Panama City




  Maybe I’ve been living in the jungle too long, or maybe it’s because I spend my life catering to anybody that comes through this dreary place we call The American Hotel.  Or maybe it’s something I just can’t talk about right now.   But anymore I’d just as soon walk away from here forever as not.  
    I came here five years ago, and I still tell people I haven’t unpacked my bags, so that might tell you what I think of all this.  Sure, I’m the boss here, you might say, but it’s nothing I’m proud of–this place was born a dump and always will be.  The money’s nothing, the few people I’ve met and liked don’t stay long, the climate’s murder, and the Savages are going to take the whole place back eventually anyway, no matter how tough the Americans or the Latinos think they are.  That’s what I think.
    But there are plenty of gringos already who think the place is theirs, and forever after will be–like this general sitting at the bar.  He comes in every day, hangs around, I still can’t figure why.  It’s not to drink, which he hardly does.  It can’t be military business, since any official foreign military presence here is disallowed.  And it can’t be gold, because he isn’t coming or going, which, since the gold rush started a year or so ago, is all I see anymore, people in a big hurry, impatient to be at the mines, or impatient to get their precious gold back home.  Or impatient to run away from a lot of bad memories in California.  There’re lots of those last ones.  So I don’t get much conversation these days, which has always been the only fun of it for me.  But the general here is full of conversation, so I should be grateful, and would be moreso if he weren’t so predictable.  But I can still have my fun.
    He’s been sitting here half an hour, and I can tell he’s become preoccupied with the drums that are banging in the distance.   From experience I’d say the drummers are probably a mile or so from the hotel, out into the jungle that is everywhere beyond the great wall in ruins that faces west. The wall used to protect this little community, which is surrounded on its other three unassailable sides by the Pacific Ocean.   The natives have been at it for two days now, loud and wild, and the general’s still not used to it, I can tell.  He’s beginning to get nervous, like everybody else.  I got bored with his stock of opinions his first day here, which is why I’ve been entertaining myself today instead with reading the Panama Star, a little newspaper run by americanos that’s become the major cultural event of this godforsaken end of the universe.  
    Before I start my fun with the general, I might as well introduce the gnome over there sweeping.  His name is Valentin.  I’ve always assumed he incubated in a swamp and then got discovered when they excavated to make the foundation of this hotel, God only knows how long ago.  He comes with the hotel.  He was here when I got here, and if the devil has his way, he’ll be here long after.   But I’ll just leave it at that about Valentin.  It’s better if I don’t say much more about him right now.  
    And I’m forgetting the general.  Actually he’s a captain, or major, or something much less than a general, but it’s all the same to me.  I was laughing at the article I was reading, and he came out of his revery and said to me:  “What’s the comedy?”
    Without looking up I said, “The monster that’s gonna eat up Panama.”  And then I was quoting: “‘His maw which cannot be filled and an appetite which cannot be satiated.’”
    He looked up at me, genuinely curious, and said, “Monster?”
    I said, enthusiastically, “Yeah!  Must be common talk back east.”  Then I read more: “‘Huffing, puffing, snorting, blowing his shrill trumpet...leaving the bewildered negroes, and the swarthy natives, stupefied with amazement.’”
    He sat back on his stool, like I’d smacked him with a wet towel.  He finally said, “Jesus God–what the hell you talkin’ about?”
    This was the conversation I wanted.  I said, “The mighty Iron Horse...of course.  This is a little piece out of the Star, a newspaper published down here once a week by a few patriotic Americans.  You appreciate patriotism, don’t you, general...?”
    He was humble.  He said, “Hold it–I ain’t no general, I’m a Major.  Mexican-American war.  Damn fine war it was.  Saved our nation.  And we’ll do it again when we have to, stars and stripes forever.  Yes, of course I appreciate patriotism–who doesn’t? ”
    Valentin was banging his broom handle loudly against the bannister.  The general, though now I guess I should say major, looked at the gnome severely, then forgot him and finally looked at me.
    I said, “You understand, don’t you?  This piece is about the new railroad-it’s got these newspaper fellows pretty excited.”
    “Oh that,” said the major, suddenly a genius, “I heard about it just before I left the east coast.  You mean the railroad they’re meanin’ to build across the isthmus.  Well it’s a damn fine idea I think.  And brilliant military strategy too.  These damned savages down here don’t have any idea how important this place is to the rest of the world .  So I figure it don’t belong to’em.”
    I said, “Whoa!–the last fella talked like that got worked over by machetes.  Happened just outside the wall.  I could show you the exact spot.”
    But this one was fearless, he said, “Hell!–ain’t no damn Indians or Spanish gonna back me down!  Why I think–“
    I interrupted.  “Hold it, sir–let me take the words out of your mouth–this will make your patriotic blood bubble with joy.  This editorial is speaking to these same savages that you’re so contemptible of.  Listen–’Your present business is at least a century behind the present spirit of the age.  What else can be expected of you, when you have never seen a steam engine....”
    The major was excited.  “Exactly!  Just what I was thinking.”
    But at the same moment my little ratty Valentin was banging his broom handle again against the stair railing, drawing off the major’s attention.
    The major said, “That guy got the palsy or something?  Say, fella, ease up on the racket.  Learn a little coordination–huh?”
    I glanced toward Valentin, wishing him the worst, and said to the major, “You’ll have to forget him...sir...he’s the village idiot.  Stone deaf.”
    This for the major was a possible moment of real compassion.  He stared at Valentin.  Then said, “ that’s it.  Too bad.”
    “Yeah–and can’t speak a word either.  Off in his own little world.  I don’t pay no attention to him.”   Everybody has to know that.  What I never say is what a demon he is.
    “Well, that’s too bad alright.  Poor fella.”
    But that was more than enough compassion for both of us.  “Yeah–poor fella.  But let me read you the rest of this article–’For all you know, it may be the evil incarnate that comes snorting steam and fire across this hitherto unchanging landscape....’”
    He said, “Evil!  Yeah–maybe to them heathens it’s evil.  And serve ‘em right.”
    I was more than enjoying this spoon feeding.  “‘But in this iron age you must become tinctured with the iron or perish under it.’”
    “Yeah!  Now that’s giving it to‘em!  Say–who the hell wrote that?  Sounds like the voice of General Jackson himself!”
    I couldn’t pause, it was too smooth:  “‘A succession of galvanic shocks are in store for you, and you are speedily to be aroused to a sense of 1850.  There is an opposition in store for you which you never dreamed of.’”
    I looked up, but Valentin the gnome caught my eye.  He was staring malevolently at both of us, but the coward looked away when I winked at him, and began sweeping again aimlessly.
    The major was coming off his stool, saying, “Give it to‘em, give it to‘em!  By God, that’s as eloquent as the old mother tongue gets–ain’t it?”
    Ever the instigator, I prodded, “You like that, do you, Major?”
    “Damn right!  If it was up to me I’d up an’ annex the whole damn country.  Wouldn’t you?”
    I said, “Yeah–that’s a good idea, the thirtieth state of our fair union–swamps, snakes, ‘gators, disease eating your ass to pieces, cholera killing men dozens at a time–savages who like Yankee genitals fried up with their eggs.  Hey–you could be out there, be the first governor–letting those assholes know who’s boss.”
