The fact that Davis and Luca were putting their pans and shovels away indicated, for all intents and purposes, that they believed the old girl would not be found that morning.
Johnny had been out on the hunt for over two hours, so the two men made the most of their time. They packed camp because they knew Johnny would cry and howl if they weren’t ready to join in as soon as he returned. As much as both of them wanted to stay and continue working their claim, Johnny would make such a proposition intolerable. He’d be a sobbing handful without Princess Soup-Bone in tow.
“He’s too superstitious, no? She was just another mouth to feed. We would have done okay without her.”
Davis sensed Luca ending the last sentence as if it were a question.
“Maybe,” Davis said. He wasn’t confident enough to fall on either side of the equation. He often liked to see things play out before making a decision. Some considered Davis spineless because of that. He figured it was just smart. The fact was Princess had only been with them a couple of months, and their newfound luck seemed mighty convenient after her arrival.
“I wouldn’t discount anything yet,” he continued. “If it wasn’t for her, we may have been many miles from each other right now–you on a cutter heading back around the Cape, Johnny probably drinking away his rheumatism in a dusty alley.”
Davis didn’t want to think about where he might have ended up. When he’d sailed out of the Boston harbor eight months ago, he’d sworn to his parents and siblings that he wouldn’t return until he could buy them each their own set of authentic Chinese porcelain tea cups. To face them again would be a humiliation of the first order. He wasn’t prepared to endure such. He’d always been considered a roustabout with his head in the clouds and his unremarkable homecoming would only go to prove the rest of the world right.
“Bah,” Luca said, skipping smooth stones across the creek while Davis continued working. The Italian was young and brash, not one to readily believe in much anything happening outside the material world influencing anything within it. Though he verbally disdained any notion of Princess acting as a benevolent messenger, in practice, he seemed to defer quietly if Johnny made a decision based on his peculiar beliefs.
My friends, Johnny had said with his Russian accent suddenly becoming thicker than his day-to-day speech, the Leshiy wood-spirits are alive and well. They come in time of need and must be respected!
As Davis strung together the handles of their tin pots and secured them to Becca, their mule, he laughed to himself that calling a wood-spirit Princess Soup-Bone was respectful. Yet Johnny took no issue with it and the name seemed to stick when Luca offered her an actual soup-bone on their first night of celebration.
After confirming Becca was fully loaded, Davis took a moment to admire the way the morning sun hit the calm waters streaming through their claimed section of Percy’s Gulch. They were the only ones in this area barely two miles south of the foothill town of Sonora. One month ago, they’d passed many folks coming the opposite way, always with a look of pity on their faces. They must have looked something awful, these three men in near rags following a fur-and-bones mutt. More than a few times, they were handed loaves of bread by traveling parties without a word being spoken–only eyes that said, “You poor things. So late to the party.”
It was true. Among the general population of California miners and those who made money from serving their needs, there was little doubt as to the slim prospects so close to Sonora. It was June of 1855 and this area had been well picked over since bodies came rushing over mountains and ocean six years prior.
Or so it was believed.
Davis and Luca had initially thought they were crazy to settle in and dig here, especially given how they had been down to hard biscuits and unseasoned pemmican. A hot pot of coffee had been a distant memory then.
But Princess insisted on stopping in this very spot and refused to budge. That was sign enough for Johnny. He’d taken to the brown-coated girl like a bee to a dandelion, following her in a semi-delusional state. Davis and Luca had been too worn down and tired to protest as he began unpacking Becca without so much as consulting them.
The three of them panned a little inlet that turned out to be rife with gold dust and the incident was certainly enough for Davis to wonder if just maybe, Princess Soup-Bone was truly sent to guide them. Davis would never forget that first day of slack-jawed disbelief followed by the loudest hootin’ and hollerin’ that he’d ever heard. Both Luca and Johnny had spouted off in their native languages–Luca with his passionate-sounding Italian and Johnny with his angry-sounding Russian (Johnny’s real name was Alexander Blinov, the last name meaning something akin to a pancake, so he said everyone had taken to call him Johnny after johnnycakes).
Within a week, they had seven jars filled to the brim with beautiful yellow flakes. Coffee, eggs, and even an occasional tour around the saloon brought all of their spirits to a new height. Davis commissioned a carpenter to build them a sluice box so that they could start hauling more at a time.
