01. December 2014 · Comments Off on The Golden Road – Chapter 9 · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book
Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Not the final for-real cover, but a place-holder for now

Yes, in between Christmas shopping, Thanksgiving and various other events, I have finally pounded out another chapter of The Golden Road – the adventures of wide-eyed young Fredi Steinmetz in the California gold fields. Only he and his slippery Irish comrade, Polidore Aloysius O’Malley have been delayed for some months working in the only saloon in the dusty frontier town of San Bernardino – run by the Bean brothers; the upright Col. Joshua Bean and his scapegrace, card-playing horn-dog of a younger brother Fauntleroy. Enjoy. And yes, Fauntleroy Bean was also known as Phantly Roy, and long decades later as just plain Roy, the only justice of the peace and upholder of the law west of the Pecos…

Chapter 9 – El Camino Real

            “They think it was one of Murrieta’s old gang,” O’Malley explained, with a somber face. “The Colonel had words with a Mexican last night, threw him out of the place. This morning, they had words again when the man came to complain …. The man went away, but waited and shot him down like a dog not half an hour ago in the street – he escaped, although those who saw it raised the hue and cry. They were looking all over for the pair of ye – where have ye been, all this time?”

“I had an errand, and asked Freddy to come with me,” Fauntleroy answered, on the instant, as if he did not even pause to consider a lie. “Where is my brother now?”

“In his own room, sor,” O’Malley looked so very grave and sympathetic. “I fear that it will not be long now for your brother. But he is not suffering.”

“That’s good,” Fauntleroy answered. He seemed dazed, uncomprehending; likely for the second time in a single day. Fredi wondered who would run the Headquarters now … Fauntleroy enjoyed looking like a big man, behind the bar, but had no relish for the work involved – and that had been obvious within days, even to Fredi. “I suppose that we shall open tonight – just for friends of Josh’s. No piano – we’ll keep it quiet from respect.”


“It’s all happened so sudden-like,” Fredi said, later that afternoon to O’Malley. They sat on a bench in the veranda of the Headquarters, with Nipper at their feet. The late afternoon sunshine blazed on the plastered walls of the mud-brick, a welcome counter to the cool breeze wandering from the east, seemingly chilled by the snow lingering on the tallest mountain peaks.  “No warning – and in the space of an hour, everything is turned upside down.”

“It’s like that, Fredi-boyo,” O’Malley meditated on the smoke from his pipe, rising into the air. Fredi had already told him of the mornings’ escapade with the duel, Dona Inés and the almost-hanging. “Sometimes ye can see the bad fortune coming – see it for miles – and then sometimes not. I think should leave here soon, as we had planned. The doctor does not think that the Colonel will last the night. Young Fauntly attracts misfortune to him, and I do not like the thought of standing next to him when the next parcel of it arrives.”

“For loyalty to the Colonel, should we not stay a while?” Fredi asked, for the Colonel had been quite decent to them both, if sometimes blunt-speaking.

O’Malley shook his head. “’Til he has been put into the ground and the words read by the priest; not a moment longer, boyo. We take the pay that is owed and we go north.”


Colonel Josh Bean died very quietly, just before dawn the next morning. Fauntleroy, very pale, and with his shirt collar buttoned high and cravat tied likewise to hide the marks on his neck told a small handful of friends the next morning.

“I suppose since I am his brother and he owned the Headquarters free and clear in his name, that it is mine now, to order and run as I see fit,” he added, in closing. The various friends looked sideways at each other; their opinions of Fauntleroy Bean likely being similar to O’Malley and Fredi’s – but it was the only saloon in San Bernardino.

“I daresay ye will close the Headquarters until the burying,” O’Malley suggested in a gentle voice. “‘T would be suitable.”

But Fauntleroy shook his head. “My brother had many friends and much respect among the citizens of this place – if they come to pay their respects, I may as well open the bar.”

