Going for the Gold, Book 2
by Karen Mercury
eBook ISBN: 1-61034-299-2
In 1848 San Francisco, Lola Moreno is a housemaid for Gage Lassen, a withdrawn bachelor. When adventurer Harrison Bancroft arrives, he unlocks the pain from Gage’s past, allowing passion to emerge. A group of cruel enforcers threatens their bond of secrecy, and the trio is forced to make a stand.
“Lola. I need to see a menu for tonight’s dinner at once.”
Gage Lassen stood imperiously in the doorway of the printing office. Tall, commanding, surly as always. He looked down his beautifully formed aquiline nose at her as though he smelled a decomposing feral cat. “I instructed you last night. Why wasn’t there a menu on my desk this morning?”
Lola Moreno’s blackened fingers automatically moved away from the cool metal letters of the newspaper type she was placing. She was inserting two of the letter U instead of a W, as W was not used on their Spanish typesetting machine, for an article about “Celestials from the Flouuery Kingdom.” These argonauts from Hong Kong had been arriving in increasing numbers, mostly to labor in the gold mines, but some had stayed in their town, giving rise to passionate discussion.
“I have the menu written, Mr. Lassen,” Lola responded levelly, “but it’s here in my pocket, and I’m afraid my hands are a bit inky. Ox tail soup, venison with port wine sauce, rum omelettes.”
Lassen took a step into the acrid air of the Alta California newspaper office, then obviously thought twice about reaching into the pocket of his housemaid’s smudged apron. The editor Cleveland Wallingford leaped eagerly to their assistance, having no compunction about taking the menu from Lola’s apron and handing it to Lassen with a flourish and bow. In an office where hands were ink-stained more often than not, Lola and Cleveland were often forced to retrieve items from places even more intimate.
Scanning the menu, Lassen shot Lola a disenchanted look. His disapproval didn’t bother her anymore, as he disapproved of almost everything she did. It didn’t seem to make any difference how much effort she put into a task—he frowned upon everything she did, carte blanche. She thought him a strangely loathsome human being, strangely because he was admired throughout the town, and had a very hearty and friendly face for everyone other than her. Lola had abandoned the effort to discover why he hated her, although she had been given a few clues lately.
He managed to simultaneously frown at the menu as he stuffed it into his waistcoat pocket, while addressing Cleveland in a brotherly manner. “The Council is meeting tonight for the first time since May, now that we have enough men to meet, that is. The main topic will be the increasingly high cost of labor. Henry Powell, myself, and others are attempting to build sidewalks right outside the office here and a few blocks down to Broadway Wharf. We intend to sink those hundreds of boxes of Virginia tobacco lying around down there with no buyers, to help grade the streets. It’s a scandal what these interlopers are attempting to charge for an honest day’s work. They’re demanding more than a private at Monterey makes in a year just to build some wooden forms.”
“Yes, yes!” Cleveland agreed earnestly. “I’m working on an article on just that subject. The few men who haven’t gone to the diggings are just lying about, roaming the streets in gangs. I’m sure you’ve seen them in your City Hotel, too lazy to even try their hand at the mines.”
Lassen pointed at the teenaged editor. “Indeed I have! I can hardly give those idlers and brawlers the boot, since they make up most of my tenancy. They’ve taken over that rancid saloon across the street—“
“The Shades!” Lola inserted.
Lassen’s enthusiasm for his topic abruptly waned. After sniffing down his nose at his housemaid, his face brightened again as he addressed Cleveland. “I need some pilings driven for the new wharf, but where am I to find a hardy son of the West? Sherman down at Monterey has barely enough soldiers left to man a wheelbarrow, much less send any men up here to assist.”
Cleveland crossed his arms before his chest and nodded angrily. “This gold fever, it’s a violence that threatens to dispopulate Oregon. Every ship that arrives instantly disgorges all able-bodied men directly to the Sierra. Well, I know your stance on the graveyard of masts clogging our harbor.”
“Indeed, that’s why my next project is a new wharf, a central wharf grander than Broadway, if you care to make mention of that in your paper. That way we can land goods directly onto shore, instead of leaving these rotting hulks, nothing more than floating lodgings and stores. But labor be damned! Where am I to find a hale soul who isn’t corned on aguardiente and can lift a hammer?”
“If it’s any consolation,” said Cleveland, “men have already started returning from the mines for the winter. The rains have been worse than usual, so many are wintering over here.”
Lola had heard these grievances many a time while serving Lassen tea or the aforementioned odious aguardiente, but in her capacity as housemaid of course she wasn’t allowed to insert a peep of an opinion. At the moment, as a newspaper woman, she had the gall to speak. “Returning from the mines, yes, and weak as kittens from the horrifying work. Standing knee-deep in icy water, head bared to the blazing sun, it’s been the ruination of more than one idealistic diamond-brooched gentleman from the East. Bilious fever has claimed one man out of four, and they are daily dying.”
Again, her remark put a stop to all conversation. Cleveland had hired her after suspending his newspaper last June, when all of his reporters had run off after Cleveland himself had inspected the mines and proclaimed them to be “incredible reports invented by irresponsible scribblers.” Now with Lola’s help, he was able to put out an edition every two weeks. But Cleveland had not lost sight that Lola’s first allegiance was to Gage Lassen, Treasurer of San Francisco. Now Cleveland merely acknowledged her remark.