All was well for the past seventeen days until Princess disappeared some time in the middle of the night. Truth be told, her sudden departure left Davis on edge, but he was unsure if it was because she was what Johnny claimed her to be or just the downtrodden effect it would have on them all.
At that thought, there was a rustle in the woods behind them. Davis and Luca both turned to see Johnny running back into the camp, panting and wheezing, bent over with his hands on his knees.
“Someone took her,” he said breathlessly. “I know it.” There was tobacco spittle running down his graying beard and traces of tears carved into the grime on his cheeks. He had a wild aspect to his eyes that Davis had hoped would never return.
“Now hold on,” Davis said. “Why would someone come and take an old dog?”
Johnny gave him a reprimanding look.
“I know she’s more than that to us,” Davis quickly backpedaled, “but no one else knows that.”
Johnny ignored him. “We need to go to town,” he said. “She must be there. Or someone will have seen her.”
Davis eyed Luca who nodded back. “We figured as much,” Davis said.
Johnny looked around and saw the empty camp.
“You packed everything? No. No. Leave the tools,” Johnny said. “Someone will come and take our claim.”
Davis shook his head. “More likely someone will think twice if they find our equipment here,” he said. “Most people will pass this place by otherwise.”
Johnny hesitated for a moment, but then assented. “You’re right, you’re right. I’m just–”
And he left it at that as the three of them departed for Sonora.
It was no surprise that Johnny grew more melancholy by the minute, but Davis noticed a dousing of spirits in both himself and even Luca. After searching every alleyway and proprietor’s shop, calling out “Princess!” to the curious looks of the town’s citizenry, the three of them settled in at the place they’d started–Rosa’s Cantina.
It was close to noon and nearly every seat was taken. The bar was completely occupied. Only two tables were open on the floor. The trio had been seated in a dim corner, opposite from the finely dressed clerks and lawyers taking lunches of pork, beans, and tortillas. In another corner near a window was a piano player warming up with some scales before diving into instrumental versions of old spirituals.
“Maybe she’s elsewhere,” Davis said, eyeing the waiter dropping off a bottle of rye and three glasses. “I mean, she did just appear to us out of the woods. It could be she headed back from wherever she came.”
A part of him regretted saying that. Johnny may just want to head back north and retread old ground where they had first come upon her. A deflated Davis didn’t know if he was up for that. He’d much rather continue working their glorious secret.
Luca reached eagerly for the bottle. He yanked the cork out with his teeth and took a pull before pouring everyone a glass. Davis gave him a reprimanding look, but Luca just shrugged. Johnny didn’t seem to care a whit. Davis pushed the glass before him, completely unnoticed as Johnny’s eyes remained unfocused on the woodgrain of the table. He was bundled up in his heaviest gray coat as if it was the middle of January.
“Perhaps our time with her was at its end,” Johnny said. “The Leshiy are fickle creatures, you know. If they are not cherished properly…” A solitary tear splashed beneath his downturned face. Davis felt a wave of pink embarrassment sweep across his pale flesh as he knew Johnny was the edge of blubbering again.
“She ate just as well as we did!” Luca chimed in. He poured himself a second shot.
It was at that moment when Davis wondered if Johnny’s old gods had heard their lamentations and looked upon them with pity. Davis was facing the double-door entrance of the cantina while the other two men had their backs to it, so they could only judge by the frozen expression of his slightly parted lips and enlarged eyes that something peculiar was occurring.
Luca was the first to turn around.
“Princess!” he yelled, clamping his mouth with both hands, too far delayed after betraying his excitement.
Johnny craned his neck slowly as if he struggled within against facing further disappointment.
All of their eyes fell not so much upon the dark-looking, mustachioed man wearing a black bow-tie and blinding white shirt hidden only in parts by a thin red vest, but upon the panting creature who stood by his side, a thick piece of rope around its neck leading up to the man’s hand.
Davis correctly predicted that Johnny might do something rash. The Russian was already halfway out of his chair before Davis grabbed his arm.
“Now hold on,” he said. “That might not be her.” He didn’t even attempt to hide the lie with tone or convincing language. The hungry-looking eyes, the way she wagged her tail–as sure as buxom Maria upstairs was not a one-woman man, there was no doubt that was their girl.
“That’s her!” Johnny slapped his knee and hooted. Ripping his arm from Davis’ grip, he got to his feet and approached the gentleman.
The man gave Johnny a weary look. His right hand fell quickly to the swollen holster at his side. Davis and Luca weren’t men of violence, but each kept a single-shot belly-gun on their person in case things went awry, which was a distinct possibility at the moment.