There was an uneasy silence, in which Fredi cleared his throat. “We are owed our wages for this last week, Fauntly – for working in the back, and O’Malley with the piano.”

“How can you bring up money, at a time like this?” Fauntleroy had every appearance of being in grief and wounded to the quick. “I’ll … look at my brothers’ account books, and see what I can do for you boys.”

“I’d be grateful, Fauntly.” Fredi was reassured on that score – but only for a day. Fauntleroy emerged from the office at mid-morning with an opened account book in his hand, just as Fredi went past with a tray of clean glasses and tankards, saying, “I’ve been going over Josh’s accounts – and there’s nothing to pay you boys with, what with the costs of burying Josh, and the loss of business on account of closing to the general public over the last five days …”

Fredi regarded Fauntleroy with stone-faced disgust; the Headquarters Saloon – never mind who was in charge of it now – owed O’Malley for a week of pounding the piano keys, and himself for the same week, running errands, sweeping up the floor and washing tankards and cups. This was no better than being treated as a Negro slave – and Fauntleroy owed his freedom and his life twice over to O’Malley and Fredi. This was galling – and all the more galling, since there was damn little they could do about it now, dependent upon Fauntleroy’s willow-the-wisp good will. At that moment, Fredi realized that he had enough of this kind of smiling-faced treachery. He and O’Malley were cheated of their wages, and that was an end to it. He dropped the tray onto the tile floor, hearing the tray hit with a clatter and the glassware with a satisfactory smash.  “We’re gone north to the gold mines, then. Look to some other poor fool to clean that up for you – or do it yourself. ” He turned on his heel, and walked away, leaving Fauntleroy no doubt staring at the mess in dismay. For himself, Fredi no longer cared; he went to the tiny room in the back of the place where he and O’Malley had been quartered. O’Malley was there, sitting by the small window where the light was best, mending the hem of his overcoat with needle and thread. Fredi rolled up the pallet and blankets that he had slept on and under since leaving Texas.

“We’re going, O’Malley,” he said, over his shoulder. “Fauntly says that he cannot pay us our due – so I have quit, and told him we are for the gold mines.”

“Indade,” O’Malley observed – sounding not all that distressed about it, or even very much surprised. “The open road calls to us, then. And we have many hours of daylight left to us if we leave at once.” He made a knot in the thread and snapped it short, shaking out the overcoat as if to admire his own handiwork. “A pity about the piano, though …‘Tis a bonny and tuneful thing, abandoned in this place!”

“If at all possible,” Fredi said through his teeth, as he bundled the last of his meagre possessions into a carpet-bag and shrugged his own jacket over his shoulders, “We’ll find work for you – playing another. Gather your own trash and traps, O’Malley – let us be done with this place at once.”

“Before Fauntly gathers his wits and cozens us to remain, pleading with sweet words and promises?” O’Malley nodded agreement. He whistled to Nipper, who came awake in an instant, and bounded from where he had been curled up in a tight brindle ball at the foot of O’Malley’s pallet, resting his paws on O’Malley’s knees.

“’Tis on the road we are, little fellow!” O’Malley said to his dog. Nipper seemed agreeable enough, and much more philosophical about it than Fredi felt. They gathered their small baggage and went out to harness the mules. Nipper bounding ahead of them all the way, looking over his flank at them, and hopping up to assume his usual seat in the wagon as O’Malley whistled to the mules in the small corral at the back of the Headquarters. The corral and the stableyard were deep in trampled mud after a week of on and off rain, and also the droppings of many animals, and the pans of dirty dishwater thrown out from the back steps of the Headquarters.  O’Malley threw his many-caped overcoat into the wagon-bed, and Nipper burrowed into it at once, for the morning again was chill and the promise of more rain, if the grey clouds gathered like a cloak about the peaks of the mountains were any indication..

