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Authors: Luke; Short

Hard Money

BOOK: Hard Money
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Hard Money

Luke Short

Chapter One

Booming Tronah stepped up a pitch at six o'clock evening when the shifts at the mines came off and, like a great lusty and colorful caterpillar, turned over in the cocoon of its own din.

Charles Bonal regarded it from the open win-down of his suite in the Union House with something like affection tempered with disapproval, while behind him the waiter set a place for one at the massive desk in the middle of the huge paneled room. Bonal sniffed the faint hot breeze riding off the Piute sink. Its stink of sagebrush and sun on rock was fouled a little by the smoke and fumes of the stamp mills scattered to the east and south of town, but it was there nevertheless, the all-pervading smell of the desert.

“All ready, sir,” the waiter said, and Bonal nodded. Below him, in the dusk, the street was jammed with a continuous line of creeping ore wagons, the nose of each lead team to the end gate of the wagon ahead, while around them and between them, almost oblivious to them, the noisy crowd milled. Three years of bitter complaint on the part of the merchants had never succeeded in rerouting to a side street this endless line of ore freighters on their way from the mines to the stamp mills, for this was a boom town, and ore was king. Charles Bonal was glad of it for the two thousandth time.

He sat down in the deepening dusk to a lone meal, linen napkin under his short, bristly beard, and ate as ferociously as he talked and moved and thought.

He had lighted a cigar and poured himself an ample slug of brandy when the waiter returned to clear the desk.

“Send my daughter in,” Bonal said curtly, “if she can be spared.”

He was squatting beside the small safe against the back wall when the door opened and Sharon Bonal entered. The noise of a party died out as she closed the door behind her.

“No lights again,” she said reprovingly and stopped, and Bonal answered with a grunt. Crossing to the desk, she lighted the kerosene lamp and by its glow saw her father raking sheafs of bank notes from the safe into a canvas sack. Observing him as she did now, he was a bent little man in broadcloth with a squarish head which had the set of a terrier's on his trim shoulders.

He said without looking around, “Having a good time?”

Bonal grunted again, but this time he turned around and laid his cigar on the edge of the desk, squinting from the smoke in his eyes. He was about to return to his business when he looked up at her, and then, slowly, like a man treating himself to a rare pleasure, observed her carefully. Under his gaze Sharon backed away, picked up her full skirt and curtsied demurely, smiling. Her dress was of yellow silk, spangled with tiny blue cornflowers, and the wide neck and full short sleeves left her shoulders and arms bare, so that the sheen of her flesh contrasted to the dark wash of her chestnut hair. Only the slight dusting of minute freckles across the bridge of her nose saved her from regality—that and a kind of warm impudence in her blue eyes. For both Charles Bonal was thankful, for they were reminders of her maternity.

“Like it?”

“Yes. Yes,” Bonal answered absently and turned to the safe again.

Sharon said, “Is that money, Dad?”

“Have you lived in mining camps so long you don't know a greenback when you see one?” Bonal answered, without turning around.

“Stupid. I mean, where is it going? And how did it get here?”

Bonal hefted the sack, slammed the safe door shut and stood up, tying the drawstring of the sack. He did not answer.

“You're going to gamble,” Sharon said, without reproof and with some interest.

“I won that last night. Tonight, I'll triple it—and I think I'll bring back something else.” He walked over and took down his beaver hat from the antler hat rack and put it on, so that it rode his head with an uncompromising squareness. Standing just out of the circle of lamplight, he watched his daughter a moment, scowling. She came over to him.

“The last night you'll be here, Dad. I thought we might spend it alone.”

He gestured with his cigar toward the next room, the movement at once dry, ironical, explanatory.

“I'll send them packing if you say so.”

“Why should you? I'll be busy.”

She brushed a streamer of cigar ashes from the lapels of his coat, adjusted his bow tie and gave the bottom of his waistcoat a yank, straightening out his pleated shirt front, which had a tendency to creep toward his neck.

“Will you come in and say hello?” she asked, smiling a little, making her voice purposely gruff in mockery.

He scowled. “They weren't asked in my name, were they?”

“You know they weren't. I wouldn't dare.”

Behind his beard he smiled a little and removed the cigar from his mouth. “You would that. Good night.”