    He was again fearless, saying, “Shit–killers don’t bother me.  I’m mean as hell myself.”  To prove it he took a big drink, and I could see hell’s own soldiers with drawn bayonets marching through his mind as he stared smugly into the mirror behind the bar.  I looked back at my newspaper.  
    Then, like we had overlooked the most obvious thing, the Indian drums began beating more loudly, more intensely then before.  The major looked up and stared curiously into space.  
    He finally said, “”Who the hell they think they’re scarin’?  Not me!”
    I continued looking at the newspaper, saying, “How the hell they gonna scare an ass-kicking Yankee, Major?–naw.  But you better bet they’re scaring the hell out of all the people up there hiding in their rooms.  And they’re sure as hell scaring all the native guides and boatmen.”
    The major was puzzled.  “The native guides are scared too?   Of their own people?  Typical cowards!”
    I looked at him seriously.  “Well...not exactly.  The jungle Indians won’t have anything to do with the Indians who work for Yankees.  In fact, they poison the turncoat Indians, and castrate the Yankees.”
    He visibly shivered.  “Jesus!  Perverted savages!”  Fixated, he could only be painfully attentive to this dark horrible unknown, listening into the jungle.  “But what’s all that drumming mean, anyway?”
    “Hard to say.  It happens every so often. They get ornery...brazen.  They make a lot of noise, and then they usually make a little sneak attack...somewhere...get a little revenge–for God only knows what–and then they’re quiet again for a while.”
    He was squirmy on his seat.  “They don’t ever bother...this place, do they?”
    I smiled.  “Noooo.  For some reason, the savages leave us alone.  But of course you never know when they’ll change their minds.”
    He looked around us.  “Christ–you’ve got a damned bad strategic position here–sittin’ out in the open, no real arsenal–and probably not a military man in the whole goddamn city.”
    “We rely on luck here.”
    “Luck?    Jesus–you’d make a helluva an army man!”
    “Right there.  My personal strategy’s always been to bribe them with firewater.  It’s an old American tradition.”
    “Jesus!  You make me nervous as hell!  I think I ‘m gonna go upstairs to my room.”
    I watched him bolt down his drink and hurry upstairs.  Now that was a great conversation.



    I have been dreading this first moment at the hotel for three weeks, since our steamer left San Francisco.  I stayed in my room.  I told the Captain I was seasick and couldn’t leave, so they brought my meals to me, and I stayed there, reading the books the kind Captain sent me, sleeping, looking out my little porthole at the beautiful sea and sky.  In miraculous, beautiful moments I saw dolphins and whales.  And, when he cared to visit, I talked to Edgar, but those moments were rare, and you might understand how much his neglect disappointed and depressed me.
    When we anchored I was so relieved to be getting off the ship, I pushed ahead of everyone, a thing I have never done, to the off-loading rail.  I got in the only launch that left the ship, and I found out halfway to shore that two gamblers had bribed the ship’s one boat to take them ashore. The gamblers had kindly given me the other seat in the launch, or I might have been stuck on the steamer for a few more days, since no more launches came from shore for the others.
    That was luck.  Another piece of luck was that one of the gambler’s didn’t recognize me–it was Sonny and I was shocked to my limit the instant I saw him.  My scream I miraculously halted in my throat.  Fortunately for me I had my hat brim tightly over my face, so he couldn’t see me clearly, and I kept looking away from him.  That made me even more anxious than I already was, so worried thinking about getting to the hotel.  
    I hadn’t spoken to Sonny in more than a year, and I didn’t want to speak to him at that moment.  Not in that dreadful situation with my stupid disguise.  And maybe I didn’t want to speak to him ever, I didn’t know.  So when we got to shore I said, Thank you, and I hurried off with a man who said he’d show me to the hotel, while Sonny and his friend were delayed on the beach with all their baggage.
    But now that I was finally at the American Hotel I was full of dread again.  The lobby had a big wicker sofa and a table and a few old wicker chairs.  The floor was creaking and dusty, and a strange-looking, husky man was sweeping the floor.  There was a long bar, where a nice looking man was bartending.  He looked up at me from his newspaper as I walked nervously toward him.
    I tried to make my voice sound like a man’s.  I said, “Could I have a room?  For one?  Please?”
    He leaned across the bar and grinned looking closely at me, like I had made a little joke.  Then he said, “I’m sorry, cowboy, there aren’t any rooms available.”
    I gasped.  This was not something I had anticipated.  I could feel panic rising up inside me, rapidly, and I was stammering, “But...but...”, trying to remember my new voice, but the panic began to overcome everything.  I faltered, “But you must... have a room.”
    I couldn’t understand why this wasn’t horrible to him too.  He only shrugged his shoulders, like it was so very normal, shook his head and smiled, before saying, “Sorry, kid, we’re filled.  Every hotel in Panama City’s filled tonight.  It’s because the boats won’t load the golddiggers heading west.  And the guides won’t take the folks heading east. Nobody’s going anywhere.”
    This was impossible.  I couldn’t speak.  It was like something unexpected exploding in my face.  I called out silently, St. Francis!  But there was no answer of course, as there had been no answer the dozen or more times I had called his name during the voyage.
    Then the bartender looked more kindly at me, and asked, “You hear the drums?”
    Yes, vaguely.  But only because he’d called my attention to them.  I nodded, not understanding what that had to do with anything.
    He went on.  “That’s the problem, the drums.  The savages are getting ready to raise a little hell, and everyone here is too scared to move until the trouble blows over.  See what I mean?  So everybody’s sorta stuck where they are.  And it’s gonna get worse, cause, as you know, the steamer just arrived from San Francisco and there’s a boatload of people out there who’re all gonna want rooms–when they get to shore–just like you.”
    His explanation just made it worse.  And he was looking closer and closer at me, maybe thinking I looked out of place in my clothes.  My head was just swirling and I couldn’t stay with anything, and finally I just wanted to run and hide, but of course there was nowhere.
    Then he said, “But how did you get off the boat?  I know the boatmen aren’t unloading.”
    I said, “I don’t know...two men bribed one of the crew to take them ashore.  They were gamblers.  They let me come along with them.”  I didn’t know if I was talking in the man’s voice I’d been practicing or not–I was too distracted.  Finally, the real truth of my terrible situation at last spoke for me.  “What will I do?”
    The bartender smiled grandly, as if it were the easiest problem in the world, and he gestured toward the far side of the lobby, and said, “You can have our best sofa.  It’s not too private, and not too comfortable in the long run, but it’s better than sleeping out on the streets.  In a day or two things should be back to normal, and you can have a room of your own.”
    I looked toward the sofa.  The strange man who was sweeping had moved closer and was staring at me.  Finally I realized what the bartender was saying, and I gasped again.  “But no...I won’t be here days.  I’m leaving for Chagres in the catch the boat to New York.”
    That seemed to mean nothing to him.  He looked amused.  He said, “Not likely.  Nobody’s leaving anywhere.  Like I told you, the guides won’t budge until the Savages finish with their little business.  In the meantime everybody will be staying right where they are.  You better take the sofa while you can.  As you see, I only got one.  And I believe in whoever first comes gets it.”