They set to the business of harnessing the mules, two and two, to the wagon, a task at which they – and the mules – were so accustomed that it was accomplished in relative silence and a few minutes by time. When they were nearly done, Fauntleroy Bean appeared in the kitchen doorway, his cravat already undone and shirt collar unbuttoned, revealing the livid marks about his neck still remaining from his near-hanging. O’Malley was already in the wagon, the reins in his hands.

“Fellows … Fred, Aloysius, you should reconsider …” he began, his countenance set in an earnest and tragic expression. “It’s just that there isn’t any money for wages at present, after the expenses are considered …My word on it. The Headquarters is in a bad way, with my brother dead – and a worse, if you are gone…”

“Not our concern, “Fredi snapped, still furious almost to the point of reverting into his first language. He felt again that unreasoning red mist of anger about to descend on him, that mindless and heedless fury that had led him into pounding Zeke Satterwaite into a bloody pulp. If Fauntleroy Bean laid a hand on him, Fredi knew without a doubt – that particular battle-fury, as O’Malley had called it – would descend again. He was that angry over the lost wages, over the way that Fauntleroy seemed determined to treat them both as he did his various lovers. “Your word … it is a worthless thing. Not like your brother. He was honest and fair to us. We are on our way. You cannot cozen us into remaining…” He turned away from Fauntleroy, who started forward, looking as if he was about to stay them with a hand outreached, even as Fredi mounted up onto the wagon-seat.

“Freddy … Aloysius,” Fauntleroy pleaded – as if he was an honest man unfairly reproved – which infuriated Fredi even more. He kicked out, his contempt unrivaled – and his toe caught Fauntleroy Bean fair in the chest, with sufficient force to topple the man backwards with a satisfactory splash, down into the pool of muddy dishwater and accumulated cow, mule and horse-pats at the bottom of the step into the kitchen.

“Well-done, Freddy-boyo,” O’Malley observed with satisfaction, slapping the reins over the backs of the mules.  Fauntleroy, stunned for once into speechlessness, levered himself with one elbow into a sitting position, mouth open with shock as the wagon rolled out of the yard and into the street.

“We tell everyone we meet what you have done,” Fredi shouted, over his shoulder as they rounded the corner, not caring that he was shouting in an incoherent mixture of German and English. “That you are a cheat, a liar and a fornicator … see how many customers come to the Headquarters now, eh!”

O’Malley chirruped to the mules, and grinned at Fredi. “Well, boyo – so now ye see? There’s many of his like in the world, I’m afraid, and Fauntleroy Bean is far and away not the worst of them.”

“I’ll take very good care not to take wages from any of them!” Fredi’s anger still burned hot, and O’Malley looked at the road unrolling ahead of them, the dusty road which led north, towards Los Angeles.

“’Tis a luxury, having such a choice, boyo.” The Irishman sounded as if he were admonishing. “But aye, I am thinking that no’ so many will work for a promise of wages now. In good time, Fauntleroy Bean will have the reputation which he deserves. We still have a foine stake for setting up a claim. It’s only a week or so that he cheated us of – no so much, considered against what we have already.  As for us now … the snows still lock the high mountains in winter for another few months. ‘Tis too early to commence our journey to the diggings; what say you to San Francisco, and searching for work there? The biggest city in the land likely will offer us any number of opportunities.”

“Even for playing the piano?” Fredi, good humor restored by the thought of as large a city as any that he had ever seen in this country – bigger than Galveston even – was not above teasing his business partner a little, and O’Malley laughed. The freshening breeze tugged at their caps, and at the overlapping capes of O’Malley’s overcoat.

“Aye, boyo –and it pays well!  When the diggings open, we can load up the wagon and haul supplies into whatever mine-camp seems to be most promising. They say that rich strikes are happening every week, from Mont-Ophir in the south to Rich Bar in the north – but that the men getting richest of all are those who mine the miners – selling supplies, whores and the mail from home.”

