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"A Civil Gamble," Daniel H.R. Fishman
Los Angeles, 1853
“Have you not heard of the notches in Friend Dorsey’s pistols, boy?” demanded nine year old know-it-all Edward from his perch on a wooden stool, shaking his close-cropped head in the wide-brimmed straw hat he’d taken from a low shelf. His older brother, Myer, a too-tall thirteen year old in a starched shirt and snowy linen tie, amiable face framed by dark brown curly waves of hair, stood next to him, with the store cat, Mitzvah, stretched out in a wide curve, dozing on the warm adobe windowsill between them. They kept watch along sun-drenched, quiet, muddy Los Angeles Street, and monitored the progress of a tall man, wearing a tall hat and a very nice dove gray suit, stumble-striding away from a little knot of men by the Los Dos Amigos saloon. The tall man, Hilliard P. Dorsey, Land Commissioner, businessman, and gambler, wore his infamous pistols in hip holsters at either side of him, glinting silver in the patchy sun. “They say he puts a new notch in his pistol for each fool he puts down,” Edward said with gusto. “Next one’s yours!"
Myer had already closed and bolted the store’s wide wooden door, so his sixteen year old sister Matilda could safely store the money from new sales. All the wooden window shutters had been closed over the windows except for the half he & Edward looked out past the three foot wide adobe front windowsill of their family’s dry goods store. Mostly, they’d been looking opposite ways, so between them, they covered the whole street. Myer’s expression suggested a wonderful welcome for all future customers; Edward’s face expressed an almost demonic enjoyment in the idea of his bossy older brother being shot to death in the street.
Edward crowed, “We’ll have to put ‘R.I.P. DORSEY DID HIM IN’ on your headstone. Look at him stumble – too much aguardiente,” Edward said knowingly, on the forbidden subject of alcohol. “Makes ‘im all the itchier on the trigger. Go after Dorsey now and we’ll have to build a giant coffin to hold your deformed body, boy!”
Myer hated to be called “boy” by his younger brother as much as any older brother would, but he still smiled the ingratiating, polite smile he’d cultivated for customers, his “happy to help you” special, as he watched, on guard, the people in the street. On alert for any danger, the everyday irritations of Eddy were trivial matters; Eddy could be trounced at any time. Papa wouldn’t be back for another day, at least, and the security and welfare of the family was his responsibility, to share with his oldest sister Matilda, his other siblings, and Mama, who at this moment was out of the store, in the living area at the back part of the building, along with the younger girls.
Myer’s hand draped on the side of the window wall, and he imagined he could feel a sense of good safety and protection reverberating through the adobe bricks, from the metal mezuzah now nailed into the outside of the doorway; his father had brought it from Europe, a gift from his own father, the orthodox rabbi, with its divine words of protection and wisdom, properly and prayerfully scribed on parchment, curled inside. Through his fingers laying on the old adobe wall, Myer felt flowing into him the strength of every home the family’d had this mezuzah providing safety from the doorposts of, their homes in New York, St. Louis, and San Francisco too before they’d come here, to the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Smiling still, Myer ignored his little brother being aggravating, but turned and called again toward the back of the store to his older sister Matilda, “Did you hear me? I’m going to ask Dorsey for the money he owes us.”
“Dunning him in the streets?” Matilda called back, from behind the rack of ladies’ dresses, where she was re-hiding the deep, narrow buckskin bag full of silver, gold, scrip, and bills, after having added to it.
“If he can afford to gamble all night at faro, he can afford to pay for the suit he got on account three months ago! Look at him, he’s wearing our clothes right now! That’s our suit still! He owes the money to Papa, he knows he does. In genuine American fashion, I’m going to ask him to give us the money!”
“'Liquidate his account,’” Matilda said, as she slid the bag with practiced ease into place out of sight on a shelf behind a tall display of ladies’ hats and Leghorne bonnets. She added, “If you’re going to do it, go quick before Mama’s back. Done!”
This last meant the money was safely hidden. Myer quick-straightened his coat (how did Papa always manage to look so immaculate even in dusty long Summers and muddy Winters and Springs?) and unbolted the door; he didn’t even look at Edward when he commanded, “Stay here and close this door behind me. If the girls run ahead of Mama coming back, keep them in the shop.”
