Pebbles in a Stream – Part 10

(Accidentally skipped ahead? Read Part IX.)

PART X.

There was no sense in going back. She was starting to see that now.

Cherie looked behind her toward the train station from where she’d stopped on her stroll alongside the tracks. Amrid had asked her not to go, to stay close by, but she couldn’t stand the suffocation of having him constantly beside her any longer. She’d insisted, and the look in her eye when she did so told him not to argue. He didn’t, saying simply that he hoped she’d at least stay within sight. She promised him that much.

The train wasn’t due for another hour but the pair had little left to do except wait, so wait they did. The summer sun was high enough to frighten most shadows to retreat as far as they could without disappearing altogether, and the midday bustle of the nearby roads—honking horns and backfiring engines; men shouting their expectations at one another; the loud, high-pitched laughs of chattering women; the occasional bicycle bell—made promises of good things for business that afternoon.

Cherie watched her partner as he sat on a wood bench worn to a glossy sheen by the hundreds of patrons come before them who had decided to settle themselves upon its offer of rest. Amrid was lanky and the seat was almost too shallow for him, but he reclined anyway, one arm lazily splayed across his lap and the other resting on the back of the bench, his coat unbuttoned and his collared shirt standing stark white and still against the stir of activity and city dust surrounding it.

She admired their progress so far. She admired him. They were getting quite good at playing the part of the eloping couple in love. Cherie was convinced she had her enamored giggle down to a tee because elderly strangers kept offering the two well wishes and marital advice, and young wives, clasping tightly to the arms of their oblivious men, blushed at the pair from beneath the narrow shadow of the hats pinned atop their heads. They must look the part well enough, Cherie thought, a crooked grin spreading its way across her tanned and tired face.

There was one catch, though. She didn’t like the new clothes she had to wear as part of their cover. In fact, she couldn’t stand them. They were tight around the waist, binding, and hot; the collars made her itch and the fabrics were coarse and stiff in their newness. The hats she could manage, though, since they hid the ragged mess of hair pinned atop her head. She disliked combs.

Most of all Cherie hated the shoes. The callouses she’d acquired on her feet from running barefoot on the farm and around the house were no match for the stiff soles and digging straps of women’s new-fashioned heels.

She missed being barefoot, missed wiggling her toes and stretching them and showering them in rays of warm sunlight. She missed the freedom of the lightweight, cotton country dresses her mother would buy for her. She missed, especially, slipping into boy’s pants and shirts every now and again, letting her hair go loose, to work and walk and hike and do anything and nothing without a skirt bunching up around her legs or tangling in the brush or tripping her feet as she walked up hills and stairs.

Thinking about how much she hated the clothes, she’d accidentally acquired a rigid scowl. A railroad employee who was inspecting the line of the track walked up to and then past her, nodding a pleasant hello and tipping his hat as he did so. When she turned her eyes to meet his, his smile immediately faded. He mumbled something apologetic about disturbing her peace, tipped his hat even lower over his eyes, and wished her a better rest of her day as he darted away.

Cherie felt bad. She’d have to work on her social face.

She looked back toward the station and noticed that Amrid had removed the fur felt hat from his head that had come with the new suit. The heavy bulb of dark grey material sat quietly atop their large suitcase; their large, mostly empty suitcase which served mainly as a prop to their cover. The bench Amrid sat on was in the shade, backed up against the Station building, so there was no need to cover his head except for that pesky social expectation. Cherie knew how much he hated it, both the attire and the social expectation. She shared in his resentment.

There weren’t many people riding their outbound train. It seemed these days most people were coming to San Francisco, not leaving it, which had made Cherie initially wonder why Amrid had devised this plan. Buy tickets to somewhere out of town where nobody would want to go in the middle of the day. Cherie thought such a plan would make them easier targets, easier to single out, easier to find. After all, here they were, waiting at a near-empty train station in broad daylight, ripe for the proverbial picking.

