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Santa Paula [1875]

Santa Paula

This is the beginning of a chapter from the novel Campfire Gothic. It was taken out because of problems with chronology, so I put it here.

SANTA PAULA [1875]

A few days before Christmas the residents of Santa Paula woke up to the sight of snow coming down heavy and wet. Far up in the thin air of the Sierra snow had blanketed the peaks and closed off the passes. There it was expected. Even nearby Hines Peak would get a dusting this time of year. But here, down on the floodplain of the Santa Clara, it should have been rain. Not that there hadn’t been rain. Since the beginning of November rain had been falling in torrents. And wind. Farther down the valley fierce winds had forced ships out of the harbor at San Buenaventura and blown over the mission cross that had stood as a landmark for ninety years. So far the winter of seventy-five had been a triumph of the erratic over the predictable, of weather over climate, a trend that was disheartening the most stalwart of the town’s citizens.

Santa Paula was essentially a work in progress rising on the site of an old Spanish hacienda. A handful of newly completed houses with their wooden clapboard still looking fresh from the mill, a provisional hotel, several shops that had been finished enough to lay in some stock and make an attempt at display, and a liquor store. But the germinal town saw its future. The good loamy soil of the upper valley between the Topatopa and Santa Susana Mountains was being groomed into farmland so systematically that a person might have stood on a hilltop and watched the tilling of new fields, row after row, materializing on the landscape like carpets slowly weaving out on a loom. This was the town’s front porch view.

At the town’s back, beyond the neighborhood of platform tents that housed the workers and some brave prospective residents, stood the mountains, the Topatopa hook of the Coastal Range, rising to over six-thousand feet. The mountains were the past, scarred from the picks and shovels of prospectors who swarmed out of the overflowing camps of the North to scour and burrow every inch of ground they could reach before their insensate frenzy for gold was at last put down by failure and exhaustion. The Great Rush was over. The Argonauts were gone, and the elephant was last seen somewhere in the Dakotas. There were still mines up in the mountains. There was still gold. But the veins were deep, and the mines were corporate concerns owned by stockholders in San Francisco or the East. The profits went elsewhere, and the men who worked in the shafts and stamping mills weren’t the sort who were inclined to live in towns. Santa Paula was being built as a place for people to settle down and raise families, people whose dreams of prosperity were based on fruits and grains and commerce. If they were going to dig anything out of the ground it would be something they had planted themselves, something sensible, like carrots.

Throughout the summer and fall of the past year the air had been filled with sawdust, the smell of paint, the sounds of hammers and saws, wagons rattling their cargo and clattering over the unpaved streets. Meetings had been held, plans discussed, contracts drawn up — there would be a school, a church, a bank. Things were on the move, figuratively speaking. Figuratively, that is, until rains of biblical proportion began to shift part of the enterprise, along with the ground it stood on, to some undetermined point slightly closer to the river. The river, in turn, was expanding out onto the plain. And now it was snowing. Construction was at a standstill, and the workmen were off either attending to their own problems, or trying to drown those problems at the hotel bar. The enforced holiday was not just the result of snow, but of an entire atmospheric upheaval that came with it. The temperature had dropped to below freezing, the wind was raging from every point of the compass at once, and the snow was intermittently mixed with every form of water, liquid and frozen, that ever fell from the sky. It seemed that whatever powers maintained the usually benign climate had succumbed, entirely, to chaos.

Despite the holiday, there were two people out and at work this day, a building contractor, Tom Wells, and his top foreman, Bill Mawley. These two, soaking wet, nearly frozen and entirely miserable, were involved in a hopeless attempt to save what was going to be the feed store. The more or less completed framing had been roofed over to allow work to continue in the rain, but water had undercut the shallow foundation, and now the snow piling on the roof, along with gusts of wind blowing with the force of a cyclone, were promising to either send the roof sailing off into the clouds, or else collapse it under the excess load. Mawley had been in the building trades for enough years to reckon himself a little old to be out doing this sort of thing, and he was shouting himself hoarse trying to convince his boss that it was pointless to get themselves killed trying to prevent something that was going to happen no matter what they did. The contractor, a younger man with the implacable determination of a entrepreneur about to see his money and reputation go tumbling into an unrecoverable heap, disagreed. He clung to the shaking timbers like a sea captain weathering a typhoon, hurling curses at his foreman and ordering him to make one more harebrained attempt. “Secure it from the top! Up there damn you!” He shouted against the roar of wind, and he pointed to the beam where the leading edge of the roof was attached to the frame. “Throw a rope on it! We’ll pull it back and…!” His last words were obscured by the wrenching sound of the floor sliding forward on the heeled over foundation. The roof began to buckle and a great slab of half-frozen slush landed at the foreman’s feet with a lethal thud that vibrated his bones and left a momentary stillness hanging in the air. “For Christ’s sake!” Wells implored, “Don’t just stand there, throw the goddamn rope!”

