Authors: Larry D. Sweazy
It was like Josiah and Pearl walked through a curtain
of silence as soon as they turned the corner off Congress Avenue.
The boardwalk was full of people who had all come to a full stop, and it was eerily quiet for such a large gathering. Most of the crowd had dropped their heads at the first sign of the funeral procession, even though it was a small one, bearing very little importance or status, from the looks of it.
Stuffed near the back of the onlookers, pressed against a building, Pearl eased her hand into Josiah's. He flinched at first, then welcomed her touch, the warmth of an offer of comfort, and her need of it, too.
The coffin was made of simple, fresh-cut pine, carried on the shoulders of four hulking men, their unemotional eyes boring straight ahead, dressed like they had just stopped the day's work in a livery or roofing a new building, to make the journey to the cemetery. Their boots were muddy, their sleeves rolled up, and their shirts were sweat-stained. Hats shielded their eyes from the sun, and their guns were in open sight, holstered on their hips.
Josiah didn't recognize any of the men and found it odd that the procession had stopped everyone in his or her tracksâuntil he looked beyond the coffin and saw that Blanche Dumont was leading a small pack of mourners.
A sighting of Blanche Dumont was rare, though not entirely unheard of. She was, in less gentle terms, a keeper of whores, a madam. She ran a house of soiled doves in the First Ward, not far off the trail that led tired and excited cowboys alike into town in search of a good time. The cowboys were looking for a chance to blow off steam and to part with any hard-earned money in their pockets.
Blanche strived for a higher paying clientele instead of the ragtag cowpunchers who had limited finances. Instead, she catered to the likes of property owners and the well-to-do, and possibly, if scuttlebutt were to be believed, politicians, bankers, and ranch owners. Her girls were clean, well dressed, and forced to educate themselves at least an hour a day. Josiah had no idea if any of the rumors about Blanche and her house were trueâhe'd only seen her once himself and had never had reason to do business with her or venture inside her place of business.
Dressed in solid black from head to toe, Blanche was properly attired with a bustle and all of the accoutrements of fine and expensive women's wear; the only skin exposed for all to see, and the sun to touch, was that of her face. And it was shaded by an overly large brimmed hat and a parasol held at just the right angle to confront the bright light of the day at its most direct touch. Still, there was no way the bright afternoon sun could hide her striking eyes that looked red from grief but were redder in an odd, permanent way, focused fully ahead on the simple coffin, showing little emotion or recognition of the crowd and their stares at all. There was no sign on Blanche Dumont's statue-like face of shedding one single tear.
It was, after all, the woman's skin, more so than her occupation, that drew the stares from the crowd and had stopped them all cold in their tracks. It wasn't as if she were the only woman in Austin whose trade was whoringÂ .Â .Â . but she
the only albino woman in Austin, at least that Josiah knew of.
Blanche Dumont's skin was white as snow and just as fragile as an errant flake falling from the sky in South Texas, sure to melt before it hit the ground. She was a freak of nature, an oddity of certain beauty if one got close enough to see it. And she was a bearer of strong will, good business sense, and the ability, as it was told, to keep a secret when it was required. In her business, that was most likely a daily occurrence, and a requirement of lasting concern.
She usually wore gold-rimmed glasses with soft green lenses to protect her sensitive eyes, but not today. The glasses were nowhere to be seen. It looked like she wanted to see the world clearly, and she didn't care if the world saw her or not. Each step Blanche Dumont took forward was measured and direct. She almost looked like she was floating, a wraith with a ghostly face appearing in the midst of daylight, unconcerned about the realm of the living or any danger she might encounter.
Josiah had no way to judge the woman's state of emotion, having nothing to compare it to, but if he had to guess, he would say that Blanche Dumont was angry, maybe even enraged. Her hands were balled up into tight fists, and she never let her sight leave the coffin.
Someone coughed, and the press of men, women, and children on the boardwalk brought a variety of smells to Josiah's nose; most were unpleasant but no worse than riding behind a thousand longhorns. He wasn't concerned about himself, but with Pearl and her comfort. He looked for a quick exit, but it was too late to flee, too late to backtrack and ease out the way they had come. Even more of a crowd had piled up behind them, effectively pinning them to the spot they presently stood in.
It was only a matter of luck that Josiah could see into the street at all. He was a head taller than those in front of him, and he could crane his neck just right to catch a passing look at Blanche Dumont's profile.
At that moment, she flinched and turned her head, as if something she did not like, or feared, had caught her attention.
It looked like she was staring directly at Josiah. They made eye contact, and at that moment, the keeper of soiled doves slowed her pace.
Blanche Dumont's chest heaved forward, and she arched her back straighter than it already it was, then suddenly broke away from the other mourners, three young women all dressed similarly to her, only without parasols and extra big black hats.