“That’s the point,” Amrid had said through gritted teeth. Whenever she argued with him about the escape plan he’d devised for them the vein in his forehead bulged. She thought it was funny. She never laughed. “We can see them coming. They won’t be able to get too close this way. In a crowd they’d be able to hide, pick us off, separate us, drag you or me away without too much trouble. This way they’ll have to work for it.”

Cherie didn’t argue further. She knew by name the men who had been sent to track them like deer across the wilderness of San Francisco. She’d seen their faces disappear then reappear in crowds; felt them peering at her from alley shadows; smelled their distinct, musky, tobacco odor wafting in their wake on sidewalks, the scent of her father’s cigar room, the smoke and haze of distinctly peppery imported tobaccos that he enjoyed with only his most trusted companions. Only of them had seen her see him. It was in the lounge of the hotel they were staying in.

A few days prior Amrid had accomplished quite a feat in a long night of poker against some San Francisco newcomers. The lot of them had claimed they’d won big at a poker tournament in New Orleans and were going to invest their fortune into one business or another in the Wild West. Amrid had been sitting quietly at the bar, drinking and escaping the musty air of the dumpy room he and Cherie had rented for the week, when he overheard the three men boisterously celebrating and wildly bragging in the dining room over a bottle of whiskey. He recognized them, he later confessed to Cherie, not merely by appearances but by the brothers’ characteristic snarling laugh. “Like hyenas after a kill,” he’d later said, though Cherie doubted Amrid really knew what hyenas sounded like. The brothers were from New Orleans for certain, but by no means rich by their prowess at cards.

Amrid had traveled to Louisiana once with his father on business over two years ago, when he was about 23. During that trip and following the conclusion of a successful business deal, it was demanded that Mr. Blaine and his son attend a soiree thrown by one of the more well-known families of the area. The family’s money, he’d been told, came from Pre-Civil War investments into cotton. That is, slavery. Amrid hadn’t cared enough at the time to confirm the tale.

The brothers were inseparable at the party and Amrid, in his usual fashion, stood off to the side and fumed as he watched the vultures torment the hired help and the invited guests. The sons of the hosts were as loud then as they were now. They spent the majority of the night spilling drinks, ordering more whiskey, caressing other men’s wives, and being all-around obnoxious. By the close of the night they’d thoroughly groped the mayor’s daughter—although Amrid couldn’t decide whether or not she was a willing party—and ganged up on a 16-year-old boy who was trying to defend his widowed mother’s honor. It was then, when the Dugas brothers pulled the boy into the street for an unfair fist fight, that Amrid had been forced to step in.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he’d said. The eldest of the brothers stumbled as he’d turned to see who was speaking. A crowd had gathered in the open road to watch the brawl and as soon as he noticed them he puffed out his chest like a strutting rooster. The frills on the front of his shirt, no doubt a fashion of the locale, didn’t help in making him look less foolish.

“Go ‘way,” the brother ordered. “Or you’re next.”

“Oh—” Amrid crossed his arms over his chest, smiling, “—I’d much rather be first.”

Some of the crowd laughed. The Dugas boys didn’t like that.

The youngest Dugas stepped up. Being smaller in stature and in build but not in arrogance, he was drunker than his siblings. Amrid assumed his condition was the result of a contest of wits with his older brothers. “You can’t talk to us like that,” he drawled. Amrid thought the kid might drool on himself.

“I just did.”

Adam stood up straighter, considering the fact, and looked back at his brothers for support. The victim of their game had all but been forgotten as he stood in the middle of the road, fists up, face ashen white, waiting for his certain death. Amrid caught his attention and, when their eyes met, he nodded toward the house. The kid didn’t waste one second darting away to safety.

From there things moved quickly. Amrid wasn’t prone to drinking on business trips—a tip he’d learned from his old man—but there was no way in hell he was going to miss an opportunity to kick the asses of some rich, snobby punks. In the condition they were in the Dugas brothers were easy enough to beat, and within a few minutes Amrid had them either knocked out cold or moaning in the middle of the street.

When Amrid turned from the fight his father was grinning, standing at the steps to the house with their coats and hats in hand. “Ready to go?” he said.

