by Daniel H.R. Fishman
Pueblo of Los Angeles, 1853
A dusky orange-pink smudge in the dark celestial blue sky marked the dawn. The mingled stink of days’ old body odor and horse droppings perfumed the air in the roadway outside the makeshift corral on La Calle Principal. From somewhere nearby, dogs barked and roosters crowed. The cool crisp air wakened the bloodshot eyes of some of the men assembled, both inside and outside the corral or prisoners’ pen, and overwhelmed the taste of the dust being kicked up into the air by arrivals to the auction.
Already as tall as some of the men in the crowd since his recent growth spurt, thirteen year old Myer Newmark in his starched shirt and snowy linen tie, amiable face framed by dark brown curly waves of hair, made his way through the gathering crowd. He tried to ignore the body odor wafting off the men he slid past by focusing on the hearty flavor that still lingered on his tongue from the breakfast rice porridge, spiced with scallions and small beef bits, his family’s cook, Li, had prepared that morning.
He headed toward his new friend, twelve year old Swift Hummingbird, the only other washed and clean person in the crowd, so far as Myer could tell. With water so scarce and expensive, bathing was not a popular pastime in the Pueblo. Papa insisted that his family wash themselves daily, as all respectable Jews must, and Myer knew that his Indian friend Swift Hummingbird bathed in the river every morning after he woke. Even the horse Swift Hummingbird held the reins of, waiting patiently, savoring the sweetness of the sugar lump he’d been given, was cleaner than many of the men who’d come to bid at the auction, and all of the men kept inside the pen, whose labor for the week was to be auctioned off.
“You’re here!” Swift Hummingbird said.
Myer said, “I promised. But what am I doing here exactly? And why, again?”
“You’re getting my father back for me. He’s there,” Swift Hummingbird pointed.“with the bandana around his neck.” Myer followed Swift Hummingbird’s finger to a hawk-faced man in a dirty red bandana crumpled against the railing by the corner post.
Hummingbird silently noted that the bruising on the right side of his father’s face had been healing, but there was a new black eye on his left side. Probably from fighting arrest. Skin too pale. Exhaustion and illness grayed his brown skin. He wasn’t leaning away from his right side anymore, though, so he must have healed there. Maybe he was getting stronger, healthier, in bigger ways since they’d last seen each other, two weeks ago. “The auctioneer is the man in the blue shirt. When they first bring my father out of the corral, you’ll have to yell out to the auctioneer your first bid, one dollar. You can go up to three.” Swift Hummingbird poured silver half dollar coins from his cupped palm to Myer’s outstretched one. He didn’t say how many weeks it had taken him to save the money from his three jobs.
“I’m an auctioneer’s son. I know how to bid at an auction. ” Myer said. “But why can’t you just do it yourself?”
“They’ll do what you want. You’re a chichinabro, not an Indian. You understand how to say things. And a white face always gets more of what it wants. You said you have to be the man of the family when your father’s away. You know how to show them you’re doing business so they’ll believe you.”
“My father returned late last night.”
“Does he know where you are right now?”
Myer hunched his shoulders guiltily. He had slipped out without talking to anyone but, very briefly, to Li. But he didn’t answer the question verbally. Instead, he said, “Your English is perfect. I’m sure you could do it yourself. But why is your father in an auction at all?”
“City law. Since I was nine, when the United States took over Alta California. Indians get jailed for being drunk, or being suspected of being drunk, then auctioned for a week’s work to the highest bidder. The vineyards take most of the workers. The vineyard owners made a deal with the city. The vineyards give two thirds of the week’s pay to the city government. To pay the costs of keeping us locked up in jail, the mayor says. The rest of the week’s pay goes to the worker, in alcohol. When I work for the vineyards, they pay me in alcohol too. I sell mine back to my cousin’s saloon.”
Myer just stared at him.
“If the men from the vineyards outbid us, or make a lower bid but the auctioneer accepts it, then that’s at least another week my father will be stuck here. He doesn’t understand how to get out of it, can’t stop himself from drinking here in the Pueblo once he starts. This is killing him slowly. But if I can get him back home to the village, I can keep him safe there.”
He’s taking care of his father like he’s the adult, Myer thought. My Papa takes such good care of me, but even when he’s just come home, I’m already keeping secrets from him. What would he think of what I’m doing here, helping a friend he’s never even met?