Myer skirted the jumble of mess outside Mr. Goller’s, the blacksmith, next door, almost skipping past the horse droppings, stacked wood, barrels of water and buckets of coal, scattered old wagon wheels and other odd items of metal that desert combers had found abandoned across the plains and traded to Mr. Goller. Hurrying beyond this mass of mess and past the horses, standing patiently, waiting to be shod while their owners, bearded horse-trading gentleman in sombreros and serapes, holding their leads, gossiped in the doorway of Mr. Goller’s smithy, Myer strode across muddy Los Angeles Street, knowing other pairs of eyes followed his progress: Don Andres at his tamale stand across the street; the horses and the horse-traders outside Mr. Goller’s; down the street the plump, smiling lady with a basket of panocha, selling some of the sugar cakes to the unsteady men that Dorsey had just left behind outside the Los Dos Amigos saloon, where, no doubt, they’d been drinking Herr Rheim’s powerful aguardiente, just as Edward has suggested; old Mr. Schwab the barber smoking next to the sign outside his shop that announced his services - Shaving, Hair-Dressing, Shampooing, Cupping, Bleeding, Tooth-Extracting.
As Myer negotiated the puddles on the wide, rutted road, still four or five inches deep in gushy mud from all the recent rain, he reminded himself that his was a reasonable, respectable request to a store customer, a man he knew. If his loco little brother, and maybe everyone else who watched, thought Myer was the loco one, a stupid kid starting trouble with a trigger-happy-when-drunk, possibly-already-drunken gambler and self-important city official, then Myer would just have to show them – and maybe Dorsey too – what his Papa had taught him was true: that civil men did business respectfully, with words, not with threats or fists or bullets. Why knowing this to be true didn’t make him feel perfectly confident and reassured solely in the Lord’s protecting the innocent, as Papa always insisted He did, Myer didn’t ask himself; instead, he was just grateful that his legs didn’t wobble or his face show his fear as he ran through patchy sun, to intersect the swaggering fellow in the tall hat and riding boots, with the infamous pistols neatly holstered on either hip.
“Shalom, Friend Dorsey,” Myer hailed him, and danced over to come to a stand still blocking the way, not too close, his happy-to-help-you smile wide but his eyes very direct, as Papa had taught him. “M. J. Newmark of Newmark & Company.” Too civil to shoot, Myer hoped, giving the sunniest of smiles with this announcement and carefully keeping his eyes off the shining, silvery pistols at Dorsey’s sides. “I see our merchandise has worn well and given satisfaction since you purchased it from us near the end of January.” Myer nodded toward Dorsey’s body, meaning to indicate the suit and not the guns he wore. “And it becomes you well, if I may so. As it’s now the beginning of April, we’d be pleased to have you liquidate your account at your very earliest convenience.”
Dorsey’s thin, leathery face looked thunderstruck. Unbelieving.
Myer met Dorsey’s eerie, icy blue glare with his customer’s smile, seeming supremely unaware of Dorsey’s calloused hands cupped toward his pistols, and Dorsey’s outraged expression saying, are you really hassling the guy who can blow your face off?
Five years earlier when they’d met on the stage coach from San Pedro, after the Newmark family had taken a ship from San Francisco, Myer had been the precocious nine year old, and though Dorsey’d had more of an eye for a loudly dressed lady in the row ahead of them, he’d been pleasant enough to the Newmark children. He’d been very calm even when chains and boards had had to be attached to the stage coach to slow it going down the worst hills. Dorsey’s casual bravery and utter lack of fear facing dangers had impressed all the kids, and Edward, then a meltingly beautiful four year old, had invented the nickname “Friend” for Dorsey, before any of them knew his reputation as a fiery-tempered gambler who sometimes (in the heat of anger) put those who opposed him out of the way of doing anything ever again. In the meantime, he had been occasionally a customer of the store, always peaceable enough. Now, of course, after his growth spurt this year, Myer was almost Dorsey’s eye level, an unarmed tall young man. Did he look foolish beyond permission to Dorsey from that icy blue distance?
“WHAT are you saying to me, boy?!” Dorsey slurred. His hands grabbed menacingly at his pistols in their holsters. “You WANT me to give you what I’ve got for you?”
Shock waves of cold fear running up Myer’s spine cool the fuel of anger and righteousness, duty to be completed. He trembled inside, wanting to run. He could feel his shoulders twitching, wanting to turn, his body’s desire to take off.
He heard his father’s calm, certain voice in his head: “Civil men do business with respect, with words, not with threats or fists or bullets. When we meet each other respectfully, the Lord looks after the innocent and the just.”
Myer turned his shoulder flinch away into straightening to his full, awkward height, held his smile in place, and dipped his head a little in a nod. He kept himself standing there, didn’t cut and run, didn’t let himself slouch down or away, refused to let himself shirk or startle at all. His voice was no quieter nor louder than it had been, no less friendly, and held almost no tremble when, without ever dropping his eyes from Dorsey’s face, he said, “In cash, scrip, gold, or silver, at your earliest convenience. I believe you know our location.” He gestured behind him, toward the store; his arm didn’t waver. He didn’t move too fast. He widened his smile for a civil leave-taking, found Dorsey’s eyes with his own gaze. “Shalom, sir.” A slow nod again for goodbye, then he slowly turned, skip-walked back across the mud to the store’s verandah, not too fast, never looking at the bystanders watching; since no bullet found its way into his back, he joined his sister Matilda waiting for him by the now-open door.
