Salomon (Part One)David Xavier / Actions & Adventure / Western
Salomon – Part One
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When Salomon Pico was still running barefoot among the hide traders in the dusty streets of Monterey, his cousin, Pío Pico, had already served as a city councilman in Pueblo de Los Angeles, and was now serving in the desputación, the senate of Alta California. Pío was a man of growing political stature, but he was also an insightful businessman, and it was Pío who taught Salomon his first lesson in money.
Salomon remembered Pío, twenty years his senior but still a young man himself, as a slim man with a bulging face, massive in a way he did not see on other men, and thick, dark skin that did not lighten near his hairline. Pío lived in a humble adobe hacienda with a palm-thatch roof on a rancho near San Diego then, and he did not carry a gold pocketwatch with a chain dangling across his chest, but he did dine with the political influences who signed over enormous land grants to their friends and family. Under this influence, he dressed like them.
Kneeling next to Salomon among the drifting movement of Monterey, Pío held a gold coin between his finger and thumb, one of only a few the boy had seen in his lifetime. Pío’s voice came from some deep chamber within, and rattled ironlike from the back of his throat so it seemed his voice did not belong to him. That it was not he who possessed his voice, but rather it was his voice that possessed him.
“Do you want this coin, Sal?”
“Yes, I do. Want that coin.”
“Then convince me to give it to you.”
Salomon stood before him and after a silent moment, he lifted his ankle and swatted at something live and legged that crawled upon it.
“Tell me what I may receive in return.”
The boy looked around. “I will clean and shine your boots.”
“I had them cleaned yesterday.”
He pointed to Pío’s horse at the rail. “I will polish your saddle.”
“There is already a boy who does that for me.”
Salomon squatted with his hands on his cheeks, then stood again. “Let me see the coin.”
Pío held it closer, still pinched the way a diamond cutter holds his product to the sunlight to look for impurities. Salomon mimed an inspection.
“It isn’t real gold.”
“But it is, Sal. It is.”
The sunlight caught the coin for a brief moment, and Salomon swiped at it. Pío pulled it back, the coin disappearing into his fist as he laughed, a hollow echo of itself. He waved the coin and rubbed his hands together and held them out, fingers splayed to show the coin had vanished. He reached for Salomon’s hand and yanked it forth, and with monstrous expression, he pressed his thumb to his young cousin’s palm. Salomon looked and found the coin had reappeared there. Pío held the boy by the shoulders, squeezing him as he spoke.
“Now,” he said. “Hold it out for me.”
Salomon did as he was told, holding his palm face-up with the coin shivering in the center. Pío reached for it, and Salomon pulled it away. Pío tried again, and the same thing happened. The coin now sat perfectly still, and Salomon held a grin.
“Good,” Pío said. “Don’t let anyone take what is yours.”
Pío leaned close and looked left and right before he spoke. “Sal. If you let me have that coin, that coin that you hold in your hand right now, then in one month I will repay you with three coins just like it.”
Salomon shook his head.
“Sal. If you let me have that coin, in two months I will repay you with five coins of its equal.”
Salomon looked at the coin. Again he shook his head.
Pío inched his face closer, his large, inconsistent features, and looked into his cousin’s eyes, unflinching. The boy’s grin disappeared. Pío stared, his forehead dotted in sweat, until the salt forced him to blink. He lifted one hand to the air and kept it rising above his shoulder, taking his time and allowing it to quiver, as if it was attached to a man who could no longer control its tremors. He began to whistle, his round, dark lips coming together and his breath coming so lightly you could hardly tell if it was a whistle or some mystical whisper. While the boy’s eyes were still on the trembling hand, his mouth slightly parted, Pío was sly with his other hand.
Salomon closed his mouth and swallowed. His eyes were wet. He needed to blink.
“And now you have no coin at all.”
Salomon looked down and the coin was gone.
“Be smart with your money, Sal. For if you are not careful, someone will take it from you without your knowing.”
Pío stood and mounted his horse, swinging the reins to turn the animal about and kick up dust.
“Wait,” Salomon said. “What about my coin?”