    I was so sure I’d prepared for everything, and now this first easy thing, a room, which I needed so desperately right now, my own little room, I couldn’t have.  Everything was going at once inside me, my own panicky chatter inside my head, over and over and the echoes of the bartender’s voice, jumbling together, so I couldn’t think.  I couldn’t decide what to do, because nothing was right and I was trembling and feeling so hot in the back of my head I was afraid I’d faint.  I needed to talk to St. Francis, but there was only Edgar, feeding me poetry on all the boat journey.  When I called his name silently now, he wouldn’t answer, so like him recently.  I didn’t know what to do, and I couldn’t do anything.  So that I wouldn’t fall down, I went to the sofa, forgetting my bag by the bar, and I sat down and closed my eyes, hoping, hoping all this would go away if I just sat still long enough with my eyes closed.
    Eventually I heard the bartender say, “Look, fella–what’s your name anyway?”
    My name.  Another easy thing.  It wouldn’t be Valerian.   I can’t fall apart.  “My name is John.”  I opened my eyes.  The bartender was still looking kindly at me.  The janitor was near us at the sofa, his back turned to me, but I could feel his clammy attention on me.
    The bartender said, “John.  Alright–John.  I ask because I like to know the names of my guests.  Even if they’re only staying on the sofa.”
    My voice came out of me so weak I don’t know how he heard me, saying, “Please...isn’t there something else?”
    I closed my eyes again.  Then I heard him say, “Well...I was thinking....  You seem to be a kind of special case...John.   So...uh...maybe if it’s only for a day or so.... point is...that I have a room, and if it’s only for a day or two...maybe I could let you have it–and I could take a little cot I have and put it somewhere that I could still be comfortable...enough.”
    This could only come from you, St. Francis.  Thank you so very, very much.  
    I opened my eyes and looked very gratefully at the bartender.  “Thank you, so very, very much.  I can’t tell you what this means to me.  I’m so tired after the trip.  And this is all so strange...after where I’ve been all my life.”  A luxurious moment of truth; but I could only think that my man’s voice wasn’t good and I was giving myself away, so I stopped talking, even though this man seemed like someone I could trust.  I looked at the unpleasant janitor and he was staring at the bartender.  Then he shocked me by banging his broom loudly against a table leg, before shuffling away toward the door I’d come in.
    The bartender said, “My name’s Cleveland, John.   Let me help you.”  He took from his pocket a key and offered it to me.  I pulled myself up with a great effort and walked to him, and took the key.  I remembered my bag on the floor where I’d left it, and I picked that up.  He said, “I’m in room 22.  Go upstairs there, turn right, it’s at the far end of the corridor.  And you better hurry up, fella, before I change my mind.  And be sure you keep the door locked–at all times.”
    I set my bag back down, overwhelmed with gratitude, and opened it and looked inside for my little leftover gold, saying to him, “You’ve really saved me, thank you.  I know I’ve said that before, much do I owe you?  All I have is gold dust.”
    I heard him say, “ money.  I can’t sell my own room, can I?”
    “But you’re giving it away.”
    “Why not?  There’s gotta be some benefits from being the boss of this damned hotel.  It sure ain’t the food or the everyday company.”
    I could feel new blessed energy coming into me.  I took a deep breath.  I picked up my bag again, and started toward the stairs, saying to him as I went, but trying so hard to keep my voice, “Thank you...I just can’t say enough what this means to me.  Room 22.  Upstairs right.  The far end of the corridor?”
    He was still smiling.  “That’s right.  And don’t forget to keep the door locked.  John.”



    It was such a relief to be off that ship and to imagine sleeping in my own room, separated from this moody bastard that I’d been cooped up with for three weeks, that I was actually smiling by the time we got to the hotel.  
    It didn’t matter to me that the place was run-down, I’d expected that, or that the water and the food would be bad, or that there’d be bugs everywhere.  It didn’t matter.  Because I was thinking that if I got a little solitude, even for twenty-four hours, and old Brude got a little solitude too, maybe I wouldn’t strangle him before this trip was over.
    Once inside the lobby I pointed toward the only comfortable piece of furniture I saw, an old ugly overstuffed sofa, and said to Brude, who carried the holy chest of gold on his shoulder, “Go set the trunk down over there, big fella.  Take a little rest.  I’ll get us a coupla rooms.”
    Brude labored to the sofa, set the chest down beside a low table there, with great effort and care, and sagged himself heavily onto the cushions.  Then he called over to me, “Hey, and while you’re at it, order me a sour mash shot.  Make it a double.  Forget the back.”
    “Yeah, yeah,” I answered back over my shoulder, “I’ve been thinking about that the last hour myself.  The bar looks like the best thing about this place.”
    The bartender was the only person I saw in the lobby besides us.  He was watching us with a big smile, and as I approached he said, “Will that be two double shots only, or would you like something else, pardner?”
    I said, “Two doubles is exactly right.  And we both appreciate the speedy service.  Things seem pretty quiet here.  I thought there’d be a lot more people in town than there seems to be.  I guess it’ll be no problem getting us a couple of rooms.”
    The barkeep was still smiling when he answered, “Dead wrong about that, mister.  We’re full up.  There ain’t an empty room in town.  Not till the guides come out of hiding and start moving people again.”
    That was the worst possible news.   I said, “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
    He never stopped smiling.  “I’m not kidding.  There’s nothing.  Less than nothing.  I don’t think you could bribe your way into a room.”
    “Oh?  Well....”
    Then I heard Brude, on the sofa, say, “Hey, back off!”  And I looked that way, and there was a strange man, a janitor I guess, sweeping very close to him, and peering down at the chest.  I thought Brude was going to take a swing at him, so I said, “Hey!  Easy, big fella.”  
    Then the bartender said, “It’s OK, guys.  You don’t get through to him–he’s deaf and dumb–too stupid to get into trouble.  You don’t need to worry about him.”  The janitor fella moved away from us, toward the bar, apparently in a world of his own.  Brude I could see took a deep breath as he watched the man moving away; then forgot about him, looking back at me.
    Then I remembered that very bad news the bartender had just told me.  I wasn’t going to accept that.  I said, “No rooms, huh?  But I know you must have something.  I’ll pay you triple your rate.”
    The bartender definitely straightened up.  His smile became a calculation.  He said, “Well, that would usually get my attention, but today there just aren’t any rooms, and that’s the truth.”
    I said, “I’ll pay you five times your rate, and the same to the guy who gives up the room.  And if you can find two takers–and two rooms–I’ll take both of them.  Ten times the value of the rooms.  And I’ll give you a hundred dollar bonus besides.”
    The bartender enjoyed that.  He shook his head, like it was the game he’d been waiting for; but he said, “That’s a helluva move, I don’t mind telling you.  Normally, I think my customers’d line up for your money, but today, with the natives on the warpath, it’s not gonna be so simple.  But...I can put out the word, and if anyone wants to let you have his room for that kind of money, I’ll let you know.  I think we could find somebody.  In the meantime you fellas can take that sofa over there.  And if you want I’ll keep your trunk back here so it’s out of the way.”
    I snapped back. “The trunk stays with me, thanks anyway.  Yeah, we’ll just wait right here till you find some people who’ll give us their rooms.”
    The bartender, bless him, nodded like he was going to be our best new friend, and said, “OK.  Give me a little while to put out the word.”
    The creepy janitor was obviously agitated and the bartender went to him and they communicated, somehow, because they definitely exchanged no words.  Then they went upstairs together.  I was glad to see that weird one go.  
    Then Brude came to me and said, “Damn, Sonny.  I ain’t sleepin’ on no sofa.”
    I looked fully at him, ready to concede that much.  I said, “Relax, big fella.  You aren’t going to have to sleep on the sofa.”
