Set in goldrush CA, struggles of altruism against corrupt govt. regretfully underdeveloped
|ONE MAN AGAINST MANY
(A Story of the Southlands)
Emily could tell Sam had not yet come to grips with what he was about to do. His breathing shook; the humidity made him feel he was breathing underwater. Sam looked up the hill at the mansion. All the lights were out and had been for hours.
"Whaddya reckon, Em?" Sam asked, glancing worriedly at her. She neighed reassuringly. Sam toyed absently with the handkerchief in his pocket, a token from his love, Annabel. Why, then, he wondered, had it been announced she was to marry another? Broken hearted at this news, he vowed to kill the man who had robbed him of her - the mayor, Ellsworth Addison.
So Sam went to the mayor's estate on the eve of the wedding and hid in the garden, some twenty yards away, waiting for the right time to strike.
He glanced at Emily once more and set off. The night was still as he cleared the distance to the house. He tried a window at random and found it unlocked. "This arrogant fool, thinkin' he a'int gon' get robbed," he thought bitterly. He knew to which room he should go, his hours of watching the house had supplied this information.
He held his breath as he turned the knob, surprised at how calm he felt. Inside, he could make out the room (and what a room it was) by the moon's beams. He drew his knife.
Matter and space seemed to condense behind him and evaporate in front. He was helpless against the vacuum pulling him forward. He raised his knife high as he came to the bedside. An intense loathing erupted in his heart, flooded his mind, and coursed through his veins. He was going to do it: he was going to rid the city of this vile menace.
This view of the mayor was shared by most Sacramentans. Very few were happy with him in office and even fewer had wanted him there in the first place. These few were the men, however, who had the power to keep him there. Their muscle was Eli White. Sheriffs didn't usually collect the taxes, but White did. He called it collection, some called it theft. Most didn't call it anything at all; if White heard of it, that person either skipped town or went missing. But only a fool left town with all that gold in the hills, so everyone paid what White said they owed. Every month, White gave the mayor a weighty cut. "Cost of business," he called it.
The sophisticates from the East got their piece too. They had sway in the government, and the mayor wished to play that game. So he turned a blind eye when they took control of the most profitable businesses, developing them and nationalizing some. They sat in their parlors drinking expensive scotch (aged no less than fifteen years, of course) and smoking fine cigars; each telling the other, "Business is good," in as many different variations as one could.
Sam returned to the moment. His breath was losing its calm. His steady hand began to shake. Drained was the passion and loathing that had guided him unhesitating to the bedside. His senses were so acute he could discern the grandfather clock's steady beat coming from the foyer; he became more apprehensive with each tick. His gut lurched horribly a split second after shifting his weight. Ellsworth heard it too; the creak woke him. Instinctually, he had begun to call for Robert, his butler, to request that this nuisance be fixed, but all that came out as he sat up was a terrified yell at the knife wielding figure above him. At least he would have shouted, had it not been for the butt of a formidable knife that came down upon his head with the force only those who are suddenly startled and infused with adrenaline are capable of.
The mayor slid inanimate down the headboard and lay motionless, an echo of his usual sneer still noticeable on his fat, unconscious face. Sam acted without delay; one moment he was sheathing his blade and the next he was out the window, bee-lining for Emily with the mayor over his shoulder. His movements were remarkably swift for a man not yet twenty hauling one more than twice his size. When he reached Emily, Sam swung the mayor over her shoulders with little concern that bodies aren't meant to bend that way, climbed into the saddle, and tore away.
The noise awoke Robert and he went to see if he could at all help. He opened the door to the mayor's suite, asking politely, "Another nightcap, sir?" He no longer heard the stomping, or any noise at all for that matter. "Sir?" he asked again, peering around the room. He noticed the open window, and reached it just in time to see a horse rear and gallop off, two figures on its back but only one upright. He hurried into town to alert the sheriff and gather a search party.
After a few hours' good ride into the Southlands, Sam stopped to let Emily rest. He thought it wise he hadn't ran for it last night, what if he'd been recognized? Still, he didn't know what he should do with his captive. Thankfully, the mayor was still unconscious.
Ellsworth cracked open his eyes and promptly shut them again, like a child who refuses to wake for school. He felt a terrible pain in his back and supposed Annabel would knead it out after the ceremony, once they had privacy. He grinned indulgently. He opened his eyes, deliberately this time, and found his limbs were bound. The night's events hit him as the knife had.
"What d'ya think you're doing, boy? Don't know who I am, d'you? I'm Mayor Addison! Oh-ho, you'll hang for this! Hear that? I'll tie the noose and hang you up myself, oh-ho yes, boy; just you wait! And your family! I'll ruin 'em, make 'em pay fer the low-life son they raised! I'll make them parents a'yours nothin', oh Lord I will, they'll be," he spat, but what they would have been is not known; Ellsworth could not finish the thought. The crouched figure had been rifling through a pack, half listening to the words, but it now stood, eclipsing the sun as it did.
The crouched figure had been rifling through a pack, only half listening to his words. But presently it rose, eclipsing the sun from Ellsworth's sight. From his vantage point, it seemed the figure flowed into the sky. Or perhaps it came down? he thought. No, the movement he sensed ended above them, not with them. Finally he convinced himself it was just a trick of the sun. The mayor felt embarrassed at ever having supposing the heavens had touched this peasant, this serf.