Papa who’d taught him to be honest and to do business honestly. Protect the innocent, and be trustworthy with your own family as well as with others. Always Papa would quote Leviticus, Chapter 19, verse 18, Love your neighbor as yourself, and then add, if that’s what we owe our neighbors, how much more do we owe our own family? Papa who’d taught him to be honest and to behave honorably, was not being treated honorably by Myer’s slipping out on secret business. It made Myer feel unglued from his place in the world, hiding things from Papa, even more than having moved across the continent, away from his beloved New York City, the best city in the country.
But this side of the country did offer many kinds of unexpected adventures.
Myer discreetly scanned the auctioneer, the rickety set up of the corral, and the crowd. It didn’t resemble a New York auction at all. Outside at dawn for one. Unwashed bodies for another. Rough and ugly, the crowd mostly looked. Some very respectable local business men known to Myer were also present, including agents for several of the vineyards.
The man in the striped serape, Myer knew, worked for Don Lugo’s vineyard, and the one with a tall cream colored cowboy hat and a fancy, broad silver belt buckle was William Wolfskill’s vineyard foreman, Henry Forsett. Forsett had once been overhead by Myer’s cousin Harris to say that all the Jews with their foreign customs should be driven out of the Pueblo if they couldn’t do business in the American way. Myer’s Papa had been born in a small town in Prussia and his mother in London to Russian Jewish immigrants, but Myer himself and all of his siblings had been born in New York City, the most modern American city in the country. Forsett himself had been born in England but moved to the States as a child. He had arrived in the Pueblo a year before Myer’s family, but a couple of months after Myer’s Prussian born cousins Harris and Phillip. Forsett caught Myer’s glance at him and stared back, not kindly but in definite surprise. Many of the local businessmen who needed extra help occasionally hired men from the auction, but Papa never had.
The auctioneer in the blue shirt was scanning the crowd. As his gaze swept in their direction, Myer dropped the slouch of his shoulders. The sales manners he used in his family’s store, selling dry goods, rose up to the surface. His awkward, newly big body stood up straight, leaning up into his full height, letting his shoulders open out to full broadness. He made a radiant, engaging smile bloom across his face. Ready to start talk, ready to listen. By the culture and rituals of his own people, Myer had been declared officially a grown man. Not that Papa treated him like a man. Nor did he feel grown up. And the people of the Pueblo wouldn’t always see him that way. But whenever Papa was gone, it was Myer’s job to be the man of the family. He had to project to other people that he was a respectable person, ready to do a full grown-up’s part in business. He had to do that here as well, because he was about to become involved in the local version of Papa’s own former business, and it wouldn’t do to let come to Papa’s ears that Myer had disgraced himself at an auction by behaving like a green youth, too callow and young to act as an appropriate agent.
Swift Hummingbird saw his father’s head loll in their direction, and then maybe catch in the dim light who was standing around. He straightened up suddenly. He lifted his head, righted himself somehow; his hawk’s profile stood out proud, commanding. He’d seen Swift Hummingbird, and was pulling himself together. Swift Hummingbird looked to the men who’d come to bid on workers for the vineyards. Don Lugo’s foreman, shifting in his serape, seemed to eye Swift Hummingbird’s father speculatively; Henry Forsett narrowed his eyes, and nodded to himself.
Myer watched closely once the auctioneer stepped forward and began to speak. There was no explanation of what was happening; obviously, everyone else present had been at these auctions often before, and knew the rules and knew their roles. Bids were gestured with a big hand wave and a loud call out of price, men sometimes shouting each other down. There were no women present, of course. There was nothing subtle or genteel or even very ordered about the bidding, as there might have been at some of Papa’s jobs in the East, when Myer had gone with him as a child. Loud and definite was the way here, if Myer read the manners correctly.
Myer had hoped there wouldn’t be any competition for the bid, and had felt a little hope in that direction at how bad Humminbird’s poor father had looked when first spotted. But as the first few men were auctioned off to various vineyards, the man had begun to hold himself up, if with difficulty, showing a strong body and a proud, more capable stance.
