Mr. Eberlings Son

Part 1 - Trunk

I

A train, pouring smoke and steam into the air, followed the narrow-gauge train tracks, which wound around the edges of the steep slopes of the Rocky Mountains. It followed them up through a pass just below the lower edge of the snowcaps and dipped down into a small valley. Wheels squealed and rang as it slowed on its approach to the train station of the mining town of Deep Spring.

The train station overlooked a valley, in which spread the small village, most of it settling at the base of the valley in the form of several small streets branching out from the main thoroughfare. These small streets pooled in the center of the valley and trickled upslope in small rivulets at the edges of the town.

Once the train stopped, cargo and post were unloaded by men tossing them out of the doors of the rearmost cars. A few people stepped out of the passengers cars in front with a few others stepping on. Flint who had been sleeping was jilted awake by the stopping of the train. He was nestled in the straw of one of the freight cars in the back and shivered in the mountain air under worn, ill-fitting clothes. As he began to awake he immediately started to panic when he noticed the train stopped. Was this his stop? Was this Cripple Creek? How long had he been asleep? He poked his dirty face out the side to try and see a sign, but he saw nothing on the platform. He couldn’t tell where he was just by looking. He stepped out and ran down the platform hurriedly to ask a passenger, “What city is this?” The passenger pretended to ignore the unpleasant vagrant and moved away.

Flint approached the conductor, who hastily told him, “This is Deep Spring,” waving to the far end of the platform and stepping on the train as it began to pull away. Flint swore angrily. Cripple Creek was still more than an hour away, and he ran back towards his car.

As he ran, the conductor called after him, “What are you doing?” Flint tried to get on the train, but a station agent had emerged to restrain him. The station agent admonished, “Whatever are you doing there? You trying to get hurt? You can’t do that. You want passage, you got to get in one of the passenger cars, while the train is stationary.”

Flint broke free of the station agent and tried to run and catch the train again once he realized he’d left his bag on the train, but the train was already too far ahead. He slowed down and watched the train recede, swearing again with frustration as he stomped his foot and threw his hat to the ground. He had little in the way of possessions, but it was still just as bitter to lose all he had.

He walked back to the train station, and he asked the station agent, “When’s the next train coming through here?”

“The next passenger train is scheduled for tomorrow, 09:42,” the agent replied, “This is the only line.”

Flint swore again, now picking up his hat and asking the agent, “Where can I get a place to sleep the night here?”

“There’s a hotel down there in town. They can set you up real nice. I believe there’re a handful people advertising for boarders too. Go ask the postman.”

“I can’t afford none of that,” Flint said shaking his head, “I was traveling somewhere to find work, so I could earn some chink, which I don’t have.”

“That’s between you and yourself, then,” the agent said walking away, “I can’t help you.”

Flint started on his way into town. The road curved down to Clark Street, the main thoroughfare, which formed the heart of the village. This wide, dirt road saw a modest amount of foot traffic walking along its edges. In the center of the street, a covered carriage trotted forward while, in the opposite direction, a man led a packed horse. Several storefronts crowded into the center of town, fronted by garish signs and canvas awnings shading the wooden boardwalk. The many houses spread outwards from here in small meandering streets which extended up the slopes at the edge. Along one of these slopes, a small smelting plant discharged black smoke out of two tall stacks extending from its roof. Away from the city center, three major avenues radiated outwards, one towards the mines just to the east, another south towards the railway station, and one towards the village’s one great estate, where a large mansion looked from above over the village.

Two dancing girls waited out in front of a saloon called The Bugle Post beckoning Flint and everyone else who passed by. Flint was tempted to go in, but with nothing in his pocket he knew it would do no good.

He entered the small post office where a slender man asked in clipped words, “Can I help you?”

Flint approached the man meekly with hat in hand and explained to him, “I have to holdover in the city for the night. I was heading through to Cripple Creek, you see, where I heard there were some mining jobs and got trapped here. You reckon there’s a place around here where a feller could work himself for a night’s board?”