    But he threw at me. “If anybody sleeps on the sofa it’ll be you.”
    That reminded me of all that bullshit on the boat.  I looked coldly at him, and said, “Say–you’re feeling a little brassy this afternoon, aren’t you?”
    As I stared at him I could see he wasn’t backing off any.  But neither was I.  I stared straight at him and said, “I think you’ll feel a little better after we get ourselves a drink.  In the meantime how about pushing the chest under that table next to the sofa?  Sorta keep it outa the way.  You know what I mean?”
    He was all arrogance.  “And what if I don’t?  You know what I mean?  You gonna do it?”
    My mind was thinking murder.  But I wanted to give him a chance.  I said, smiling, “Hey–what are we arguing for?  It’s been a long trip, I know it was rough on both of us, but we’re here, we’re gonna have a nice room in just a little bit, then we’ll have a good meal, have some nice whiskey and just take it easy till it’s time to head out.  OK?  And I’ll tell you what–once we get to New York there’ll be a big bonus in it for you, on top of what I’ve already promised you.  Now am I your pal, or what?”
    I wasn’t sure if he got that or not, because he turned away, sulking, like he had been doing so much of the trip.  Then he said, “Yeah–well maybe I’m just tired of bein’ pushed around.  Just because you’re payin’ me to do a job don’t mean you own me.  If it comes down to it, it may be surprisin’ to find who needs who the most.”
    Then Brude went to the trunk, ignoring me, and with an immense effort he maneuvered it beneath the low table in front of the sofa.  That was not enough, and of course he didn’t see it.  So I went to the sofa, took away the large cloth that covered it, and draped it over the table so that the chest was completely concealed.
    Then I began waking up to a strange reality of our new world in the tropics.  I went to the entryway, where I’d become aware of drums, coming from somewhere out there.  Like I was in a trance, I stood and listened.  Finally I said, to no one in particular, “Those drums are kinda creepy, aren’t they?   I don’t know if I like that or not.”
    And Brude felt it too.  “Makin’ me nervous as hell, I’ll tell ya.”
    Then, startling everyone in the lobby, even me and Brude, the thick-headed ones, there was a sudden loud knocking on a door we couldn’t see, and we all, Brude, bartender and I, turned that way to see what it was.  And when a second series of knocks came from the same place, the bartender hurried from behind his station at the bar and disappeared left, like this was the only important thing in the world.



    I was sure this was what I’d been waiting for.  I opened the door that led outside from the store room and there was my ace, Victorio, an Indian boy of maybe fourteen years, who was one of only four or five Indians I’d met in my five years here who spoke decent English.  And I’d’ve been lost without him, we all would.
    I hustled him inside.  He was wearing his usual Indian garb, the loin cloth and no shirt, but today, for whatever reason, he was also wearing a leather thong around his neck, from which a white, pointed animal’s tooth was suspended on his chest.  I asked him, “Well?  What did you find out?”
    He was ready with something else.  He said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.  I came back as fast as I could.  I thought you might be mad.”
    “No, no,” I said, “forget it, I’m not mad, of course not.  I’ve been worried, that’s all.  We all have–what took you so long?”
    “It was not easy to get away.  Things are getting bad.”
    “What do you mean?–bad.”
    By then we had slowly made our way back toward the lobby, and were standing in the doorway where I could see the two big spenders and that damn Valentin, who of course, was sniffing toward us.
    Victorio took a deep breath and said, “Everyone’s yelling, drinking.  It seems like everyone wants to go make war.”
    This was not what I had hoped to hear.  “OK, OK...I guess that should have been obvious.  Or they wouldn’t have been doing the drums the last couple days.  OK...what else did you find out?  What do they want this time?”
    Victorio seemed reluctant to go on; but finally said, “Chief Thunder say he wants Everything.”
    “Everything?  Jesus–that doesn’t make sense.  Did he understand you were asking for me?”
    He nodded emphatically. “Yes!”
    I had no doubts I could trust Victorio.  Chief Thunder I had never met face to face, but we had exchanged many messages through Victorio.  The Chief was sometimes costly, but he had never broken his word to me.  I knew through Victorio there were two old ones, a blind woman and a lame man, who had the big medicine and who kept the Chief the happy side of pandemonium.
    I said, “And the Chief understands that we’re willing to make an offering, even more than in the past?”
    “Yes–I told him every word you said.  But he said that’s not enough this time.  This time he wants Everything.”
    This was a new experience for me in the ongoing extortion I’d been part of all these years.  I said, “But that doesn’t make sense.  Does he mean he wants the bar, the tables and chairs, the bed linen–how about the hotel guests–does he want them too?  What the hell’s he talking about?”
    But he didn’t get my sarcasm, he just kept staring back at me like a mindless messenger.  He answered, “I don’t know.  Maybe you have something special.  Or someone.”
    “Special?  This is a rundown hotel at the edge of the jungle–what the hell could be special here?  And there’s sure as hell no someone anybody would care about.”
    He shrugged his shoulders.  “He says you will know what he means.  Everything.”
    I didn’t.  But obviously I couldn’t make pressure on him.  Finally I did say, “Well, I don’t know what the hell he means.”  I thought a moment longer, but it was futile.  “Look–go back to him, tell him we’re willing to cooperate–as always–but tell him he has to be specific.  Tell him–as always–we’re brothers, that we want to make an offering.  Do you think they’re going to do anything right away?  I mean like today?  Or tonight?”
    It was frustrating.  He just stood there like all this didn’t matter one way or the other as he said, “I think soon–but I don’t know if today.  I go talk to Thunder again.  But sometimes nobody talks to the Chief–when he goes away to talk with the Spirits.”
    By which I knew he meant, thank God for us all, the two old ones, one blind, one lame, the peace-keepers.
    He turned to go, then added, “I’ll be back soon.”
    Victorio left.  I needed time to think, but the big spender came over to me and asked, “Is that your little spy, boss?”
    I didn’t know if I liked this smooth one or not.  I said, “What’s your name?”
    He showed me a big smile, held out his hand, and said, “It’s Sonny, Sonny Wells.  What’s yours?”
    I shook his hand briefly and answered, “Cleveland.  And the answer to your question, Sonny, is that, yes, the kid is my spy.  At least I hope he is.  He better be anyway.”
    Sonny asked, “What’s he say?  What’s all the drumming about?”
    “The drumming’s nothing unusual–happens every once in a while.  And usually I find out right away what’s on their mind–you know, so I can throw the dogs a bone and they take it and then go bother somebody else.  But today the dogs are giving me a tough time.  But I’m not worried.  They know who their friends are.  I think they’re just trying to work a little bigger bone out of me this time.”
    Sonny said, “Well I sure wish they’d get on with it, so we could keep moving east.”   Then he went from cordial to charmer, with that big gracious smile he’d shown me when he first came in, and asked, “Have any luck finding us a room?”
    I said, “Yea, I’m pretty sure I have.  But only one.  A young kid upstairs.  He likes the size of your dollar.  I’ll know in just a little bit.”
    Then I looked up and saw my most interesting guest, young timid John, making his way very cautiously down the stairs, looking directly at me, obviously waiting for me and Sonny to finish our conversation before speaking privately what was so obviously on his mind.