“It was my coin to begin with,” he said. He spoke once more from the saddle before he kicked his horse and rode away in a flurry of dust and shouts. “If you want something in this lifetime, you must find a way to get it. You find a way, and you take it.”
Salomon’s father worked for the Rancho del Rey, supplying horses and cattle, hides and tallow, and many other supplies to the Mexican Army at the Presidio of Monterey. As a retired commander, José Dolores Pico knew many of the officers and their needs before they knew them themselves. It was here that Salomon learned to work hard, standing elbow to elbow with his brothers, unloading horse blankets, leather, uniforms, boots, buckles, and rifles. He watched a fat military commander negotiate prices with his father. He watched his father receive less and less in pay.
It was a habit for Salomon and his older brothers to run in the streets and get lost when they visited Monterey. Small as it was, there were people in the city. In the city, there was talk. There were politicians, there were soldiers, there were pretty women in dresses, and men in fine suits. Other children ran the same streets, and he chased them around corners, not knowing their names but knowing the game. It was there at the Presidio of Monterey that Salomon saw his first dead man.
Juan Carmen Flores was the leader of an outlaw gang. He had robbed the bank in Pueblo de Los Angeles a week after it had opened, pistol-whipping the bank manager to a point where he would have died a day later had Juan Carmen Flores not shot him on the bank floor. The manager’s arms and legs lurched and held stiff off the ground, slowly lowering to the floor. Witnesses had to point to his headless body and identify him to authorities. Flores had held up a wagon train of migrating mexicans as it crossed the San Joaquin River. He held the pointman in the river and watched through the clear water flow, like looking through thick glass, as the man called out in silent screams. He held him there until his thrashing subsided. Then he let him go for his people to watch float among the rocks. He once cut a man’s horse open and watched it collapse and struggle in the street, entrails bubbling forth, until the dust rushed black beneath it. The horse owner ran, cutting back and forth to make for a difficult target. The outlaw allowed him a sporting distance before he mounted his own horse and clubbed the man down.
From behind a barrel, Salomon watched the outlaw spit insults and grin at the officers who read aloud his sentence of hanging. He heard him shouting into the black hood, above the small crowd, and continue murmuring even with the rope taut and jerking until he swung motionless moments later. Salomon’s father found the boy staring, alone in front of the hangman’s platform as people walked by with turned heads, a small child stock-still among the movement.
When he finally did speak it was in the dim light of the study that night, where his father had collapsed from the day’s exhaustion in the chair by the window. Other men would have used this time of day to drink, however, he never did. He was content to drink water. Salomon approached and held out a coin he had taken from his father’s pouch, the one marked with the emblem of the Mexican Army. His father’s face was cranial without light, eyeless in the shadow.
“Where did you get that coin?”
“I took it.”
“Took it from where? Who does it belong to?”
“It was yours.”
“You mean it is mine.”
Salomon stepped closer. “Convince me it belongs to you.”
His father leaned forward, his legs wide at the knees, his arms lifeless and hanging between his thighs. Salomon held firm.
“It is mine because a ranking official, a man more important than you or I, gave it to me as payment. I worked hard for that coin.”
“I worked too.”
“You did. Yes. You moved supplies from one place to another. But where did those supplies come from? How did they get there? Did you know the people who bought them? Where did they come from? Answer me.”
“I don’t know.”
“I did that. When you can do all that, I’ll give you a payment. Until then, I’ll give you your supper and a place to sleep.”
His father sat back with a sigh, disappearing back into the shadows. He rubbed his face. “What you saw today. That man. How do you feel about it?”
“I am not scared. They had him wear a hood.”
“You are not frightened by it?”
“You must understand he was not a good man. He was a murderer of his own people. He was an abuser of women and animals. He took money that did not belong to him. Now, tell me. Did he deserve to die?”
“Yes. I believe so. Don’t you?”
“It is not up to me. It is not up to man. If a man behaves like an animal, it is up to God whether or not he wants to punish him like an animal.”
His father did not move. He sat deep in shadow, his elbows on the rests, his fingers touching in front of him. Salomon looked down, and, after a brief pause, stepped forward with the coin held out. His father leaned forward and put his hand on the child’s head.
“Keep it, my son. It is yours,” he said, and he fell into a racking cough.