Edward, behind her, stared out at the man his brother had just bested only with words; Edward, open-mouthed, for once had not a word of his own to say.
Myer turned to sketch a wave back at the errant customer, calling out almost joyously, as if he had not just risked death from the incredulous but well-dressed desperado, “Thank you for your patronage!”
* * *
The first Papa heard of it, after his long journey home, came very early the next morning, just after his prayers, when he’d gone into the shop to look around it, not even to open yet. Joseph Newmark had been bending over an upside down straw hat on a low shelf, full of new kittens; he was murmuring to the store cat, Mitzvah, the proud mother, complimenting all her beautiful babies, wriggly plump streaks of skin and sparse fur, still wet from being licked clean, squeaking their kitten songs from the crown of the straw hat, when a tremendous pounding knock came on the bolted-shut, wide wooden door. Joseph patted his fingers lightly on Mitzvah’s head, straightened up, strolled to the door, and unbolted it for the first sale of the barely starting day.
He recognized the tall man in the tall hat, as he swung the door wide, and felt a rush of cool air. A burnt orange smudge of color at the edge of the horizon now kindled the new day. All around the pueblo, the sky was changing; beyond the man at the door, that deep celestial blue showed in the most extravagant display of gorgeous color, the divine fire immanent in the unspoiled sky of a beautiful morning.
Tall hat pushed up to reveal a wan, leathery, drawn face, bloodshot blue eyes; Hilliard P. Dorsey, Land Commissioner, nodded, said, “Mornin’, Padre.” He was clearly so desvelado, so exhausted from too much partying instead of sleeping. as to be blind to the beauty of the dawn blooming all around and behind him.
“Welcome, Friend Dorsey, come right in, sir, and tell me what I can do for you.” Joseph waved him in.
“I wanna-” he slurred out and then stopped. He straightened his hunched shoulders, and enunciated clearly, “I wish to liquidate my account.”
“Ah?” Smiling, Joseph said, “I certainly will not attempt to persuade you otherwise. Come right in, and have some water. I’m afraid that’s all there is to offer you just now,” Joseph said, taking the dipper from the ceramic olla that hung on the veranda. He wiped a dusty glass from the adobe windowsill with a clean, starched handkerchief from his pocket, ladled water into into it, and handed his unresponsive guest some available rehydration. Dorsey eyed it warily, but drank.
Joseph made his way to the tall narrow desk at the back. “Let me write you out the receipt.” Dorsey laid down a couple of paper bills and, mostly, silver half dollars, the preferred currency of gamblers in the Pueblo. He started a gruff half-apology, but Joseph smoothly thanked him for the all-too-rare coinage. Joseph counted the silver separately, and gave him credit for the current exchange rates – they both knew that the local money changers were giving twenty dollars of gold for eighteen of silver now. Dorsey seemed a bit stiff at first, Joseph thought it due to his long festive night, no doubt – he remembered well and treasured the celebrations of his earlier years.
“That son of yers,” Dorsey said at last, as Joseph finished writing out the receipt. “Got guts.”
“Edward? He’s my firebrand. I hope he wasn’t impertinent to you while I was away?”
“T’other one.” Dorsey snorted. “M. J. Newmark.” One of Dorsey’s fingers, caressed, for a moment, the metal edges on a holstered gun. “Looks you in the eye. Smiles. Means it.” He looked down at Joseph, who met his eyes, smiling himself, wondering. Dorsey took the receipt. “The suit’s a good fit. It – it’s given satisfaction. Thank you, sir.”
“We are grateful for your patronage, sir, and I am very glad we’ve given satisfaction. A small token of our gratitude,” Joseph pressed on him a pilon, the custom of the Pueblo to present a small gift to customers, a remnant of the days of trade before the use of American money came into common practice. In this case, a small lump of sugar for Dorsey’s horse, and a little round tin wrapped in a cloth he’d taken from a small desk drawer. “A little metal polish, to keep it bright.”
Dorsey’s worn blue eyes searched the older man’s face, saw its glad placidity, its shining satisfaction in shared time.
He could not see Joseph’s synapses firing, wondering how Myer had reached the self-important, sometimes irascible, gentleman. Would he ever know?
Confident in the goodness of the mystery’s result, Joseph accompanied his customer through the door, lingering on the verandah outside with the Land Commissioner, exchanging stories of last night, one telling of his gambling adventures in the Pueblo, and the other telling about his travel back from the vineyards of Santa Barbara by stage coach, where he’d been inspecting the making of kosher wine, as the morning began around them.
Daniel H.R. Fishman's work has appeared in print and online in places including The Patterson Review, San Diego Poetry Annual, Poppy Road
Review, Lucidity, and The Walrus.