Those women looked hot and sweaty, uncomfortable in the sun, and with the stares of what must have felt like the whole city gazing at them.
Josiah took a deep breath, then relaxed when Blanche Dumont broke eye contact with him and veered back about ten feet. It was not him she was interested in, after all.
He stood up on his tiptoes, just able to see a man he recognized standing at the edge of the streetâand the object of Blanche's destination.
The man was Rory Farnsworth.
Everyone standing next to the sheriff pushed away in a wave, leaving him to face the pale, enraged madam on his own.
To his credit, the sheriff didn't flinch. He stood firmly planted, waiting for whatever was coming.
Surely, he and Blanche Dumont were not strangers, at least not as unconnected as she and Josiah were. The sheriff had to know of her activities and source of income as much as any other man in Austin.
Blanche Dumont walked up to Rory Farnsworth without saying a word and stopped firmly within two feet of him. With no warning, or change of expression, she spit in his face.
The sheriff had obviously not expected such a vile act, as the spit struck him with the speed of a bullet just below his right nostril.
A look of horror crossed his face as he twisted back, angling away from Blanche, reaching for a handkerchief from his back pocket. He was not fast enough. The woman spit at him again, her face arched like a pure white snake's, spewing venom just before it clamped down on its intended victim. Her tongue was every bit as red as her eyes.
The second volley of anger and hate smacked Rory Farnsworth upside the head, just at his temple. He protested with a loud retort that was not quite a scream but a throaty, nonvocal protest of disgust and surprise.
The crowd gasped and drew backward, farther away from the pair, leaving them exposed and visible to almost everyone.
Mumbling and whispers washed up and down the boardwalk, like a wave, pushing the news of the woman's action in every direction. “She spit him in the face, she spit him in the faceÂ .Â .Â .”
A slight smile rippled across Blanche Dumont's stark white face, and with that, she spun around and walked calmly back to the band of mourners, who had kept pace with the coffin.
“You'll regret that, Blanche Dumont! Mark my word, I'll not soon forget this,” Rory Farnsworth shouted, wiping his face dry as quickly as he could.
Blanche Dumont did not flinch, did not act as if she heard Rory Farnsworth's threatâbut everybody else did, loud and clear.
Farnsworth's face suddenly lost all of its color, almost matching the hue of Blanche Dumont's skin. A look of embarrassment washed over the sheriff as he stuffed the handkerchief back into his pocket.
He cowered slightly, acted like he was going to say something else then decided better of it, and eased backward into the crowd, quickly disappearing from Josiah's sight.
“What was that about?” Pearl asked. “I couldn't see a thing.”
“I'm not sure,” Josiah answered, able to move forward now as the crowd broke apart, going back to the shops, saloons, and offices that they had been drawn out of. “It has nothing to do with us, just something with the sheriff.”
“I never trusted that man,” Pearl said softly, under her breath.
Josiah said nothing. He didn't acknowledge Pearl's pronouncement, but he was surprised by it.
With her arm hooked in his, he headed toward the boardinghouse, looking quickly over his shoulder, catching a fleeting glimpse of Blanche Dumont and the funeral procession turning a corner and stepping solemnly toward the cemetery.
Josiah found the whole encounter between Rory Farnsworth and Blanche Dumont a little confusing. Something had obviously happened between the two of them. Something extremely powerful for Blanche to show herself in poor light in front of the crowd, but the message was loud and clear: The sheriff was beneath her, and she was displeased with him in a bad way.
He repeated to himself silently what he had said to Pearl:
It has nothing to do with us
But something told him, considering his earlier confrontation with the sheriff, that that just might not be entirely true.
The rules at Miss Amelia Angle's Home for Girls
were extremely strict. The fact that Josiah and Pearl were allowed to walk the streets, her arm in his arm, touching in any way, unchaperoned, was only due to Pearl's advanced age and status as a widow. Given her family's rapid fall from grace, her prospects of attracting a suitor of any worth had been judged by Miss Amelia Angle as poor to impossible.
The reality that a man, any man, had showed an interest in courting Pearl was seen by most of the women and girls in the house as a near miracle, regardless of her beauty or how she carried herself.
Josiah was aware of all of this only because Pearl had told himÂ .Â .Â . in a soft kind of way, educating him in the ways and rules of courting and the power of a group of women's whispers.
The house was three storeys tall, built in the style of a lot of recently constructed homes: high peaks, gingerbread lattice tacked to the eaves, a red brick turret on the ground rising up past the second-floor parlor with its grand piano, and a long wraparound porch, the woodwork just as fancy as the lattice.
A black wrought iron fence bordered the yard, which measured about a quarter of the block that it sat on. Other houses of like build up and down the street matched Miss Amelia's, though two blocks away was a host of saloons and houses, much like Blanche Dumont's, that catered to the cowboys wandering into town off the trail or getting ready to leave. The debauchery and rowdiness might as well have been a world away, though. There was no sign of it on the genteel street.
