Monday, September 8, 2008

Chapter 3: Reconnaissance

Lights the Storm Peltier steered Luis Santana into the bunkhouse by the shoulders and pushed him firmly down onto the split-log bench by the firebox. He then walked over to the table and sat down across from Saint, who happily helped him stare down the scruffy, waif-like teenager. He was careful not to put his elbows into the semi-permanent gooey patina of coffee rings, sorghum, and tobacco ash that coated its surface.

“Alright, Little Brother, it looks like I’ll get no sleep tonight until you tell us what she looks like.” He said. “Talk.”

“What?” Luis asked innocently. He studied his fingernails, feigning disinterest. Saint couldn’t help but smirk. It was a rare thing when his bunkmates were actually hanging on Luis’ every word and he could tell the boy wanted to savor the moment. He knew Luis liked having them at his mercy. This might be interesting after all. If the little punk played this right, he might have Tommy and Wash begging.

Saint’s dark eyes went to the table’s nasty surface, studying the lonely playing card that lay face down in front of him, a relic from the poker game they played three nights ago. He prodded it with his fingernail, intending to turn it over. It stuck to the table as if painted on. Maybe a new housekeeper around here might be a good thing…

“C’mon, Luis.” Lights The Storm prompted. “The new housekeeper.”

Luis scuffed a boot across the floor timbers, pounding a nickel-sized crumb of limp bread into the wood grain. “I dunno…”

Storm, looking at Luis in weary disgust, held an open palm out to Saint. Saint dropped a freshly rolled quirly into it and Storm tossed it to the stalling youth. Luis plucked it deftly out of the air and stuck it unlit between his lips.

“Hookay.” Luis said, drawing out the moment.

“Wait, wait!” Tommy interrupted him. “I wanna make a bet she’s blonde. Double duty chopping firewood. Any takers?”

Wash eyed him, thinking. “Much as I hate to say it, that’s the smart bet, lads. She likely looks like Jesse. Pass.”

Saint scowled. “Would you two shut up and let him talk?”

“Well, Wash, you missed a chance.” Luis held out his quirly for Saint to light. “She ain’t blonde. She’s got kinda light brown hair. Wears little spectacles like a schoolmarm or something. An’ she looks about Fiona’s age….”

“Fiona’s what? 19? 18?” Wash wrinkled his brow.

“She’s 19.” Storm said. “Quick, eyes, height, whatever. I want to go to sleep.”

“Lessee, don’ rush me. This is important stuff. “I think her hair’s kinda long, she had it piled on top of her head an’ it was comin’ out in little frizzies. Has light gray eyes. Looks like she’s been on the road some, an’ her face is a little red from the sun. She’s about as tall as….” Luis drew himself up to his diminutive height and gestured a couple of inches over his head. “This. About like Tommy. She’s a little skinny, but she carried them bags into the house before I got to her, so she must be strong enough. She’s sweet lookin’. Got a soft voice, too. I liked that.”

Wash smiled and started back with his boots. “I like her all ready.”

“Yeah,” Luis continued, puffing happily. “And she says she can cook, too. S’anyways, Fiona was buzzin’ around the know how she does...all excited that Miz Lily had showed up, and guess what she just had to do?”

Saint picked up his dog-eared novel and stuck his eyes back into it. “She made tea.”

“She made tea!” Luis quipped. “How’dja guess that, Saint?”

“I’m a damn genius.”

“You know if the world ended Fiona would have to have tea about it. She’s fussing around and I walk in and she says to me, in that proper Brit accent of hers, ‘Oh, good, Luis, here’s a cookie, love, please wait here till Miz Lily is ready to send her bags up.’ So Fiona’s already talkin’ about sending Miz Lily’s stuff up before Lynch even knows the girl’s on the property. Then she goes out and I’m guessing she went to Lynch’s office to tell him he had a new hire or else. You know how Miz Fiona’s been complaining there ain’t no girls out here to be friends with.”