“But why shouldn’t we be among those striking it rich?” Fredi ruminated over all the stories he had heard – pebbles of pure gold, the size of a man’s thumbnail, scattered among the gravel at the river’s edge. That was a picture more alluring than laboring away, hauling freight and driving cattle – or washing glasses and bottles in a saloon. He could hardly wait – and relished once again and imagining of returning to Texas, richer than one of the Firsts, and repaying his brother-in-law every penny of the money lost to robbery on the road to Indianola.

That seemed now to have happened a long time ago, although in truth it was barely eight months. Fredi thought smugly that he had become very wise in that time; he and O’Malley’s stake was secreted in several places; a small portion carried on his own person and on O’Malley’s, but the largest part in a small sack concealed in a cask of cornmeal in the back of the wagon. No one would think to look for money in the meal cask, O’Malley had said, quite early on, and Fredi agreed.


They had gotten to a point halfway between San Bernardino and Los Angeles when disaster struck. It was a particularly deserted stretch of road, not a lonely house or a tiny settlement in sight. The sun, sliding down the western sky was still gilding the hilltops, and tinting the snow on the distant mountaintops in hues of rose and gold, but the valley bottoms were already abandoned to shadow. Fredi had already suggested that they make a wilderness camp of it for the night, picket the mules to graze, and sleep under the wagon, but O’Malley hankered to spend the night under a roof, and held out for traveling another mile or so, in hopes of encountering a dwelling-place, a town … anything. Shadows filled the valley, deep and darkening, even as O’Malley looked wistfully ahead for a lantern-lit window. Just as Fredi was about to say that there was no such thing in sight, and they should make camp while they still had light enough to unharness the mules and ensure that they were not bedding down on top of an ant-hill or a nest of rattlesnakes, a male voice called to them in Spanish, from the deeper shadow beside thicket of bare sage.

“Hola, my friends … it’s late to be on the road – may I ask where you are going?”

“To Los Angeles,” Fredi answered, having no suspicion in the least – until the metallic click of a pistol cocking alerted him – too late. Even as O’Malley made as if to send the mules hurtling forward, another man-shaped shadow emerged, deftly catching the lead mule’s headstall. Fredi – too late alarmed – leaned down, reaching for the shot-gun which O’Malley kept within reach, under the wagon seat. The man with the pistol stepped out of the shadows, the last of the twilight etching a pale line down the barrel. That pistol pointed straight at Fredi’s stomach, from hardly an arm-length away, and there was another pistol aimed at O’Malley; at least three men that Fredi could see, and at least two more that he could not, but sensed their presence anyway.

“Not tonight, I think,” said the first man, suave and confident. Now Fredi could see that he had a dark kerchief over his face, and his heart sank. This did not look good. There had been many a tale of Murietta and his bandit gang told in the Headquarters Saloon; not everyone in San Bernardino was convinced that Murietta and his chief henchman, Three-Finger Jack Garcia, had been killed by Captain Love’s Ranger company a year or two before although many had said they recognized the bandits’ pickled head when it was shown around the gold camps afterwards.  “Alas, we are poor men and you are rich – and is it not said that those who have must share with the poor and hungry?”

“And we are very hungry,” commented the man holding the mule’s headstall. The wagon rocked slightly on its springs, as if someone were climbing over the tail-gate. Nipper growled, from his nest at their feet in O’Malley’s folded overcoat, and O’Malley twisted around to look back into the wagon bed, bidding Nipper to be still. Fredi could hear O’Malley whispering to himself, very low in English which sounded like prayers.

“We’re being held up by road-agents,” Fredi said, keeping his voice level with an effort. Everything they owned between them was in the wagon – the cargo it carried, the mules which pulled it, and most especially – their stake in coins and notes, secreted in the cornmeal. “We are not rich,” he protested. “But honest and hard-working men! We are heading for the gold mines – not away from them; why should you steal what we have from us?”

“You have more than we,” the bandit leader replied, in an irritatingly reasonable manner. “And we have nothing – so you are rich indeed, by comparison. Come down from the wagon, my friends – slowly and keep your hands clear where we may see them.”