Downstairs, the lobby was thronged with men, and a cloud of acrid tobacco smoke billowed around the high chandeliers overhead. To Charles Bonal, who had known this town when it was a wild camp of tents and rock huts and brush shacks, this hotel was an irritating badge of Tronah. Though it was three stories, it fronted on a street that was alternately bedded in six inches of muck or dust; though its hundred rooms had shiny new plumbing, only a third of them ran water; although its lobby and corridors had rolls of red plush carpet, bright paint, brassy murals, crystal and gold braid, it missed elegance. It was typical of a camp whose boom had known no planning, whose gamblers possessed no shrewdness, whose foresight reached barely into tomorrow.

Making his way through this jam of men, Bonal was greeted on all sides with a quiet respect by the men in frock coats and white shirts, and with a more jovial and deeper respect from the men in boots and corduroy. Without removing the cigar from his mouth, he nodded curtly, and all the time the sack of money was tucked under his arm as if it were ore samples, or even provisions.

On the street, he turned into the tide of humanity which flowed over the boardwalk, letting it carry him downstreet. It was only here that a man could best understand the lure of money, Bonal thought, as he submitted himself to the jostling, irresponsible crowd. Men of all nations, whose old-country ways had not yet been filed down by the hard and fabulous life of this boom town, mingled here. Shallow-hatted Chinese, cheek to jowl with swart and gaudy Mexicans, and stocky central Europeans rubbed elbows with Cornishmen, dour Welshmen and the ebullient, omnipresent Irish. Solid Northcountry English were here, to work out the remainder of their lives in the mines they understood. Germans, Canucks, Greeks, Jews—every race and every color trampled these rotting boardwalks between the flimsy false-front shanties and stone buildings, for bonanza was a word understood by the whole world. And through this stream, day and night, dominating and jeering and cursing and liking it, were the Americans, a booted, hardfisted, swaggering, hard-drinking, hell-raising mob, most of whom were ex-army men and tough to the core of their truculent souls.

Ahead of him, down this street which needed no light, there was a constant din, centered occasionally about the front of the saloons and gambling halls. The street was not lighted, for the lamps of a hundred business places had never acknowledged night. In the dust which moiled up from the unceasing feet of the freighting mules, there was another smell, whisky. It pervaded the work and play of this street with its fifty saloons, until it became part of the smell of sage and alkali and manure and powder-reeking ore and sweat and humanity.

Across the street, in front of the bright lights of Temple's Keno Parlor, a man ballyhooed the games in a raucous, good-natured voice, designed to entice the miners away from their wages. And they went in, so that the entrance was clogged with them, for gambling was in the blood of this camp and had built it. Bonal eyed them with a disapproval he did not voice, for in all this mass there was no one he could talk to.

He passed up a dozen saloons before he came to the Melodian, whose busy swing door of walnut fronted squarely on the street, so that every time a man came out he apologized automatically to the person who was sure to have been hit.

Inside the oversweet smell of whisky and fruits mingled with cigar smoke, but the crowd was not large. It was the best saloon in Tronah, patronized by the moneyed men, their mine and mill superintendents and the better gamblers. At its rich mahogany bar only a dozen men engaged in conversation, for this was the lull at the dinner hour. No women were working here, which contributed to its quietness and air of sedateness. The wall seats were lined with leather, the waiters were in uniform, and the gambling tables toward the rear were ringed with chairs, a sure sign of calm in a feverish town.

Bonal took his brandy at the bar, talking idly with one of its customers until he felt a man come up beside him. In the bar mirror he saw the man, and beneath his beard there was again a small smile.

“Evening, Mr. Bonal,” Phil Seay said, and he was smiling too, as if there was an understanding between them, which there was. Taller by some eight inches than Bonal, younger by some twenty-five years, there was yet a look in his gray eyes that was similar to that in Bonal's. Seay owned the Melodian, and yet there was nothing about him that smacked of the tavern keeper, none of that professional easiness of manner that did not distinguish the chaff from the wheat. On the contrary, there was a kind of sternness bred into that leaned face which had not picked up its weather burn from saloon air. The set of the frock coat on Seay's overwide shoulders was not right; it pinched at the shoulder seams, as if it was too tight, suggesting that he would be more comfortable without it. He moved with that stiff grace of a man who has spent much of his life in the saddle. His hands were long fingered, square and bony when fisted, scarred in innumerable places, with a stiff brush of dark hair across the back of them which could not be as black as the trim brushed hair of his head.

BOOK: Hard Money
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