The sunlight wrapping the boy's face hid his expression from Ellsworth, who felt the threats should have caused a reaction fiercer than standing upright. He tested his captor, "Din'chya hear me, son? What, you stupid? Listen 'ere, I'll say it slow, I'ma finish yer parents. They'ras good as done for, kid, and you, too. Yer ma won't even get work suckin' dusty 49er's cocks. You gettin' it yet, boy?" He stopped a moment to gauge the response; he frowned, there was none. He began again, "Wh-"
The word, "ENOUGH," exploded without warning. The force of it seemed enough to snap vocal cords. Ellsworth felt it within his bones and trembled. He withdrew from the silhouette; its presence was terrible and sudden and the mayor felt pathetic before it. He gibbered - the power of other's voice had stolen his own.
Sam calmed almost as instantly as he had flared. He knew he'd regret acting out of rage; but the pressure had been too great to contain. But now it was released, and his breath and thoughts flowed evenly. He spoke softly, but the words bit into Ellsworth all the same, "My family ran a general store once, on the road up t'Yuba City. Guess you don' remember it; small place it was. But it was ours, see? Then you go 'n swallow it right up with yer big city. Yer cronies came knockin' and took it fer themselves. Made us give up our livelihoods. They were yer men, mayor, I even knew it then." He looked at Ellsworth dejectedly. "Jussa child 'n I knew it."
Ellsworth collected himself and sneered, "Don't be thinkin' you can intimidate me! I ain't done no such thing, boy, an' there ain't no proof 'cept gossip. Ain't nobody gon' believe you." His words mixed with laughs; he felt the argument was his. "None respectable, leastways," he added with a flourish.
"Quiet, you fat fool," hissed Sam as he gagged Ellsworth, as he was already bound but had awoke before the gag had been fixed. "Now I'ma tell how things really are in 'your city.' Your city," he laughed at this designation. His voice was sharp, "Sacramento ain't nobody's city no more, boss, and you know it. Them East folks, all business 'n commerce. Nuthin' real. Sucked you right down, though. Shucks, some of us regular folk, too. Sounded like a good ol' thing, dinnit? They said more gold could be got if we joined up with them - made a company. More 'fficiancy, they said. S'pose them big words get lotsa people excited. You reckoned that'd be a mighty fine thing for ol' Sacramento, din'chya? I know you wanted things to turn out right, even if you forgot so. My Pa used to talk about you, when we still had the store, hours and hours he did. Said you was a saint, bringin' in all these great things. Said this town'd be the new capital if ya'kept it up!"
He paused, fond nostalgia glazed his eyes for a moment but soon was replaced with sadness and anger, "Now look attcha. Taxes; sellin' people out to them Up-Classies like it ain't nothin'. People's businesses, Mr. Mayor! People - real people in your own town! How'd'ya do it, I wonder sometimes... But I figured you out. Even if you can't, or don't wanna; I know. You think The Mayor is above us regular folk. Better'n'us. You think we're all jussa means to your own ends. How else? You tell me, boss, how d'y'do it ... awful things you done, ..." He trailed off and stared at nothing in particular, emanating a sadness and wisdom unfit for his age.
His eyes dropped their worn look and blazed wild. Venom flicked from his tongue, "How'd you get my Annabel? How d'ya do it, y'devil?!" Sam was speaking almost too quickly now, a madness had commandeered his speech, "How'd she fall for you? You two're s'posedta marry tonight! How?!" He was raving now; his hand went to his knife. He fingered the clasp, staring at Ellsworth as a starved lion might look upon prey that is bound, gagged, and very helpless. Emily stamped and shifted about, she sensed the bloodlust. A grin took on Sam's face, wide and mad.
He stopped short, though, and shut his mouth; his eyes were now extinguished. He took his hand off his knife and put it to his temple. His voice broke as he whispered, "How could she have fallen for you?" His knees buckled violently, forcing collapse. He broke the fall with his arm and managed to sit instead of falling completely. It was strangely graceful. Ellsworth hated his captor, of course, but he was rather impressed by such a fall and recovery. He kept still; he didn't want to set the boy off again. He replayed what this boy had said, and a vague memory of what guilt meant crossed his mind.
"She didn't," said the mayor abruptly. He surprised himself by admitting this, he had very nearly convinced himself any girl should be so lucky as to marry him. "She didn't," he repeated, a vague air of belief now attached to his words "I... made her," he stammered, "Told her I'd, ..." he tripped over his words, his mouth was unused to the taste of truth. He gave up the attempt and wondered how one man could possibly have so much effect on another in so little time.
He twisted his body to get a better view of the boy. He looked up and was fixed with a stare that held more than personal injustices; its meaning exceeded such trifles. Even if he could not understand or define the feeling, he felt it nonetheless.
The idea that he had looked into himself blossomed in the back of Ellsworth's mind. So delicate and precious and rare it was that his subconscious did not reveal it to the waking mind just yet. Things of that nature need time to grow healthy and strong before being subjected to the battery of incredulity, doubt, and unwillingness too often encountered in this world.
Ellsworth was beginning to understand.