“He’s telling us to get down,” Fredi translated for O’Malley. “And to be slow and careful – there are at least three guns trained on us.”

“I’ll not die like a dog in the road,” O’Malley said through his teeth. “Give them what they ask for, boyo – do just as they say. Nip – to me. Tell them I’m wrapping Nipper in my coat. He’s just a poor little doggie, but he is loyal above all.”

“Your valuables, my friends,” ordered the bandit leader, once they had obeyed. “Go on – keep nothing back, not a single centavo, for Jesu Cristo rewards in heaven those who are generous to the poor.” Fredi and O’Malley stood with their backs to the wagon-wheel, Fredi with his hands raised, and O’Malley holding Nipper, tightly wrapped in his overcoat under his arm. Inside the wagon they could hear one of the bandits ransacking what it held, while Nipper whined in distress, but O’Malley held him fast, swathed in the overcoat’s folds. With one hand the bandit leader held out a coarse sack which might once have held sugar or salt – brandishing in the other an old-fashioned dragoon pistol. It only held a single shot, but at that range, a man couldn’t miss – and close as they were, Fredi could see the hilts of three or four more, tucked into the leader’s belt and the front of his short Mexican jacket. Another bandit, similarly masked and armed, stood by and holding a small pierced-tin lantern aloft, so that there was light enough to see by it, as darkness closed down over the valley like a pot-lid. Who knew how many other guns were trained on them, held steadily by how many bandits? He thought that he could hear horses close by, whickering to each other, and their bridle-bits jingling. There was no advantage to himself and O’Malley in this, Fredi acknowledged bleakly. Not even Carl Becker could have overcome this many … and in any case, his wood-wise brother-in-law likely would not have fallen into an ambush like this in the first place.

With an insouciance remarkable to Fredi, O’Malley surrendered his pocket-watch; a cheap and battered thing of tin, and twisted off the tiny jet signet ring from his finger. With a sigh, he added his purse, containing his small share of their stake, which he carried for such small expenses as they had, in order that the avaricious might not observe the larger store of money. Fredi, the bag and the dragoon pistol put before him, added his own small share, and the patent Colt revolver which he had bought from Gil Fabreaux’s brother, all these months ago.

The two bandits regarded them in reproach in the speckled lantern-light, obviously disappointed over the meagre takings.

Stung, Fredi protested, “I told you that we were plain working men – who other than such would be on the road at this time and season?”

At his side, O’Malley groaned faintly. “Boyo, have a care. We give them what they want, that we may go in peace…” he crossed himself in the way of Catholics in the old church with his free hand, murmuring, “…pray for us now, and in the hour of our death…”

Seeing an advantage or sorts – did this bandit understand English after all? – Fredi said, “He is one of your old church, as devout as a man can be said to be in this wilderness. We have given to you what we can…”

“Not all!” the bandit leader sounded as if he leered triumphantly under the kerchief over his face, as one of his gang came over the wagon seat, with a dusty sack in his hand. Fredi’s heart sank, all the way into his boots. Their stake! All the money they had in the world, their wages from six hard months on the cattle trail, and what they had earned since! The sale of Paint lay in that bag, that and the price of his and O’Malley’s long hours of work, pounding piano keys and laboring over the wash-pan in Colonel Bean’s saloon.

The man with the corn-meal dusty bag emptied it into the larger one, the coins and notes jingling and rustling as they fell. Fredi and O’Malley watched, helpless and impotent – and to add insult to injury on top of robbery, the bandit chief looked at them both in reproach.

“My friends – you are certainly very poor rich men, if this is all you have! Little notes, small coins of less value…”

“We were cheated of our wages,” Fredi replied, indignant, as that particular injustice still stung. “We worked for Colonel Bean, at the saloon in San Bernardino; all these weeks … and his brother did not pay us, saying there was nothing from the profits…”

“Los Frijoles?” the other bandit murmured – not wholly sympathetic, but appearing to flirt with the notion. O’Malley’s gaze went back and forth between Fredi and the two outlaws, but the Irishman sensibly appeared to think better of speaking. Fredi wondered briefly again, if the bandit understood English. Bundled in the overcoat, Nipper whined again, distressed – but not as much as he hand been, when the bandit first began searching the wagon.