    This was a dilemma.  I wanted to stay in my room until it was time to leave.  But I didn’t have any towels.  And I had to avoid talking to Sonny no matter what.  So I stood there on the stairs, hoping neither one of them would see me until Sonny went away.  But finally Cleveland looked up and grinned, and said, “Oh–howdy there, John.  What can I do for you?”
    I spoke slowly, in my best man’s voice, “I need towels.  Please.”
    He said, “Oh sure, of course.  Just one minute there.”  His warmth and attention seemed genuine.  
    He turned and walked through a doorway and disappeared, leaving me unexpectedly alone with Sonny, the one thing I didn’t want.  I looked away from him, toward the opposite wall, but I could sense him approaching me, and I was filled with dread.
    I knew he was speaking to me when he said, “Hey kid–I was wondering what happened to you.  You sure disappeared fast once we got to shore.  Looks like you didn’t have any trouble getting yourself a room.  Pretty slick.”
    I answered, concentrating on my voice, avoiding his eyes, “Yes.  It was the last one.  I was lucky.”
    “Yeah, very lucky.”  I was thinking my very intense desire at him:  Please go talk to someone else...leave me by myself.  But I could see him out of the corner of my eye still standing there, staring at me, and I knew he was looking so hard because he was trying to figure me out.  Then he said, “You know, I never saw you once on that whole trip.  You must have stayed in your cabin the entire time.”
    “Yes.  I wasn’t feeling well.”
    It was making me more and more nervous; he wouldn’t stop:  “And I sure don’t remember ever seeing you in San Francisco, and I’ve been there a long time, thought I knew everybody.”
    What was taking Cleveland so long?  Finally I said, “No.  I didn’t live in town.”  I was worrying especially that I was not doing the voice well.
    “Well, I have to say that the more I stand here talking to you the more you look familiar to me.”
    This was getting too close, I was ready to go back upstairs, without the towels, and I started to turn, saying what I thought would be my last words with him, “No, I didn’t know anybody there.  I never went out.”
    But then the miracle happened.  
    I heard the front door of the hotel open, I heard men talking muffled words I couldn’t understand and walking across the floor.  I glanced that way as I started back up the stairs, with absolutely no intention of staying in the lobby longer for any reason:   when I saw Timothy and his father coming into the lobby, each one carrying a large bag.  I gasped aloud, more shocked probably than I had ever been in my life.  Of course I instantly forgot about going upstairs, about my room, about the towels, about Sonny, about anything else in the world.   I just stared, and I’m sure my mouth hung open like a fool.
    Timothy and his father were both dressed in simple work clothes.  The father had one hand on the boy’s shoulder, and they looked exactly as I had seen them three other times in that trance vision I’ll never understand.  
    At that moment Cleveland returned, towels across his arm, and when he noticed the two newcomers he said to them, “Going east or west?”
    The father spoke exuberantly, “West, you bet, where all the action is.  Can’t imagine anybody going east these days, now can ya?”
    Cleveland said, “Well it’s pretty damned amazing you two got down here from Cruces without a guide.  Some would say you’re lucky to be alive with all that’s going on in the jungle.”
    The father said, “You can’t hold back a Yankee, nossir.  We’re aheadin’ for the goldfields and we’ll get there if we have to swim the whole way.”
    Cleveland said, “Well you ain’t gonna have to swim, cause there’s a boat anchored out there a couple miles off shore.  But, like I tell everybody, it ain’t even unloaded yet and ain’t going to be until those damned savages stop scaring the hell out of everybody.  And the other thing is–there’s no rooms here.”
    I was truly hypnotized by these two.  The father said, “Well, none of that’s scaring the hell out of me, I’ll tell you.  We been hearing those drums half the day–kinda thought it was a welcoming committee–didn’t we, Timothy?”  The boy was wide-eyed and grinning as he looked so earnestly around him at everything.  Instead of being frightened by seeing these two, as I might have anticipated, something inside me was delighted.  I had a great urge to go hug them, the boy especially.  But of course I didn’t move, and probably couldn’t have.  
    The father continued, “And far as not having a room goes, that don’t bother us at all.  We’ll sleep on a floor if we have to cause I assure you one and all we’re just passing through, on our way to far far better days–huh, Tim?”
    Cleveland said, “Only one of you will have to sleep on a floor, and that won’t be so bad cause it looks like you got bedrolls anyway.  One of you can have that sofa over there.”  
    The father and son went to the sofa and set their bags beside it.  Cleveland, remembering himself, which I certainly did not, noticed me on the stairs.  He came to me and handed me the towels, saying, “Here you go, John.  If there’s anything else you need, you ask.”
    I took them and remembered my voice when I said, “Thank you,” as Cleveland turned and went upstairs.  But I couldn’t help looking again at Timothy.  The father noticed Sonny and went toward him, hand extended, saying, “Howdy, stranger.  My name’s Walter Fredericks, that there’s my boy Timothy.  You heading out for the goldfields too?”
    Sonny shook his hand and gave him that smile I remembered so well, and answered, “My name’s Sonny.  But no, no–I’m heading east.  On a little business trip.”
    The father spoke softly, confidentially, “Say–I bet you already made your fortune in gold, huh?”  He looked over to his son with a grin.
    But Sonny was not confiding.  He said, “Well, not exactly.”
    The father was enthusiastic: “Hey, c’mon–I’m no fool.  I’ll bet there ain’t many up there that ain’t rich.”
    “Wrong there.  I’ve seen plenty broke.”
    “Noooo–I can’t believe that.  Back home we heard nothin’ but stories about men strikin’ it big, over and over.”
    Sonny smiled.  “Lotta difference between getting it and keeping it.”
    The father was eager.  “Oh–I getcha.  Lotta fools there, huh?  Make it, then throw it away?  And plenty more where that came from–huh?”  He grinned again at the boy, who was listening as eagerly.
    “Well,” said Sonny, “the part about the fools is right.”
    Sonny looked like he was wanting to walk away from this conversation.  Which brought me back to Earth a little too, realizing that I couldn’t just stand there on the stairs all day and watch Timothy and his father, though that is truly all I wanted to do.
    But the father persisted.  “What kinda business you in?–if you don’t mind my askin’.”
    “No.  I don’t mind.  I’m in securities.”
    The father looked doubtful.  “Securities?  And you’re from San Francisco?”
    “That’s right.”
    “Now why would a fella be workin’ securities, with all that gold lying around just to be picked up?”
    Sonny grinned.  “Well, first off, it isn’t just lying around to be picked up.  A fella’s gotta work pretty damned hard to get it in fact.”
    Surprised, the father said, “Really?  We didn’t hear it like that.  But, say–I never minded a little work to make myself rich.  How about you, son?”
    The boy appeared not embarrassed by any of this.  He looked at his father, and said, “I don’t mind a little work.  Nossir, I don’t.”
    Then Cleveland reappeared, walking downstairs past me, and said to Sonny, “OK, I’m ready for you.  Let’s go upstairs now and I’ll show you the room.  A couple of fellas have agreed to your generous offer–they’re gonna double up.”
    Sonny immediately forgot the father and son.  He turned away and spoke to Cleveland as he followed him up the stairs, “Good news.  I knew somebody’d be persuaded.”  As he passed me, he glanced in my face and said, “See you later too...fella.”



    I knew we must’ve seemed like hicks, but I was so excited finally to be somewhere, actually talking to someone who had recently been in California, that I didn’t care what we seemed like.  The trip down from New York had been exciting, and the three days we’d just spent on the river and coming down the divide through all this incredible jungle was like nothing I could have imagined, I have to say.  And then, finally this, Panama City, the longest, hardest part of the trip behind us, and California, legendary California, just ahead, straight up the coast, the next stop.  I could smell it, I could almost see the gold shining in the sunsets there.