“Yes, Lassen, I can’t say as they’ll be much help to you. Busted flat and strapped after wasting their meager dust on whiskey, but hardly in any physical condition to drive pilings.”
Thoughtfully, with hand on chin, Lassen addressed only Cleveland. “You’re right, son.”
“Son,” that’s humorous, Lola thought as she sighed and grabbed an E key from the type box. Well, she supposed Lassen could be Cleve’s father. She’d seen correspondence to the effect that Lassen had been born in 1810. But she knew he only called Cleve “son” to remind the editor of his own highfalutin status.
“Well, keep your eyes skinned,” Lassen now said by way of departure. “Any able-bodied man willing to work for less than a private’s annual pay, send him my way.”
Cleve saluted mawkishly. “Aye-aye!”
And Lassen strode down the stairs of the crumbling grist mill where they had their offices, tail-coats sashaying in a manner that the Lola Moreno of a hundred lives ago would have found enticing.
Lassen was allegedly a very handsome man, but his acerbic attitude made Lola blind to this ostensible fact, and it annoyed her when anyone would mention his gentle blue eyes, richly waving chocolate hair, or, as one councilman’s wife would have it, his “perfectly erect form.” Bear’s ass, perfectly erect, Lola had thought, eavesdropping upon this worthy’s assessment of her master. You obviously aren’t familiar with “perfectly erect.” The damning aspect to their relationship was that Gage Lassen was so beloved by every citizen, worshipped and adored in the extreme for his deeds, such as establishing the first public school on land that he’d donated. It used to give her fits of apoplexy that he treated everyone else with such high class and manners, yet sought only her out for disdain.
How Lola wanted to be liked by everybody! The whole of her existence until landing in San Francisco had revolved around being liked. “Lola Moreno, the Spanish Dancer” had been lauded in the courts of Europe. Now she sat on a stool, fingers permanently stained, feet muddy to her ankles, bereft of her Cuban cigars.
She said brightly to Cleve, “Have you heard the story about a bandit in Coloma tying together the pigtails of six Celestial miners before cutting their throats? Maybe we should add that to this article before I print it.”
“I heard that too,” Cleve said, and Lola twitched to realize he’d been standing behind her ever since Lassen had left. “From Jake Muggins at The Shades, so I doubt it’s reliable. Lola,” he said, on an entirely different tack. “I’m very sorry Mr. Lassen treats you so deplorably. I can’t say as I understand it. I vow to you, once this town realizes the prosperity that it’s meant to have, I’ll employ you fully as a reporter so you can leave his employ. I’ll hire someone else to set type and print the papers, and have someone other than Ollie distribute them. We’re in the forefront of a modern nation!” He rattled a sample of their new masthead, which proclaimed the Alta California the “Mother of Newspapers.”
Swiveling on her stool, Lola looked up at the idealistic young man who beamed at her with the harmony and good feeling of his pioneering spirit. “That is very thoughtful of you, Cleve. I do see nothing but progress for this town and paper, although at the moment we’re surrounded by ruffians, loafers, and the dying.”
The downstairs door to the mill boomed hollowly once more, and the newspapermen heard heavy, clownish feet ascending the inner staircase, muted with shit and hay from the mule that turned the grindstone below.
“Cleve! Lola!” As though he’d been waiting in the wings for his cue, Oliver Denny burst into the printing office. Pivoting about wild-eyed with hands outstretched into claws, Ollie even resembled an actor in an Ethiopian serenade. Embalmed in his striped waistcoat and his outsized Mexican sombrero, he looked as though he should be strumming a banjo. He took a few steps to three corners of the room before he discovered them, immobile where they normally did their work. Lola and Cleve sighed simultaneously. Ollie worked for the Alta California in a nominal capacity and also clerked for Lassen in some vague manner. But in general, his impression was that of a gadabout.
“Cleve! Lola!” Ollie proclaimed again, as though surprised to discover them in their own offices. “The Layla Wolf has just entered the harbor!”
Lola half-rose from her stool. “With the company of Stevenson’s Regiment men? They’re not expected for another two weeks.”
Ollie pointed at her with a bony finger. “That’s the one! A whole platoon, or brigade, or whatever they call it, of lusty far-seeing travelers freshly mustered out of that noble army, New York Volunteers raw from fighting the good cause against the Mexicans, just rounded the Cape!”
Lola rolled her eyes to the ceiling. “Ollie. They didn’t even make it to the Far West in time to fight any Mexicans.”
Cleve added, “And they only came from Los Angeles.”
Ollie waved a dismissive hand at them. “What difference does it make? They’re raw from fighting something! We should go at railroad speed to the embarcadero before all of those employment agents spirit them away. And,” he added to an invisible bystander, “to see if they’re carrying any valuable cargo. Like pickaxes and shovels, crates of boots, casks of brandy. Or striped silk.”
“Or paper and ink,” Cleve mused.
A thought occurred to Lola. “Or Cuban cigars.”
She jumped instantly into action, wiping her hands carelessly on a rag, yanking her stockings up over her bare knees, and whipping her woven rebozo scarf over her head. Men with tales to tell! Always glad for any excuse to roam about interviewing newcomers, she grabbed her notebook and was the last to stumble down the rickety stairs, nearly bowling over the other two men in her zeal as they bodily shoved aside the recalcitrant mule.