Abrupt bidding began as Hummingbird’s father was led forward, with both Don Lugo’s foreman and Forsett calling out “One dollar!” far louder and faster than Myer’s own first call. He had to shout to shout it a second time, using the auctioneer’s voice he’d learned from Papa to even be heard. By that time, though, Don Lugo’s foreman and Forsett, were shouting between them from one dollar up toward two - one and one bit, one and two bits, one and thirty cents, one and forty cents, - with Myer only getting in a couple of bids of the same. The auctioneer never even looked in Myer’s direction, as he pointed back and forth between the other two men.
Their bidding slowed a little when they got to the two dollar mark, but they were both still ignoring Myer’s bids, though he pushed himself to be loud and tall, as he bid with the other two men.
Don Lugo’s man called out with a bid of two dollars and one bit, a Mexican coin worth about twelve and a half cents shouting past the two dollars mark. When Forsett immediately countered with two dollars and two bits, which was twenty-five cents in American money, Don Lugo’s representative cursed in Spanish and turned his head back to the corral, as if to scan what else was left in the way of man power to lease. Forsett smiled in triumph when Don Lugo’s man said nothing.
Myer made his voice loud, loud enough to raise above the hubbub of a full room, and louder, the voice he used when all of his siblings were arguing at top volume and he needed to cut through them. Not just hugely loud, but resonant enough to make his syllables heard despite the noisy din of arguing. “Two and three quarters dollars!”
Forsett shot an ugly glare at Myer, as several other men turned to stare at him. Obviously, everyone had thought this bid was over. But the auctioneer actually swung toward him, taking in Myer’s face, if with some degree of surprise.
Forsett jerked his gaze from Myer to the auctioneer in outrage, then back to the edge of the corral where Swift Hummingbird’s father now stood straight, sobering, watching the proceedings with alert if bloodshot eyes. “Two dollars eighty five cents!” he announced. “And more than any Indian’s worth at that!” Many of the men standing around them laughed in appreciation.
Myer shouted immediately, “Three dollars!” This had to be ended; there was too much at stake for Hummingbird’s family. He added in a roar,“CASH!” He held up his hands, the palms cupped together to form a closed ball, and he shook his arms and the ball of his hands at the top of it forcefully, so the sound of the silver coins clinking together rattled above the crowd. “IN SILVER!” Myer roared triumphantly across the crowd. Everyone knew that silver prices were stronger than gold in the Pueblo these days; you could get twenty dollars in trade or paper bills for eighteen silver dollars now. Myer jangled the coins decisively again, and gazed hard at the auctioneer, to demand recognition for the extra power of a bid in silver coins.
The auctioneer slowly raised his hand to point at Myer. “This ‘un goes to the young chub here,” he said.
“M.J. Newmark,” Myer announced with a shy smile.
The auctioneer nodded, said, “M.J. Newmark. The J after your father Joseph?” He smiled apologetically at Forsett. “Exchange rates being what they are these days,” he said, “that’s just more money than you’re offering. Or likely to.”
Forsett’s foreman twisted his mouth from a surprised frown to a rueful grin. “True enough,” he said, “and probably twice what he’s worth at that!” Several of the men in the crowd laughed again. But Forsett’s glance at Myer held another note than anger now, a kind of surprised respect. Quieter, he leaned in Myer’s direction and told him, “Your father’s taught you well. Well fought!”
Myer smiled nervously, half proud at showing he could win in the world of men, half scared what Papa would ask or think if he heard.
Swift Hummingbird brushed quickly past, and helped his father away from the corral, glad to see he was only hobbling a little.
The first Papa heard of Myer’s adventure did not come from Myer himself, as he decided, after making sure that Hummingbird could guide his father back to their village on his own, to go collect some supplies that his cousin Harris had promised Papa.
Just after his prayers, before even officially opening the shop, Joseph Newmark had been bending by a low shelf over an upside down straw hat 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 man in the tall cream colored cowboy hat, as he swung the door wide, and felt a rush of cool air. 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.
The cowboy hat pushed up to reveal the wan, leathery, drawn face, and bloodshot blue eyes of Henry Forsett, William Wolfskill’s well-known foreman nodded. “Mornin’, Padre.” His determined stance showed no recognition of the beauty of the day blooming all around and behind him.
“Welcome, sir, come right in, and tell me what I can do for you.” Joseph waved him in.