    I was hanging on every word that man Sonny was saying, even though, like Pa, I didn’t get the part about securities.  He was probably not telling us the whole story.  But I didn’t care, it was all part of this fabulous adventure I was finally having.  A poet needs at least one in his life.
    After Sonny left, I realized there was someone else there in the lobby with us, besides the odd man sweeping–a young man standing on the stairs, staring at us.  He seemed to be a good deal shy, for all his staring, because he didn’t say a word, even after we were both looking back at him, even when Pa finally said, “Hi there, young fella.  You heading out for the gold fields too?”  So that, after more stares and silence, Pa said, “What is it?–seen a ghost?”  Seemed like that to me too.
    Finally the fella said, not very confident, “’s just that....”
    Pa took a couple steps his way, saying, “Now you don’t have to worry none about us, young man.  My name’s Walter, and this here’s my son Timothy.”
    Still looking very nervous, he stammered out, “ name’s...uh...John.”
    “Well glad to know you, John.   Been at the hotel long?  Heading west?  You can trust us, we’re all pioneers on the same adventure–aren’t we?”
    He seemed to be pulling himself together a little.  He said, “I’m sorry I’m a little slow today, I’ve had a long trip.”
    Pa said, “Yea–us too.  But I don’t recall you on the boat.  And I don’t see how you coulda got here ahead of us anyway.”
    Then I realized Pa’s mistake.  I said, “Wait–you aren’t going to California anyway–are you?”
    John said, “No, I’m going to Baltimore.”
    Pa said, “What a coincidence.  We’re from Baltimore.  Well.  I understand now.  Well, seems like everyone we meet is leaving California.  You look pretty young to be a prospector.  But I guess if you can walk, you can pick up enough nuggets to go home rich–huh?  You ain’t traveling by yourself are you?”
    John’s voice had a funny tone to it, I couldn’t figure it out.  He said, “Yes.  I am.  But there’ll be someone waiting for me in New York.  And I’m not rich.  And I’m not a prospector.”
     I was beginning to feel a little funny about the way John kept staring at me, and finally I could see that Pa was seeing that too.  Pa finally said to him, like he hadn’t already introduced me, “This is my son Timothy.  We’re on our way to California.”
    We shook hands.  His grip held on, but a small hand.  At the same time he said, “I know...I know.”
    Then maybe Pa got bored with this, or thought he should leave John and me to get along without him.  Or maybe he was saying just what was on his mind when he said, “Well, I don’t know about you, son, but I’m a lotta hungry.  I’m gonna go find out when supper’s on.”  
    I said, “OK, Pa,” and watched him wander out through the big passage to our right.  OK with me, because I was fascinated by this John.  I said, “Come on over and sit down on the sofa here, John.  No sense in you standing all day on the stairs, and us talking.”  And sure enough, I saw a little smile come out on that fella’s mouth as he walked still kind of timidly over to where I was and sat down near me.  I leaned a little closer, and said, with all sincerity, “Look, you can trust me.”
    That was almost too much.  John sort of pulled away, and looked suspiciously at me, and said, again in that funny tone, “What do you mean?”
    But I’d finally figured it out.  I said, still not wanting to scare or offend this John:  “I aren’t really a man, are you?”
    John became immediately and acutely flustered, saying in a now very shaky and clumsy voice, “Of course I am.  Why would you say that?”
    But I knew, deep in my heart, this was someone to care about.  And I wanted very much to convey that.  “No–I understand.  You’re dressed like this to protect yourself–I don’t blame you.  But you can trust me–I won’t give you away.  What’s your real name?”
    I could see how much this was confusing her.  She was trying very hard to keep the husky voice she’d been using with me, but it was slipping away with every word.  
    “That’s really a crazy idea...I don’t know how you could think that...why you would think that?...I’ve had a very hard trip.”
    But suddenly she just stopped all of that, took a little breath, then looked deeply into my eyes.  This sent a wonderful shiver down my spine.  She said, in a beautiful woman’s voice, “My name is Valerian.  I guess...yes...I’m thankful you’ve found me out.  And I’m very thankful...I’ve found you.”
    This surprised me, but more even, it was arousing in me an exhilaration I couldn’t explain.  I said, “Good.  You trust me.  Thank you.  I won’t betray you.”
    Then she became more open, more sincere, more intense.  She said, with a strength coming into her voice that of course I had not heard before, and it almost startled me:   “I trust you because I know you.  I don’t know if I can explain this.  I don’t know if I should.”
    This was bizarre.  Now it was me losing ground, unsure of myself, beginning to question everything.  “What do you mean?  Of course you don’t know me.”
    She said, “No, you’re right, I don’t know you.  But I know about you.”
Then she became nervous, and said, “This is very scary for me.  I don’t know how much I can say.  But you’re here, sitting next to me, when I never could have imagined this could be possible, and I’d like so very much to explain this to you so you could be here with me in this....”
     I was so nervous I thought about getting up and going after Pa.  But good for me I didn’t.  Instead, I tried to understand.  “OK, you’re going pretty fast here now.  But I want to be here with you, like you say.  Please take it slow.  I just don’t get it at all.”
    What she said then froze me:  “I know your mother died recently.  In Baltimore.  Your father sold your house so you could come to California.  You admire the poet Edgar Poe.  You want to be a writer.”  I was prickly all over.  I felt something inside me that wanted to get up and run for my life.  But I didn’t.  I swallowed hard.  I was confronting something that was so far beyond my experience I was shaking.
    Eventually, how much later I don’t know, I said in a feeble voice, “How do you know all that?  There’s no way you could know.”
    And I watched her beautiful face, which showed no sign now of doubt or fear or, especially, deception, and she said, “I want to tell you the truth.  All of it.  If you’re ready.  I can speak it, but I don’t understand any of it any more than you will.  But it happened.  And now I’m here, sitting next to you.  Which is more than unbelievable to me.  Just as, I’m sure, what I’m telling you is unbelievable to you.”
    This was not Panama City anymore.  It was not the gold road to California.  It was not even the planet Earth.  It was something maybe I could believe originated in some mystical world.  But even as I might believe that, how could I believe at the same time this world could include me?   I felt like a helpless child.  Pa was...yes, appropriately, nowhere to be found.  It was just me.  And this creature from...some other world.  I liked her, which understated it in the extreme, after just these few very amazing minutes.  No, I more than liked her...but this talk of hers was so weird, and alarming.  I just didn’t have any notion what I was being led into.
    I could only say, more helpless than I’d ever felt, “Tell me.  Tell me what you have to tell me.”
    She seemed to me like a force.   But when she spoke she wasn’t forceful, she was in fact still soft, and she drew me to her, into that mystery.  “I saw you...and your father...three if you were standing there in my room in front of me.  You were talking about personal things...about your mother’s sickness.  About selling the house.  About wanting to leave for California.  Your father began drinking again.  And then you, too.  And then you decided to leave for California.  I don’t know how...or why...I saw these things.  It just happened.  It scared me.  But things happen to me that are very strange.  But I did see what I’m telling you.  I saw you three times.”