As Johnny neared the stranger, he surprised the man by getting down on one knee and cupping both hands gently under the jaw of Princess Soup-Bone.
“Come, baba, are you going to give us a scare just like that? We took good care of you, didn’t we?” One hand reached up and scratched the back of her ears. Princess leaned into him and began licking the palm of his other hand.
Johnny rose onto his heels and now Davis and Luca stood two feet behind him. The man regarded all of them with a wariness. His hand still floated openly above the butt of his pistol.
“Thank you for looking after her, friend,” Johnny said. He stuck out a hand as if to shake. “We hope she’s been no trouble.”
Suddenly, the man smirked but did not offer his hand in return. “No trouble at all,” he said and looked down at Princess. “Came across her this morning as I was riding into town. She’s a friendly one.” Davis noticed that the man’s hand had moved from the gun and was now being used to tighten his grip on the rope.
Johnny stood there with a dumb smile on his face, waiting expectantly. The man began to move to the side and head towards an empty table, but Johnny moved quickly to intercept him. “If you want to keep the rope, you can untie her now. She will follow us.”
“Oh,” the man said. “Well, are you sure this is your dog?” He looked down. “I didn’t see a collar or brand anywhere.”
“Yes,” Luca spoke up. “She’s ours.”
“Huh.” The man stroked his mustache as if deep in thought. “Well, as much as I would like to believe you fellas, I can’t well and good just hand her over to any man claiming to be her owner. Now, you all come across as genuine and honest gentlemen, but looks can be most deceiving.” He eyed their dusty clothing as a banker inspects a potentially counterfeit bill. “What if you simply intend to cook her up and eat her?”
Johnny’s eyes grew wider than the Atlantic Ocean. “Sir, we would never think of such a thing.” He spat on the floor between his boots. Davis could sense the old firebrand was getting riled up.
“No, no, of course not,” the man said, putting his hands up in a defensive manner. “Forgive the insinuation. It’s just that I’ve grown a little attached. But, still, there must be some way around this conundrum.”
Back in Boston, Davis had considered himself a fan of the theater. Whenever a troupe was in the city or a new show was opening, the producer could always count on his attendance. He was well versed in the arts of the stage, and therefore it came as no surprise to him that the man before them was half-rate but good enough to convince the layman that every move he made was without prior motive and forethought.
“I have an idea!” the man exclaimed, reaching beneath his vest and pulling out a deck of cards. “It just so happens that I carry these wherever I go, you know, to play a little solitaire and whittle away the boredom that so frequently arises during travel. Now, I’ve just begun to get interested in poker and faro since coming out West. While I’m not very good, I do find the games thrilling.” He leaned into Johnny and raised his eyebrows. “What would you say, if you’re so inclined, to playing a round for her?”
Davis felt his whole being deflate. He knew nothing about cards and he’d seen Johnny only play an occasional hand, never walking away from a table with more than he arrived.
“We have nothing to put up,” Luca said.
“We have a sluice box, shovels, pans, and a mule,” Johnny spat out.
“Now, wait a minute,” Luca said, stepping in front of Johnny. “Just wait a min–”
“Deal,” the man replied, winking at Luca and reaching past him to clasp Johnny’s hand in a shake.
Luca looked as if he wanted to get his tiny hands around the necks of both men, but Davis pulled him back.
“A deal’s been made,” the conniver said as if speaking to Johnny but looking directly at Luca. “It would be a rather ungentlemanly thing to do if you were to break it.”
Davis noted that the man’s palm was once again near his holster. He wasn’t too thrilled with events playing out this way, but Johnny was past persuasion. He’d begun to think Johnny was right. Perhaps their streak of luck was destined to burn out as quickly as a shooting star.
“Looks like you’ve been kind enough to secure a table and drink,” the man said. “Let’s have some fun, shall we?” He took a seat against the wall and tied his end of rope to one of its legs. Princess Soup-Bone made a half-circle before lying down next to him. The man motioned for Johnny to sit on the opposite side. Johnny did so while Luca and Davis stood around him as if their mere presence could guard against the wiles of this man.
The stranger emptied the deck of blue-inked cards into one hand and tossed the box aside. With a deftness that filled Davis’s stomach with apprehension, the man shuffled the cards back and forth, up and down, left and right, all with the fluidity of the waters running through Percy’s Gulch. In his mind, Davis was calculating just how long it would take them to earn some new pans and shovels.
