into Luke's face, holdin' me down on that table and my head hurtin' so bad I couldn't think."
J.J. nodded. "Looks to me like she got you with that flatiron. I'd say it'd be a good idea for you to stay as far away from her as you can in the future."
"Yea, I reckon. But she..." He hung his head. "There's just something about her..."
The Old Adobe
Dear J.J. and Luke,
My goodness, so you have been living in the same house as a real Russian prince! I do hope you have been able to spend some time talking with him, finding out about his native land and customs. He must be a very interesting person, and intelligent too, judging by what you have told us of his mission. The mines in Devil's Shaft must be very up to date if his king -- you said he is called Tsar? -- sent him there to study our American techniques. It must be quite an honor for the town.
Will the prince and your Mrs. Brown marry before they depart for their new home in
I suppose that you will have to find new lodging now that your landlady is marrying and going off to a foreign country. Have you any idea where you will go?
I am sorry to hear that your weather has been so hot. We have had a perfect summer here, warm enough for the crops to grow and the animals to be comfortable but cool enough for the rest of us to enjoy a stroll in the garden or a romp on the lawn with Portia. Millicent brings her here often for just such afternoon activities and it is such a pleasure for me. I am quite taken with the child and she seems to feel the same way about me so we get on greatly. Millicent is a dear for letting me have my time with Portia and for that I thank her. She has shown herself to be a wonderful mother as well and I have every confidence the child will grow up a well disciplined, happy person.
Mr. Acres, the man your father and Eliot hired to help with the work, has turned out to be a fine and willing worker and I believe the men are planning on having him remain with us over the winter; an excellent idea in my estimation.
Tom continues to be well thought of at the bank and reports that Mr. Chase is most pleased with his performance. He seems to be very happy in his work and he has asked me to send along his regards.
I think I have written enough for today. Time seems to pass so quickly and I have a great deal that must be done. I hope you are both well and are not minding the heat too much.
With love from all of us here,
To be continued.
Comments, suggestions or criticisms always appreciated and always answered.