    Of course this was nothing that I could fit into my experience, my dreams, or my imagination.  It was, and she was, beyond it all.  I sat there and waited for something to arise within me, to speak back to her, knowing all the while that there would be nothing in me that would ever correspond to all this strangeness she was speaking.
    So finally I said to her, “Don’t tell me anymore.  I may figure this out later.  But, please, more.  But tell me this...really...who are you?  Where are you going?”
    “As I told you–my name is Valerian.  I’ve been living in Mission Dolores, in San Francisco.  Twelve years or so.  But the mission is dying.  And I’m running away.”
    It was hard to imagine her running away from anything.  It made me wonder:  “Were you a nun?”
    She giggled, how precious.  “  Never a nun.  No–I only lived there.  I might have been a nun.  If things hadn’t gone wrong.  But I don’t want to talk about that.  I’m trying to forget about that.  I’d rather talk about other things.  Especially with you.  Especially.  I imagine you have the same book of poems I have, of Edgar Poe’s.  Is this familiar?
    ‘And all my days are trances,
        And all my nightly dreams
    Are where thy grey eye glances,
        And where thy footstep gleams--
    In what ethereal dances,
        By what eternal streams.’
You do remember that, don’t you?  It’s the book with Lenore, and The Raven...the one with the brown cover.”
    This was more I couldn’t comprehend.  Poe was my passion.  And she knew him better than I.  And I was realizing:  I’d talked with her four or five minutes, and we were more deeply connected than I was with any other person I have ever known in my life, except my parents.   California, and gold, and adventuring, I suddenly realized, were far far from my consciousness, and that moment I didn’t care if they ever returned.  I could only think about her.  Little questions bubbled out of me.  I asked one.  “Why are you going to the east?”
    She suddenly glowed with pleasure, I was shocked.  She said, “I’m going to meet him.   How perceptive of you.  He’s very dear to me.  He loves me.  And I say all this because I know you’ll understand–there aren’t many people I could confide this to who would understand.  But I know you will.  I’m a little embarrassed to talk about it, and I’ve never told anyone about this, not even at the mission.  But I’m going to meet him.  Edgar.  He’s asked me to come meet him.  At first I was very frightened, but he’s assured me that he’ll be there, waiting at the dock when I get off the boat.”
    This more than anything brought me to Earth.  In minutes I had developed a deep feeling for this woman I barely knew.  Now this, leading me into a trap that took my breath away–the further thing even you do not see, Valerian.  Instead, feebly trying to protect myself, as well as her, I said, “You mean Edgar Allan Poe?  Is meeting you?  You mean something else...surely.”
    But instead of backtracking, she became enthusiastic, stopping me cold.  “Yes, I know, it’s amazing.  But he’s been talking to me for almost two years now, and he’s finally convinced me I have to be brave and come to him.”
    I had little left, only the ultimate, horrible thing which I couldn’t speak.  Instead I asked, more feebly than before, buying time, giving her one last chance to save me:  “Edgar Allan Poe?”
    But she so confidentially continued. “Yes, of course.  And I know how much you like him–so few people understand him.  That’s why I feel I can tell you my secret.”
    I didn’t want to tell her.  I had to tell her.  But there was just something there in all her power and assurance about Poe that stopped me cold.


    At least we got a damn room.  Rotten luck I couldn’t get my own room and get a little time away from Sonny.  I was ready to pop him one.  But I knew I had him anyway, and I was about ready to play my card.  
    Me and Sonny and the barkeep came downstairs and I told him–Cleveland I think he said his name was, a fancy, stupid name, like the guy–to fix me another sour mash.  I followed him to the bar and waited while he made it.  Sonny saw that young kid and went over to him and started talkin’, and I was thinkin’ no doubt he was up to somethin’ like always.  Musta figured he could get somethin’ for nothin’ outa that kid from our steamer, the way he figured about everyone.  The other boy, who’d just come in with his father, came over next to me at the bar, but he wasn’t sociable no way.  Didn’t say a word to me, didn’t even seem to know I was there.  He just kept lookin’ over at Sonny and the other kid.
    Sonny the charmer opened up sayin’, “Hey–if it isn’t bashful Johnny again.  I been thinking about you.  I’m sure I’ve run into you a time or two, way back there.  Ever been to Monterey?  I used to spend a lotta time down there.  Do you think I could have seen you maybe in Monterey?”
    But the kid wasn’t havin’ any of it.  He said, in a kinda shaky voice, “No.  No, I’ve never been to Monterey.  I don’t feel well.  I’m going upstairs.”  And he did.  Leavin’ Sonny there lookin’ around for someone else to con.
    He walked over to the bar, and stood next to that Timothy, and said, “You know what?  I’m beginning to think this here Johnny’s trying to fool us all.  I think there’s a little frightened lady underneath them duds.  No wonder I can’t place him–or her.  I’ll betcha–what do you think?”
    I wasn’t lookin’ that way cause I didn’t want to give Sonny the satisfaction, but I heard the kid say, “I’m a greenhorn.  The greenest of the greenhorns.  I don’t know anything.  Looks like a fella to me.”
    Didn’t matter one way or the other to me, fella or girl, but he was sure right about the greenhorn thing.  Then Sonny said, “By God–that face–I know it.  It’s driving me crazy.”
    But this kid wasn’t havin’ any of Sonny’s con either, which made me laugh to myself when he just said, “Look–I gotta go.”   An’ he did, he went on out the door to the front porch, leavin’ me and Sonny alone.
    Sonny said to me, though I still wasn’t lookin’ at him, “OK, big fella, time to get back to work.  Let’s go move ourselves into that room, small as it is.  At least we won’t be sleeping on the floor.  Grab the trunk and follow me upstairs.”
    Instead, feelin’ like after all these weeks my time had finally come, I sauntered on over to the sofa, sat down with my drink in hand and propped my feet up on the table that was hidin’ our chest.  Then I looked over at him and said, “Don’tcha see I’m havin’ a little drink right now, Sonny?  Take it easy.”
    I loved seein’ that amazed look on his face.  He stood starin’ all bewildered at me a second or two.  Then he sauntered on over himself and said to me kinda quietlike, so the bartender wouldn’t hear us, “This isn’t the time to get independent, Brude.  That trunk has been setting down here long enough.  I want it upstairs, out of the way, right now.”
    I looked up at him cold as steel and said, “When I’m ready, Sonny.  And I’m enjoyin’ this drink right now.”
    He sat down beside me, real cool like, but I could tell he was beginnin’ to burn.  He said to me, “What the hell are you acting like this for?  Get the goddamn chest upstairs.  Now.  The damn thing’s conspicuous enough as it is without leaving it here longer.  No telling who’s going to be coming in and noticing it.  Get moving.”
    But I just turned away real casual and acted like I hadn’t heard a word.  He couldn’t take it, which I’d figured, and he got real nasty, sayin’ to me like he was the Emperor or somethin’:   “Goddamn it, Brude, pick up the goddamn chest and take it to the room, or I’ll–”
    And that was it–he’d figured it out himself.  I grinned, I couldn’t help myself.  I waited just a second more for him to see he had figured it out, and then I said, helpin’ him to it, just in case he was stupider than I thought, “Or you’ll what?”
    He knew I had him in a corner and he came back at me like the scorpion he was.  “Or I’ll do something crazy, sonuvabitch.  I’m up to it, believe me.”