“You look like a man that knows his pasteboards,” the gambler said to Johnny. “What do you say to five-card draw?”
Johnny glanced down at Princess. Her sad eyes seemed to move upward and meet his simultaneously. Without averting his gaze, he deftly poured himself a shot of whiskey and slugged it down. “Sure,” he said.
“Great!” the blackleg said and poured himself a shot. He raised it to Johnny in silence and tipped it back swiftly, smacking his lips afterward. “What do you say we get warmed up? Start nice and slow. I’ll still put up the dog on this round, of course, but I’ll let you get away with a small ante. Say, only your shovels?”
He’d barely hit the end of his sentence before Johnny picked right up. “All of it,” Johnny said.
“Ooohhh,” Luca groaned, throwing his hands in the air. “Johnny, why? There’s no point–”
“If that’s how you’d prefer it,” the gambler said. He raised his eyebrows at Luca who grumbled, swiped the bottle of whiskey from the table and proceeded to suck on it like it was a nursemaid’s teat.
The man shuffled the deck once more and placed it face down on the table. “If you’d be so kind,” he said, extending an open hand.
Johnny reached out and tapped the cards with his knuckles.
A gasp of air exited Luca’s lips.
No cut, Davis thought. Why don’t we just call it quits right now?
As if he’d read Davis’s mind, the stranger bared his all-too-white teeth. He picked up the cards and dealt them until five lie face-down before each person, dropping the remaining draw pile between them both. Only the gambler reached for his hand while Johnny sat as still as a stone, his eyes glued to Princess Soup-Bone.
The man looked up at Johnny, and then at both Luca and Davis inquisitively.
The dread continued to build in Davis’s belly.
The man shrugged and said, “I guess we can skip the raising and calling. Care to look at your cards? Maybe you want to draw?”
Johnny appeared as if he were sleeping with his eyes open, still settled on the face of Princess Soup-Bone. “No,” he replied in a near whisper.
“Hm,” the gambler grunted. “Well, you sure play a little peculiar, sir, but I don’t like to make a man feel too much at a disadvantage. Therefore, I’ll play what’s in my hand as well. In fact, I’ll lay mine out first, than you.”
The man spread his cards face-up on the table. Three Aces and two Kings. He released a low whistle.
“Well, I’m certainly being smiled upon today!” He reached down and scratched the top of Princess Soup-Bone’s scalp. Her eyes turned briefly toward the gambler, but returned to Johnny’s. “I understand if you’d rather not turn yours over,” he continued thoughtfully. “No need to add insult to injury.”
Johnny absentmindedly reached for his cards. Davis turned towards the other patrons, watching them dine, smoke, and chatter happily. He knew what was coming. He didn’t have to see it happen.
A loud spitting sound shot past his ears along with drops of moisture splashing on his face. The scent of whiskey burned his nostrils.
“Hoooooo!” Luca shouted, stomping his boots up and down on the hardwood floors. The clamor was so loud that every face in the room turned toward them. Even the piano player fumbled a couple of notes before quickly returning to form.
Davis faced the table to see the magic held in Johnny’s cards: Four Queens.
He suddenly felt some of the unrealized tension leaving his muscles. Maybe Johnny knew more about gaming than he’d let on. Davis hoped so, anyway, as the blackleg seemed to break character and flinch slightly. His face grew flush and he jumped to his feet.
“Wait one second,” he said, “How….You must be one cheating sonbitch!” The gambler’s arm was pulled back, his hand reaching for his pistol before he suddenly yelped and fell backward on to his rear, knocking over the table and his chair, inadvertently releasing Princess Soup-Bone’s rope.
By now, the piano playing had stopped completely and half of the crowd was also standing, craning to view the source of the action. The barkeep came rushing over with a shotgun and a large man at his side.
“You get that mutt out of here!” he yelled.
Johnny bent down, swept up Princess Soup-Bone and held onto her tightly as she released her jaws from the gambler’s left calf.
In an instant, the four of them were through the swinging double-doors, untying Becca, and making for the town’s exit. It wasn’t until they were a hundred yards out of Sonora when the two men slapped Johnny on the back, congratulating him.
“Johnny,” said Davis, “I didn’t know you were such a blackleg yourself!”
Johnny looked at him with serious eyes. “I’m not,” he said, moving his gaze toward a panting Princess.