The belabored Mawley was trying to make out exactly where and how he was supposed to throw the rope. He looked up, and above him just beyond the quivering edge of the roof he saw a gray mass of cloud that seemed far too heavy to hold itself aloft for long. Below it smaller clouds were hurtling in all directions like flocks of frightened birds. He heard a rumbling in the distance, then a bright flash lit up the clouds as a crack of thunder blasted his ears and loosened another avalanche from the doomed roof. He tried throwing the rope. It flew into the air, whipped and sailed. He held onto the end while it took to the wind and trailed out like a kite string. “What in hell are you doing, you moron! You can’t throw it like that! Jesus! Tie a rock onto it or… ” Wells’ voice was swallowed up by a roar that came out of some nearby woods as the trees bent over and started letting go of their branches. Mawley tried to steady himself by grabbing onto the framing as another burst of wind drove a volley of ice pellets straight into his face, followed immediately by a barrage of profanity from Wells. What next, he wondered. He turned his face away from the onslaught of meteorological and verbal abuse and saw something moving in the street. A shadow of a man, it appeared, looming out of the storm like some Norse god emerging from the elements, slogging through mud and slush deep enough to mire a team of oxen up to their yokes.

The figure appeared to made of the same stuff as the weather. Dark and threatening as the sky, misshapen as the clouds, a man of sleet, rain, wind, and mud. “Now! Get the… ! Sweet mother of God…!” The contractor let go his death grip on the swaying timbers, staggered and worked his way grabbing one board after the next to where his foreman was standing fixed. “Now what! Just what, what in blazing hell are you… !” The foreman pointed. “Jesus! What the hell is that?” They both watched as the figure approached, straight on, steady, a cloud of steam blowing out of his mouth with each step. As he got closer they saw that he was huge, and that the odd shape was caused by a bundle thrown onto his shoulder. There was also something he was pulling behind, a burro, a large dog, whatever it was it wasn’t cooperating, and each time it lagged he gave a sharp tug without bothering to look back.

Wells cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey, Mister! You alright there!” If the man heard him he didn’t give any indication. He just kept coming. When he was even with them, not more than ten or fifteen feet away, they were able to get a look at part of his face between the brim of his hat and a beard as coarse as a wad of mattress stuffing. What they could see appeared to be carved out of wood or stone, too rough and ridged for flesh. He shifted the bundle on his shoulder and gave a another pull on the object in tow. They could see it clearly now. It was a child.

“You see that?” Wells jabbed his foreman with an elbow and pointed. “He’s got a damn kid with him. Out in this!” The child’s age and sex were indeterminable, but its proportions were trifling compared to the giant that pulled it along. Bundled into an oversized blanket coat tied around the middle with one end of a rope, the child half-stumbled, half-ran, trying to keep up with the other end. Wells took another shot at making contact. “Hey, Chum! Everything okay there, eh!” The man turned his head. His eyes were wide open and didn’t blink as the snow blew into them. He glared at the two workmen, unclenched his jaw, fired out a wad of tobacco juice and continued on. The contractor took exception. “ Now hold on there! You… !” The foreman laid a hand on his arm and shook his head. He’d run into men like this before and had learned that it was never a good idea to provoke them. Besides, something was happening to the building. The roof was making a slow clockwise rotation. The frame, secured between unevenly diverging points, was starting to groan like a man stretched on the rack.

There was no great crash when it came down. No shattering and splintering of timbers. No cloud of dust. It simply laid down into the mud and slush, and that was that. The contractor and his foreman stood in the mired street watching the snow settle over the remains. “It’s a damn shame,” Wells said. “That’s what it is, just a goddamned shame.” “Nobody’s fault, really.” said Mawley. Through the falling snow they could make out the shapes of the two travelers heading towards the hotel. “Guess we’re done for now,” Wells said. “Sort it out when the weather clears up. If it ever does.” Mawley reserved further comments.