The trees in the yard were well pruned, and urns filled with blooming spring flowers dotted the house's long porch. Smaller urns lined the steps that led up to the double front doors.
The air surrounding the house always smelled like it had been touched with a hint of toilet water, a fancy fragrance that was not quite identifiable to the uneducated, such as Josiah. The fragrance was not quite natural to him, forced by human intervention, unlike the fresh smell of country air.
Josiah and Pearl stopped at the gate. A sign on it said: “NO SUITORS AFTER 5 P.M.”
“I could entertain you in the parlor with some tea. We still have time,” Pearl said. Her voice was wistful, tinted with regret. She had slipped her arm out of Josiah's about a half a block from Miss Amelia's. There was no explanation needed. Josiah knew Pearl wanted to avoid judgment and disdain as often as possible. Her reaction to the treatment she'd received in the mercantile was proof enough of that for him.
Josiah shook his head no. “I think it's best if I go home.”
Josiah exhaled and looked away from Pearl's disappointed face as quickly as possible. “I'm not sure I can be as proper as I need to be, as I should be.”
A sly look flashed in Pearl's summer sky blue eyes. “Are you suggesting we need to be improper?”
Josiah's face flushed then. “No, I'm just notÂ .Â .Â .”
“.Â .Â .Â comfortable?”
Pearl stepped forward, lowered her head, and whispered, “I'd rather be improper.”
Josiah smiled and drew in a deep breath of relief. Her fragrance was more familiar now, distinguishable from the surrounding air, and it left him wanting her even more than he had the second before. “We've rushed into that need, maybe quicker than we should have.”
Disappointment crossed Pearl's face and settled there, not promising to leave any time soon. “I can't wait much longer.”
“I want to do this right,” Josiah said.
“Be patient. We'll find our time, our place.”
“I will beÂ .Â .Â . as patient as I can.”
“I have to go,” Josiah said, knowing full well that if he didn't leave at that very moment, he would scoop up Pearl and run off with her, not stopping until they found a private place where they could shred each other's clothes off and never look back.
“When will I see you again?” Pearl asked.
“Soon. I promise. Soon.”
*Â *Â *
The house was empty. Ofelia, the wet nurse, had
taken Lyle to her home in Little Mexico, the area of Austin that was populated mostly by Mexicans and was not all that welcoming to Anglos. Josiah didn't worry about Lyle's safety. Not there, not with Ofeliaâhe was certain she would shield the boy from any harm, putting her own life at risk before anything happened to Lyle.
It was a small house, just a box really, with one small bedroom that Josiah shared with Lyle and a kitchen and living area all in one room, a little bigger than a horse stall, with a privy out back, along with a chicken coop and a small garden that Ofelia tended to. Cool weather plants, like lettuce and carrots, were already reacting to the May sun, cowering back, wilting, but still edible.
The house was a couple of blocks from the train tracks, and sometimes in the middle of the night, the whole place rattled and threatened to collapse as the trains came and went.
A new track was being laid for the Great Northern Railroad, coming in through town, in the opposite direction, cutting through the residential area right down the middle of Cypress Avenue. Some houses had already been demolished, with more to come, and the tenants displaced.
The new railroad would be far enough away not to threaten the existence of Josiah's house, but he wondered how much more noise the train would add to his life. City life was difficultâand loudâenough for him the way it was.
He was glad to be home, and even happier to have a moment or two aloneâwhich was a rare occurrence when he was off the trail, not riding with the company of Rangers that were his friends as well as his comrades.
Josiah unbuckled his gun belt and placed it gently on the bureau that took up nearly one whole wall of the bedroom.
He had worn a swivel rig since he'd joined the Frontier Battalion. It was a more casual, and more dangerous, way to wear a gun than a standard belt holster, but the rig had its advantages.
A lot of the boys in the Texas Rangers wore swivel rigs, which were nothing more than a metal plate attached to their belts with the stud head of an extra-long hammer screw slipped into a slot. The stud stuck out, and the gun rested just back of the trigger guard, allowing it to be quickly swung upward without having to draw it out of a holster. He could shoot through the open toe of the leather holster. Saving seconds meant saving livesâusually his own.
Perhaps it was the way he carried the Peacemaker, a ColtÂ .45 single-action Army, that had prompted Rory Farnsworth to suggest, essentially, that Josiah was no better than a lowly gunslinger.
It was a hard accusation to swallow, and Josiah had not been able to rid himself of the depiction the entire time he'd been escorting Pearl back to Miss Amelia Angle's boardinghouse, and then on the solemn walk home.
Somehow, he'd lost the sheriff's respect, and that seemed to matter to Josiah much more than he'd thought it ever wouldâor should. He had to wonder if Farnsworth's opinion was the common perception people had of him in all of Austin.