“Just about.”

It was when Amrid was slipping his arms through his coat sleeves that an older gentleman, a sickly looking man in his early sixties with a long black coat and ivory-capped cane, stepped forward from the crowd, a broad smile spread across his wrinkled face. He put his hand on Amrid’s arm. “Thank you,” he said.

“Sir?”

The old man gestured toward the three young men scattered on the ground in front of the beautiful old plantation house. “Thank you. They needed that. God knows I can’t do it anymore.”

“And you are…?”

“Richard Dugas. Their father,” he said, pointing wearily at his offspring. “Welcome to my home. Won’t you come inside and visit with me a while?”

It turned out Mr. Dugas was suffering some kind of lung disease and was destined for the grave within the year. Doctors had directed the man to get his business in order in the meantime and in his weakened state his sons—Charles, Russel, and Adam—were taking advantage of their supposed inheritance.

“They’re not getting a damned dime of it, the stinking, spoiled lot of them,” Mr. Dugas said, venom in his words. “If their mother saw them today she’d roll over in her grave, bless her soul.” The host touched a hefty cigar lightly up to his lips. Apparently just to taste it, Amrid thought, because the thing wasn’t lit. “If it were up to those clumsy drunks they’d spend everything on a herd of riverboats where they could whore out women and gamble all day long.”

“So,” Amrid started, “they like female company, cards, and fine spirits? Sounds normal to me.”

“In excess, son.” Mr. Dugas grimaced and rolled the cigar between two fingers, admiring it.

“What do you suppose the boys will do once you pass, Mr. Dugas? Surely you wouldn’t toss your own sons out into the street with no money to get them going in life?”

Mr. Dugas looked up at Amrid’s father, who was standing off to the side admiring a shelf of leather-bound encyclopedias. “Not no money. Just not as much as they’d like.”

The three spent the remainder of the evening locked up in Mr. Dugas’ library, smoking cigars, drinking Scotch whiskey from crystal ware, and talking all things business and non-business. When Amrid returned to California, he kept in touch with the old man up until he died, never knowing where the money really went.

 

“So how did you know the brothers wouldn’t recognize you?” Cherie asked. She wondered how he’d gotten away with winning a satchel of cash and a couple of gold watches away from the three men.

Amrid laughed. “Mr. Dugas told me they have terrible bouts of forgetfulness when they drink. He let them sleep off their liquor in the middle of the road—to teach them a good lesson, he said—and, in the morning when they awoke and stumbled into the house they couldn’t remember a damn thing.”

“Nothing?”

“Not a thing.” Amrid smiled at the fact, his white teeth shining. “Mr. Dugas never told them what happened but let the rumors and stories around town solidify their humiliation. They know some guy from the West pummeled them in the street, but they don’t know my name, and they certainly don’t know my face.”

 

So that was how Cherie and Amrid ended up with enough money to buy new clothes, new cover, and a nice room at the Palace Hotel until they could come up with a plan to get out of town.

As Amrid checked them into their room at the Palace, Cherie wandered the grounds. She felt relatively safe there, especially with her revolver tucked into the pocket of her coat, but that feeling vanished when she saw one of her father’s stooges, Orval, loitering in the shadow of a white archway staring directly at her.

She could recognize that pockmarked face anywhere, but it was his characteristic frown and unkempt eyebrows that assured Cherie he was the man she thought he was. After the initial shock of seeing a familiar but unwelcome face in a strange city, Cherie stared back, refusing to break the gaze first.

So, her father had hired a mountain man to go after her? What for, her pelt? The way Orval stared it was obvious he intended to intimidate her. She was too tired to be intimidated, and instead snorted a little laugh and a smile as she looked into his cold, grey eyes.

The expression shocked him, causing him to break contact. Orval hardened his frown and motioned to disappear into the shadow of a heaven-white arch as if it were forest cover. It was then that Cherie noticed the hard black line of a long gun carefully tucked against the burly man’s leg and moving with him, as if they were one and the same.

 


Keep reading! Here’s Part XI!

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