In the lobby of the hotel the dim light bleeding in through the windows was mixing with the yellowish glow from oil lamps to produce an atmosphere even gloomier than the mess outside. A small gathering of workmen in canvas overalls and flannel shirts were standing at the bar applying themselves to the consumption of cheap whiskey and the telling of bad jokes. Conditions in the tents where they quartered were beyond unbearable, and they wanted to ensure that when they went back for the night they’d be immune to all discomfort. When the door swung open they turned in a group to welcome a fellow sufferer with good cheer. A notion that only lasted an instant. The appearance of the enormous man with the dismal looking kid left little doubt that any laughter was going to be construed the wrong way. The two stepped inside the door and stood in an expanding puddle while the large man surveyed his surroundings with the confused look of an animal that’s just stumbled into a camp, not sure if it should bolt or attack. As the rest of his face began to emerge through the melting slush they noticed that his nose and cheeks were aglow with the orange-red color of freshly fired brick, and steaming like they were probably just as hot. After a few moments of silence and tense stillness he stamped his feet, set a course, and with the light of pure madness blazing from his eyes, stepped up to the desk. The bartender, a slender young man who just that moment had a disquieting insight into his own mortality, adjusted his paper collar and hurried around to take his alternate role as desk clerk, and, if required, the bouncer.

Standing orders at the hotel were for any potential troublemakers to be turned away. Particularly if they appeared to be miners or prospectors. Those were welcome to buy liquor when they passed through, as much as they wanted, but then had to move on and make trouble someplace else. The same went for any other trangent trash that drifted by.

The new arrival threw down some paper currency. “How long will that do me?” he said. That was all he said, although later there were different opinions on the exact wording. The bartender started to inspect the bills, issued by a San Francisco bank he’d never heard of. Wildcat money, probably worthless, or if it had any value at all there was no way of knowing what it was. “Anything wrong with it?” The bartender was trying to quickly think of some way he could explain the situation and still survive when the obvious occurred to him. “As long as you like,” he said, affecting a smile reserved for gentlemen in suits. Someone else could tell this gorilla that his money was no good. Someone who might be less attentive to the throbbing veins on the man’s forehead, or the size of his fists, or the distinctive bulge of a large sidearm inside his coat.* “Yes Sir,” he said just as pleasantly as you please. “You stay as long as you want. And if there’s any problems I’m sure Mr. Bradley, the owner, he’ll be happy to work something out in the morning.” As far as the bartender was concerned the owner was a rotten prick who’d hardly be missed. He took a key off a hook and put it into the stranger’s calloused hand, convinced from the look and condition that if it was clenched it could bash the life out of a steer. “That’s you. Number four. You’re in room number four. Down that hall to your left. You’re number four.” Speak softly and clearly, he thought. No sudden movements or alarming gestures.

The tension was making it hard for the boozed up men at the bar to keep from laughing — as it would if some thug pulled a knife and said, “I’ll cut the throat of the first man that laughs.” It could only be a matter of time before a scene like that came to a blood splattered finale. Watching the bartender’s excruciating efforts to keep the situation under control made it even worse, and a few of the men had to bite on their knuckles or stick their faces against their shoulders to keep from bursting into hysterics. As the stranger grabbed his scruffy kid and plodded into the rear hallway to find his room, they all sighed in relief, and they prayed in their hearts that this would not turn out to be a drinking man. If they claimed later that they had seen trouble coming, their foresight could hardly have been termed remarkable.

The door opened again, and the workmen turned with some apprehension. The way things were going it could be anything — a Yokut war party, the dreaded Moralles gang, a grizzly with a loaded rifle in its teeth. But it was Bill Mawley, arriving with a report of the newcomer’s first notable accomplishment since showing up in their community. “Seen him? Yeh, I seen him. Son-of-a-bitch spit so hard it knocked over the feed store. Now, who’ll stand me a peg of that kerosene.”

And so McKusker’s reputation was off on its usual course, with almost no effort at all on his own part. This time he didn’t have to murder anybody, thrash anybody, eat anybody,** or burn anything down; all he had to do this time was show his face and spit. Civilization was getting picky.

*It is noted in previous chapters that McKusker is armed with a LeMat grapeshot revolver, a devastating contraption with a cylinder holding nine 44 caliber slugs and a lower barrel loaded with buckshot.

**Following the unsavory events that transpired in 1846 while crossing the Sierra with the notorious Donner party, McKusker was accused of having eaten Tamzene Donner. He didn’t, although he may have eaten someone who did. A fine distinction.

©Rick Fine

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