Was he really just a lawless killer without any respect for the living and weak?
Josiah sighed outwardly at the thought, and at the recognition that he really did care what people thought about himÂ .Â .Â . and the Rangers. Maybe it was more that than anything.
Josiah was ashamed of dampening the reputation of the Rangers in any way. The organization had been his salvation, a place to run when he needed to start a new life. Now he had damaged the one thing that had been there for him. He wasn't sure he'd ever be able to restore his reputation, or the Rangers', in anyone's eyes.
And then, the encounter Josiah and Pearl had witnessed between Blanche Dumont and Rory Farnsworth had been even more confusing.
Josiah didn't know who had died, whose coffin was being carried to the cemetery, but something told him that Blanche Dumont thought Rory Farnsworth was responsible. Why else would she have spit on him?
He drew a deep breath then. He didn't know the answer to that question, and he hoped he didn't have a reason to care. It was just another event in the day of the city that didn't affect him, though it left him wondering, much like most events that he was witness to.
The only comfort Josiah had in the city was Ofelia, watching over Lyle. He knew when he was out on the trail that they had each other and they weren't alone.
The move to Austin had been much more difficult than he'd thought it would be, even though he'd actually spent more time away from the city, out riding with the company of Rangers, than in the small, one-bedroom clapboard house at the corner of Sixth and Pecan.
Even with his current circumstance in flux, his good standing with the Rangers in question, Josiah had little desire to move back to the small farm in Seerville from where he came.
There was no question that he missed the piney woods of East Texas and the familiarity of everything that surrounded him there, but he was never good at being a farmer, not even when Lily was alive. That's why he rode with the Rangers after coming back from the war, when they were less organized and the money was even more infrequent than it was now.
Farming was laborious, a gamble that constantly held him in a state of worry and fear. Would there be enough food, enough milk, enough of everything for his growing family to survive? And then when the State Police, promoted by the former governor of Texas, took over in the early seventies, Josiah rode with them, but only briefly, and only because of his respect for the now deceased Captain Hiram Fikes.
His most revered job was that of marshal of Seerville, the closest town to the farm. But when the railroad curved through Tyler, miles away from Seerville, the town up and died, leaving little to marshal over. Not long after, Lily and the girls died, leaving him with Lyle, under Ofelia's care.
Captain Fikes once again came to his aid, demanding he get back up in the saddle and ride with the new Frontier Battalion, formed officially in the spring of 1874, after Governor Coke had won the election, leaving Reconstruction to the past once and for all.
Neither of them, the captain nor Josiah, knew then what fate had in store for them. It was not long after that that Captain Fikes met his death, murdered outright, the killer brought to justiceâand Josiah found himself in a constant storm of trials and tribulations that made life in Seerville seem childlike and pastoral.
He had never been so unsure of his footing, and where his life was going to lead him, as he was now. The only great shining hope he could see before him was his affection for Pearl and watching Lyle grow into a well-mannered and much different boy than Josiah could have ever imagined.
He stared at the Peacemaker on the bureau and thought about its place in his life.
For as long as Josiah could remember, he had always worn a gun on his belt and always, as far as he was concerned, stood on the right side of the law.
If he was a professional at anything, then Josiah considered himself a professional lawman and nothing else. It was how he saw himself even more so the older he got, now in his mid-thirties.
It didn't matter that the Rangers didn't wear badges or have uniform requirements, keeping the peace was in his blood, and there was nothing else he would ever consider doing with his life, unless he was forced away from the Rangers. And even then, without much consideration, Josiah knew he would end up as a deputy somewhere, for a man like Rory Farnsworth, who knew too little about the human side of the law and too much about the power and prestige that he thought came along with wearing a badge.
There was no question that Josiah knew deep within himself that he was angry at Farnsworth, that he was passing judgment on the sheriff. But at one time, Josiah had thought that Rory was his friend. He wasn't so sure now.
The Peacemaker was his only trusted friend within constant reach, a permanent fixture in his life and in his house. He could not imagine his life without it.
A quick, soft touch to the barrel left his fingertips cold.
There was no life to the metal; it only breathed when it meant to destroyâor save. Then it came alive, hot for a second, and retreated to sleep, always ready, always waiting at his command.
For a brief moment then, Josiah let the regret of the past, and the silence of his own house, surround him.
He did not know how many men he had killed in his lifetime. There was no tally card, no trophy of every soul that had been lost to his bullets. War had brought the taste of killing when he was nothing more than a boy, set out on a duty-bound journey that crippled him invisibly in many ways, but left him physically whole and with all of his limbs.
Many men hobbled home on one leg and a crutch, never to be the same, never to be the man they were before the War Between the States erupted and changed everything.
Maybe, Josiah thought, stepping back, not bringing Pearl back to the house so they could share an intimate moment alone was a bigger mistake than he'd thought it was at the time.