“Sorry sir. I don’t know of such a thing,” the postman said, “There is the hotel, The Clark House. And the saloon, The Bugle Post, has rooms. If you want something on the cheap, I believe Sam, who runs The Bugle Post, lets people sleep on the floor of his billiard room for a few bits. Better than a stable, I reckon.”

An older man entered the post office. “I have come here to collect Mr. Eberling’s mail for today, if you please,” the older man interrupted, speaking with fluid articulation. The man was dressed in an immaculately clean suit, a difficult feat to achieve in a dusty mining town like this. His tie was precisely tied, his hair crisply combed and fixed, without a strand astray.

“The train’s not as consistently on time as you, I’m afraid. I just got the mail, and I’m still sorting it. It’ll only be a couple of shakes,” the postman replied courteously, turning back to his mail sorting.

The older man remained there, stiff and motionless, but through the corners of his eyes he looked in Flint’s direction. Becoming more curious he started to turn his head towards him, looking at him with his full eyes, inspecting him. Flint noticed the leering stare and began again to fidget uncomfortably.

“Here you go Horatio,” the postman said as he turned back around and handed a few letters and a small package, “Say hello to Mr. Eberling for me.”

Horatio grabbed the mail and left, but he gave Flint another hard look as he walked away.

“Who was that?” Flint asked the postman.

“Horatio,” the postman said, “He’s Mr. Eberling’s man. Always punctual. Mr. Eberling hired him to keep things in perfect order, like a secretary-butler portmanteau. He’s very good at it. As for the rest of us, since we don’t have our own Horatio, we’ve got to do that ourselves, which is why I’m afraid I can’t sit here and talk with you.”

“Who is Mr. Eberling?” Flint asked.

The postman rolled his eyes with impatience, “Flush man who lives in the big house on the hill. He owns the mines and most of the land around here.” The postman then suggested, pointing in the direction that Flint had arrived from, “Look fella, how about you try going down to The Bugle Post. See if you can do some cleaning for Sam in exchange for him letting you sleep in there. That’s all I can say.”

“Thanks,” Flint said and he left the post office.

Flint followed down the boardwalk until he came once again upon the saloon with the two dancing girls in front. The two women smiled at him as he walked by, saying “Welcome, good sir.”

Inside was a modest tavern, with a lean man tending the bar. The man wore a white, striped button-down shirt with a pair of sleeve garters around his upper arms and an apron around his waist. Above his head three stuffed heads, of two elks and a moose, with large racks of antlers protruding from them, decorated the wall along with several framed photographic portraits spread at eye-level along the wall. A billiard table and a faro table were set up, both currently unused, along with several small, round tables, some occupied, arranged around the small stage opposite the bar. There was an upright piano next to the stage, where a man sat at the bench taking a break by gulping down a beer. And near the center of the room an enclosed stove with a black pipe extending up to the ceiling provided the only heat.

The lean man behind the bar looked Flint up and down and asked immediately, “You got any money?” Behind him several bottles of hard liquor were arranged in a row in front of a mirror, in which Flint caught a glimpse of his shabby appearance.

Flint sat down at the bar and looked up at the man and said, “No. You Sam?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. But as he got a good look at Flint he remarked, “Do I know you? You look like someone I know.”

“I’m looking for a place to sleep the night. I’ll work for a night’s lodging if possible,” Flint said.

Sam, though, didn’t seem to hear him. He was still thinking about how familiar Flint’s was and scrutinized it carefully. After a few moments, he shouted, “Crimany! Jasper! That’s who it is. Indeed! This is the most amazing thing.” And he reached across the bar and grabbed his hand to shake it vigorously, “Jasper, my boy! You’re back! Since when? It can’t be. You look so different. That beard does not become you.”

Flint recoiled a little in surprise and was at a loss to speak, but he replied honestly to the question, “I just arrived today. Fresh off the train.”

Flint tried to conceal the fact that he was more than a little confused.

“Take a drink!” Sam said, pulling out a glass and pouring out a glass of warm lager, “Do you want to take one of my girls upstairs? Dip your prick? All new lineup since you last came. The Jasper I remember could never say no. Though, you do smell like the first thing you ought to be dipping into is a bath, don’t you agree?” Flint hesitated uncertainly and didn’t say anything before Sam continued, “You do remember you’re pal Sam, don’t you?”