“Yes – the Beans. We worked without pause or rest for … many weeks. And at the end of it, Senor Leroy refused us our wages.”

“And what did you do … for los Frijoles?” the bandit leader asked again, seeming interested.

“I washed in the kitchen,” Fredi answered. “And we hauled a piano from Los Angeles. Senor O’Malley played upon it nightly for many hours, which brought many customers into los Frijoles’ establishment and enriched them mightily. We were promised a generous wage of five dollars for each night that he played – but that bastard Senor Leroy cheated us in the end. So we left.”

“Aye-yi-yi,” the bandit leader whistled in sympathy, as an interested murmur of Spanish rippled among the others of his gang. “You were cheated … such is not an unknown occurrence, but usually not inflicted upon those of their own kind. But I am a gentleman and a merciful one – unlike those gringos …” he reached into the large bag which held everything that his men had looted from O’Malley and Fredi, and scattered a random handful of coins at their feet. “Thus, I return to you a portion. Alas, we are poor men ourselves, and cheated of our rights on every hand, or else I would return even more. We will leave you with your wagon and the mules. Count yourself fortunate, my friends, that we have no use for them. But we do languish for music and amusement …”

“Oh?” Fredi regarded the bandit chief with wary courtesy. “We don’t have a piano – or anything but a penny-whistle. What would you have us do?”

“If your Senor O’Malley would come with us, for a few hours,” the bandit leader replied. “There is a rancho … some little distance from here, where there is a piano, but no one there alive to play it.”

“They want you to come with them, to play the piano,” Fredi relayed to O’Malley, who nodded briskly, and seemed to fear no peril. Fredi wondered exactly how often O’Malley had been in tight, dangerous situations; he certainly seemed cool enough.

He handed the bundled overcoat with Nipper in it over to Fredi, saying, “Keep the little doggie safe with you – for he may try to run after me and become lost.” He looked as if he were about to say more, but thought better of it.

“Fetch him a mule,” the bandit leader jerked a thumb at the nearest of his men. In a few moments they had unharnessed the four mules, scattering three of them into the darkness with shouts. O’Malley mounted the fourth, while Nipper whined in Fredi’s grip.

“Mind the wagon,” he said only. “The mules won’t go far – but take care of Nipper,” he added over his shoulder, as the bandits let him away.

Gone out of sight in an instant, out of hearing in another, muffled hoof-beats falling soft on the dust of the road – and Fredi was alone, save for Nipper. At least the dog was not struggling to get free any more, but burrowed deeper into O’Malley’s coat. Fredi put him back into the wagon, and getting down on his hands and knees, felt in the darkness near to the wagon wheel for the coins scattered at their feet by the bandit leader.

He much regretted the loss of his revolver – but at least the bandits missed the shotgun under the wagon seat. Fredi sat back on his heels, struck by a little niggling thought, a sense of something not quite right. He could have sworn that there had been more in the bag containing their stake. The bandit leader had been disappointed with what was found in the wagon … surely there had been gold coins in their stake. Yes, he was certain of that; he had the price for Paint in gold eagles, and O’Malley was paid the same for his piano-playing. He reviewed the brief moment when the dusty bag was emptied into the larger; had he seen anything like the bright glint of gold? And when the bandit leader threw down a fistful of money at random, surely there would have been at least one gold half or quarter-eagle among them…

But there was not – only copper pennies, with a few silver three-cent pieces and half-dimes. Fredi retrieved a tin lantern from the wagon, lit the candle within and searched the ground on hands and knees for any coins he might have missed. Nothing … and he wondered just what  O’Malley had been about to say to him, before the bandits vanished into the night with him.



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