“I wanna-” he slurred out and then paused. He’d stopped briefly for a shot of Herr Rheim’s powerful aguardiente at the Los Dos Amigos saloon down the street before arriving here. He straightened his hunched shoulders, and enunciated clearly, “I still owe you for a suit I purchased on credit last month. I want to pay off 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 it, and handed his unresponsive guest some available rehydration. Forsett eyed it warily, but drank.
Joseph made his way to the tall narrow desk at the back. “Let me write you out the receipt.” Forsett counted out a stack of paper bills, then laid on top two 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 noted aloud the current exchange rates in the Pueblo for silver coins, as any honest businessman would do, and made the necessary small change. Forsett seemed a bit stiff; Joseph thought it due to a long festive night of drinking, perhaps – he remembered well and treasured the celebrations of his earlier years.
“That son of yours shows some true spark,” Forsett said at last, as Joseph finished writing out the receipt.
“My nine year old, Edward? He’s my firebrand. I hope he wasn’t impertinent to you while I was away?”
“The other one.” Forsett snorted. “M. J. Newmark.” One hand curled around his broad silver belt buckle. “Stands his ground. Hold his own like a grown man.” He took the receipt as Joseph met his eyes, smiling himself, wondering.“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 Forsett’s horse, and a small round tin wrapped in a cloth he’d taken from a small desk drawer. “A little metal polish, to keep that buckle of yours bright.”
Forsett’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 his customer, 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 San Bernadino by stage coach, where he’d been inspecting the making of kosher wine, as the morning began around them.
Once back in his home village by the shining, green-brown river and inside his tall, shaggy dome house, made of thick, woven plant-mat walls, thatch and matting, Swift Hummingbird put his father to bed. He tugged off the sweat-stained coat, held aside the curtain of hanging reed mat from the bedstead of heavy sticks, and helped his father ease himself onto the bed. Then Hummingbird walked back across the tule mats that covered much of the smooth, hard-packed dirt floor, and from among a group of round-bellied and bottle-necked baskets that stored necessaries and treasures, such as needles, and mixtures, jewelry, supplies and trinkets for their uses, he took two: a short, fat one that held a healing salve, and a tall, thin-necked water bottle. Jay applied the salve to his father’s bruises while his father drank the water. When his father had finished, and lay back, Jay shook the bedspread of soft squares of rabbit fur over him, and let him slide into his first decent sleep in many days.
Hummingbird returned the old coat to its place on a hook from the wall, briefly surveying the effect of everything that hung from other hooks and pegs around the walls: a bow and a quiver of arrows, a hide bag, a broom, his own coat; with his father’s coat now back in place, the house looked complete.
He went to the ring of cobbles in the middle of the little house, and fed and added to the fire his auntie had begun there, until a fat jagged log burned merrily, blackened and blazing. The two stone pots his auntie had set on warming stones in the fire circle began to burble, emanating an enticing smell of nourishment, perfuming the space with its comfortable aroma. From the pile of furry rugs and blankets of otter and beaver skin folded by one wall, he chose his favorite otter blanket. Before moving to his favorite seat, a stool not far from the door, he checked his own pockets, pulled out the receipt the auctioneer had given to Myer who’d slipped it to Hummingbird, and dropped it into a large open-twined wastebasket. Then, he settled himself to be able to look out through the open doorway to the shine and green flash of the river, with the otter fur blanket over his lap for comfort, perched on his favorite seat, the old stool made of whale bone. It had been a piece of backbone once, a single vertebra of a giant sea mammal, and now made a comfortable, solid, dry resting place, from which to listen to his father’s breathing even out and relax into its well-known rhythm, in their cozy thatch dome house miles from the sea.
While this is a work of fiction, historical research for its background was derived from William McCawley’s The First Angelinos: Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles (©1996) and Harris Newmark’s Sixty Years in Southern California, 1853-1913. Any faults in accuracy and/or of fictional alteration are entirely my own.
According to McCawley’s text, auctions like the one presented in the text and the deal between the Los Angeles city government of the time and the local vineyards were standard practice beginning in 1850, as a twist on policies of the previous Mexican government. The word “chichinabro” was, again according to McCawley’s research, the Tongva (Gabrielino) word for the pioneer settlers of the Los Angeles region, both Mexican and American.
While my characters are entirely fictional in every aspect of thought, action, experience, and appearance, a few of the names are drawn from historical personages, including those of vineyard owners, and of my own great-great-great grandfather, Joseph Newmark, his sons, and nephew.
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.