“It has been a while, but I remember,” Flint smiled and laughed uncomfortably, “Do you have a place for me to sleep tonight here?”

Sam looked at Flint oddly, asking, “What? Did your father kick you out of the house?”

“The house?” Flint asked, reluctantly.

“The house. Yes. The mansion would be more accurate. Where you live. That is, used to live.”

“Actually, I haven’t been up there since I arrived. Just here and the post office. I saw Horatio there.”

“Let me guess. He didn’t recognize you,” he said excitedly, “Ha! I knew it. It takes a keen eye, you know? Especially since it’s been so long. But give him another chance and he’ll recognize you. Particularly if you were to shave off that mangy beard. I’m sure he’ll recognize that clean cut smock-face of yours.”

Flint didn’t react in exactly the way Sam expected. Sam added, “I’m getting the sense that you’re hesitant. You really needn’t be. Whatever it was that caused you to leave in the first place, whatever bad blood it was, I’m sure it’s easily forgotten. Your dad has missed you. I know. Though that teetotaling mugwump never comes here, everyone says so. He’ll be glad to see you. Really! In fact, you ought not be here talking to me. Your dad has only so many days left in him. I’m proud that you decided to visit me before your father, but now that we’ve met, you really need to get up there.”

“Up there?” Flint asked, pointing in the direction of the mansion he’d seen.

“Yeah, up there,” Sam said with a laugh.

“Yeah. I reckon I’ll do that,” Flint said, still reluctant and uncertain, but trying to look sanguine, “But we’ll talk again soon.”

“No problem, Jasper,” Sam said, “I’m glad I could be of help.”

Flint couldn’t leave behind a full glass, and he picked the beer and gulped it down. He walked out the door, again passing the two dancing girls, who again smiled as he moved down the main street in the direction of the mansion.

Clark Street looked directly up towards the mansion, which rose on a hill above the rest of the city. It was a stately building—tall walls of red brick with white trim and a black roof, numerous large windows, multiple chimneys, and a many-gabled roof. To one side was a veranda, located beneath a second-story terrace, which was supported by a row of wooden, Corinthian-style columns. The driveway encircled a fountain edged by flowers and shrubs, and a porte-cochere extended over this driveway.

Flint entered the property through a tall, wrought iron gate. Flint crossed the drive and ascended the steps up to the large oak door hung with a great bronze knocker. He lifted the knocker to knock on the massive door, and a deep echo passed through the house.

Very promptly Horatio was at the door and in his prim manner, he asked, “May I help you, sir?”

Flint had quite expected, after having talked to Sam, that Horatio would’ve reacted differently, immediately recognizing him as this Jasper person and taking charge from there. At that, he was caught on his heals, and stammered uncomfortably, “I was looking for lodging for the night, if you could offer it to a poor vagrant such as myself.”

Horatio gave not the least visible sign of any acknowledgement, but he did say, “If you please come in, you may address your request to the master of the house.”

It was encouraging to Flint that he wasn’t immediately kicked out, which is the response he suspected would probably be the norm of a rich servant to a filthy beggar.

Flint followed Horatio as he led the way up a wide, curving stairway to the second floor. At the top of the stair a lanky, dark-haired female servant was hunched over, scrubbing the floor with a brush. As she saw a stranger approaching she stood up, lowering her eyes and holding her hands in front of her respectfully as she waited for him to pass. But as he got closer, she looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. After staring at him for a few moments she abruptly froze. She then for a moment forgot all decorum and reached out and pulled his filthy body against her for a hug. She pulled him against her and held him there silently. She had a small face with the milky skin of an indoor laborer and long straight hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Horatio gave her a minute. Then he cleared his throat and gently separated them, saying, as if in excuse, “Mr. Eberling needs to see him.”

Horatio found Mr. Eberling seated in his study, while a wealthy socialite from the women’s social club wearing a billowing dress leaned over his desk and laughed heartily as she talked to him. They had just finished discussing a charity fundraiser that Mr. Eberling intended to support and Mr. Eberling had injected some friendly banter in at the end before she was about to leave.