“Isn’t that the truth.” Tommy said, leaning back down onto his bunk and settling his head comfortably into the rag-stuffed ticking pillow. “There aren’t enough girls around here by half. She wears glasses, huh? ” He mused happily. “We have something in common already. I would be so perfect if she had some really great…”

“Tommy,” Storm interrupted him in a warning tone, “You say something disrespectful about Jesse’s sister, and I’ll have to thrash you on his behalf. Watch your mouth.”

“Books, Storm! I was gonna say ‘books!’” You’re the one with the dirty mind! “

“I wish you coulda seen it.” Luis went on, warmed up to his subject. “He sat down across from her at the table, and gave her that look, you know, the one where he makes you feel like he can see right through ya and don’ like what he sees on the other side.”

Saint snorted derisively and with his free hand, continued to pick absently at the playing card that was fused to the table. “Bet that scared the hell out her, him with that naked skull and that beaky nose. He looks like some sort of deranged buzzard staring down something that ain’t quite dead yet.”

Wash laughed out loud, dropping his boots to the floor and wiping the grease from his fingers with a rag. “Oh, don’t ya know it. Talk about coming face to face with Grim Death....”

Luis took another drag on his quirly. “So anyways, Lynch looks her over, and there she’s sitting, just sweating bullets, right? He’s got this trapped, glassy look in his eyes, like he’s having some sort of conversation in his head that he’s losin’. Finally, he just sighs and goes ‘So, Miz McMillain.....a lot of cussin’ bother you?’”

Luis paused, correctly anticipating the gales of laughter broke out in the bunkhouse.
“You jerkin' me?.” Saint looked up from his book and stared at Luis, a grin of amazement stretching his face. “He really asked her that? You’re pulling our legs....”

“Nope. I swear. He asked her that.” Luis waited for the last bit of the bunkhouse chortling to die down before going on.

“So then she says, ‘Well, no sir, but it says right here on the contract there ain’t no swearing, drinking, or fighting allowed, so surely that doesn’t happen here.”

Again the bunkhouse exploded with howls. Luis took the opportunity to enjoy a couple of uninterrupted drags on his quirly. Gradually the snickers and snorts became a few isolated giggles, as Saint waved everyone into silence. Even Storm was listening, a dimple giving up its hiding place on his brown cheek. Luis raised his hand, as if swearing in at a trial.

“Okay, so Lynch hears that and he just stares at her like maybe he didn’t hear her right, and then finally he says ‘Oh, that’s right. My employees don’t do any of those things, swearing especially. What was I thinking?’ At that point, the room got so quiet that the only noise was me eating my cookie…so I stopped. That’s when Lynch turned to me and asked me to take her bags upstairs, so I’m guessing she was hired.”

“That was it?” Tommy raised an eyebrow. “‘Does a lot of cursing bother you?’ That was all he asked her?”

“Well, what else was he gonna ask her?” Saint smirked, abandoning the card and roaching back the tousled strands of hair that fell over his eyes. “Can you imagine him telling Fiona he wasn’t going to hire her? I’m surprised he even bothered to meet her first.”

Tommy frowned. “So, how come her last name’s McMillain?

Saint shrugged. “Jesse told me the two of them have different fathers.”

Lights The Storm gave a sigh of finality. “Great. Thanks, Little Brother. I’m sure we are all satisfied now. Everyone ready to shut up and let me go to sleep?” He stripped his pants back off and collapsed onto his bunk. “Good night, guys.” He said firmly.

Luis tossed the butt of the cigarette onto the rough timbers of the floor and ground it out under his bootheel. He got up and walked quietly to his bunk, pulling off his shirt as he went.

Saint blew out the lamp on the table and flopped down on his bed.

In the lamp, a small bit of wick flickered with a few vestiges of flame, rebelling against the walls of night that surrounded it. Swirling around in the smoke, it bounced against the glass of the lamp, refusing to accept its fate. Silent seconds ticked away until finally all of the burning embers had surrendered to the deep blackness of the bunkhouse.

Saint cringed as Tommy’s voice cut through the quiet darkness. “So, do you think she likes younger men?” He quipped. “I can’t wait till breakfast.”

© 2008 Regina Shelley

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