    Well I believed he might try, but I knew he wasn’t gonna get nowhere with me that way, nobody ever had.  So I just gave him back that hateful stare of his.  Sonny finally saw he was at a dead end, and glanced away.  But pretty soon he looked back at me, and I could tell he was beginnin’ to see it.  
    He said, “You’re getting at something here–aren’t you?  You aren’t just being an asshole–you actually have a little thought up there in your brain that’s getting ready to pop out—don’t you?  What is it, Brude–huh?  What is it?”
    I let him keep lookin’ at me a little while longer, let it set in good.  Then I said, “Yea, Sonny–I got something on my mind, that’s right.  And it’s about time you figured out that there’s other things goin’ on that aren’t part of your little plans.”
    I knew this was cuttin’ him to the bone, the arrogant bastard, and I was glad for it all.  And I knew I had him, cause right off he didn’t say anything.  He knew he wasn’t in control anymore.  Finally he asked, “Well–what the hell is it?”
    I enjoyed makin’ him wait just a little longer.  Then I said, “It’s somethin’ that’s been stickin’ in my craw since we left ‘Frisco.  A little somethin’ that came to my attention, thanks to a little conversation I had with JH–”
    He really perked up when he heard that.  “JH?  What the hell you got to talk about with that weasel?”
    “Hey, JH is alright, Sonny.  He didn’t kill you, did he?  Which he sure as hell wanted to do, and which nobody sure as hell would really have blamed him for doing.  Shit, Sonny–you ruined him.”
    “What the hell are you talking up that bastard for?  He got what was coming to him.  If I hadn’t taken Parker House away from him, somebody else would have.  And you were damn well glad I did–you’ve profited from it pretty nicely yourself.  Shit–you turncoated on him.  You were damn happy to help me take it away from him.”
    Thanks again, Sonny–leadin’ yourself right to it.  “Well that’s just the point, Sonny.  And damn good of you to bring it up.  I did help you take it away from him.  Only trouble is, at the time I didn’t know how much I was helpin’ you take it away from him.  Remember–all you told me was you’d triple my pay to quit him and work for you.  But, till I talked with JH, I never heard about that power play you made on him in his office that day.  Yeah, you put your little legal squeeze on him, but you also threatened him with force–and the force was me.   He told me all about it the day before we left.  But you know, I’m a little slow, and it didn’t really sink in until we were on the way here.”
    But of course Big Shot didn’t see my point.  He said, “Shit–you never had to do a goddamn thing.”
    So I had to explain it.  “No, of course not–cause I’d already proved to JH that I could kill for money.  All you had to do was threaten him with my power and he gave in to you like the chickenshit he is.”
    Sonny settled back a little, saying, “Yeah–that’s partly true, but I had him by the balls anyway, I had his name on a document, and that was stronger than any threats.”
    “That’s not how I see it, Sonny.”
    He sneered, the fool.  “Oh–how do you see it?”
    “I see it that we’re partners, fella.”
    As I suspected, way too much to swallow.  He almost barked it back at me.  “Partners?  Are you kidding me?”
    I knew I had him, I wasn’t gonna give an inch.  I said, “No, I ain’t kiddin’, Sonny.  I figure that without me on your side that day–that is, if I’da stayed loyal to JH–he’da had me break your fuckin’ head before you coulda done anything with your little document.  So I figure that makes us partners.  And I figure you owe me.  Plenty.”
    He was shakin’ his head in amazement.  Let him.  He said, “Jesus–this is the biggest con job I’ve heard of since I came west.  And what is it you think I owe you?”
    “Nothin’ outrageous, Sonny.  One-third seems real fair to me.  One-third of what you got in the chest.”
    He sneered.  “You’re crazier than hell.  You think you can get me down here and blackmail me with a bunch of bullshit–but that’s all it is, Brude–bullshit.  I could have got anybody to lean on JH–”
    That was a laugh.  I interrupted him.  “But you didn’t–you know why?  Because I’m the meanest sonuvabitch in that city and you know it, and JH knows it.  He’s scared as hell of me, and damnright oughta be.”
    That got Sonny real hot.  “No, you’re wrong.  I beat JH out of that place because I know the law and he doesn’t.  Because I understand what’s really going on in San Francisco and he doesn’t.  Because JH is living back in the dark ages–he still thinks and acts like he did four years ago when he ran the only hotel in town, when there were only a couple hundred drifters and bums hanging around on his front porch sucking their thumbs and telling stupid stories.  It’s not like that anymore, now it’s one big kickass city of gold like the world’s never known, and JH still doesn’t understand that and he never will.  It wasn’t fear of you that lost him Parker House, it was goddamn ignorance and incompetence.  And I saw that and I broke him with that.”
    I wanted to laugh but I didn’t.  I said, “If it’s a jury, Sonny, I’d vote for you.  But I ain’t, and all them words are wasted.  It’s still gonna cost you one-third.”
    That was more he couldn’t swallow, and I was lovin’ it, watchin’ him try to puke it back up.  “You got balls, fella.  But no brains.  I’m not gonna give you nothing more than what I’ve already offered.”
    I expected he’d be a tough sell.  But I reached over and patted the table that was hidin’ our little chest, just to rub it in, and said, “Then you’re just gonna have to haul this baby upstairs yourself.  And then get it through fifty miles of jungle by yourself.  But that shouldn’t be too hard–I’m sure there’s plenty of them cutthroat Indian guides who’d be glad to help you–and I’m sure none of them would be at all suspicious about what you got inside–huh, Sonny?”
    Then I got up to go, figurin’ he’d need a little time to think about that.  But before I left I couldn’t help smilin’ at the pathetic bastard and sayin’, “Think about it, Sonny.  You’re in a tough spot.”
    I had never seen him so hot.  He hissed at me, “You sonuvabitching snake,” but he probably didn’t see the joke in that.
    After these last three weeks cursin’ him to myself, it felt like a million bucks to finally get him like this, and I felt like a king.   I let him see it too, I just said to him like I didn’t have a care in the world, “Hey–easy, Sonny.  You don’t wanna be sayin’ things you’re gonna regret later.  You just sit here a while and think it over.  I really think you’re gonna see it my way.  One-third’s fair.  Shit, man, I coulda asked ya for a fifty-fifty split.”
    But Sonny had a lot of balls too, I’ll give him that.  He leaned to me, face to face, on fire, and said so only I could hear him, “You aren’t going to get away with this, you bastard.  Not only will I never give you any goddamn one-third, but I’m going to make you pay for this blackmail.”
    I stared him down.  “You sound pretty tough, Mr. Lawyer, but it looks to me like you’re arguin’ from a damn weak position.  You talk kickin’ ass and you’re talkin’ my language, pal.  I ain’t yet seen the man who can kick my ass.  You’re a big mouth, but you’d break in two just as easy as all the rest of ‘em who had the nerve to get in my way.”  I let him think about that.  Then I said, “Think you could kill, Sonny?  Think you got it in you?”
    He didn’t flinch.  “Yeah, I could kill, Brude--I could kill you.”  
    But I didn’t believe him.  I sneered back.  “Well that’s good, because that’s what you’re gonna have to do, if you think you can take me on.  I’m gonna go out now for a little stroll.  Better keep your eye on the trunk though, never know what might happen if yer not careful.  And listen–cool down a little.  When I get back we’ll talk again.  Think about it–I’m bein’ fair–one-third–I coulda asked for half.”
    Then I turned my back on him, like the matadors do to the bulls, and I walked away.