The woman straightened up as soon as she saw Horatio and the stranger at the door. She politely said goodbye to Mr. Eberling with a warm smile and curtsied quickly to Horatio as she passed him.

She said to him “I’m in a hurry, so I’ll ask Patrice to see me out. Good day,” and quickly left the room.

The office had wood paneled walls, decorated with oil paintings and topped with intricate crown molding. On the walls were several shelves of books inset into the wall, and on one side was a large fireplace. In the middle of the room Mr. Eberling’s large wooden desk strewn with papers sat between him and the men entering the room.

Mr. Eberling followed the woman out with his eyes and then looked to Horatio, now approaching with an enshadowed stranger behind him at the threshold. Horatio whispered into Mr. Eberling’s ear.

Mr. Eberling gestured for the stranger to come forward, telling him “Let us see you.”

Once Flint came closer and stepped into the light, Mr. Eberling rose feebly from his chair and looked on in amazement.

“Jasper?” Mr. Eberling asked incredulously. He examined the face as he walked towards Flint and said, “Is this Jasper finally returned?”

As he approached, looking at Flint more carefully he said, “I know this face. It is yours.” He smiled and laughed a little. He shouted excitedly. “It can’t be you. I never thought I’d see you again.”

Flint held back still stiff and uncertain. After waiting too long for Flint to speak, Mr. Eberling burst out, “Well, say something.”

After a moment of hesitation Flint said cautiously, “How can I deny it?”

Mr. Eberling leapt forward with an eagerness unbecoming the old man, pulling Flint entirely towards him with a huge hug, and grasping him with all his strength.

“This is so wonderful!” Mr. Eberling said quietly, looking up into Flint’s eyes, “How I’ve missed you. I thought you’d never come back.” Turning facetious, he added, laughing “You smell like you haven’t bathed since I last saw you. We’ll have to attend to that.”

After a pause, the smile fell and Mr. Eberling stepped back, admonishing, “Why did you come like this? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? And why’d do you leave me guessing all this time? Couldn’t you have sent a message? By wire, post, carrier pigeon. Anything, rather than leave me in the dark.”

He leaned back waiting for Flint to say something, “Well speak up boy! Don’t you have something to say to your father?”

Flint warmed up with a big smile and looked at Mr. Eberling and said, “It’s great to be here.”

“That’s all you have to say?” Mr Eberling asked. Then he sighed and conceded, “I’ll leave the questions for later. Don’t think you’ll be avoiding them. I have many. But let us have you cleaned up first. Unless you’re famished. We can eat now. My God, you’re so skinny. Maybe you ought to eat first.”

“I’ll bathe first,” Flint answered, supposing that this would be what this Jasper person would say in this situation.

Flint tried to walk away, but Mr. Eberling continued to hold onto Flint’s hand and still examined him carefully. “I’m hesitant to let you even out of my sight lest you run away again,” He admitted. “But I’ll let you alone while you bathe,” he conceded, releasing his hand, “As soon as you’re ready we’ll meet in the dining room and parley.”

Just as Flint was leaving, Mr. Eberling stopped him and looked at him again and said, “I thought I’d never see you again. It’s really you.”

Horatio led Flint out of the study asking, “Are you certain you want to bath before we dine?” Flint’s stomach grumbled fiercely, but he nodded. Horatio added, “I had thought I recognized you when I first saw you, but I was not certain. It was absolutely necessary that I present you to your father first. He would not be mistaken. Especially since it has been several years, and you are so pale and slender. And with that beard you have, you look quite altered. I’m used to a clean-shaven stout man in his sparkling suits. That being said, it is really wonderful to have you back. Like your father, I am immensely eager to hear what has happened to you in the interim.”

Horatio led him to a tiled bathroom, where a tub was set in the middle. Over the course of several trips from the kitchen, he filled the tub with water, bucket-full by bucket-full. Flint stepped into the warm water and, upon settling into it, felt as if months of grime peeled away.

Horatio offered to shave his face, but Flint declined. It felt like a mask to Flint, something that if trimmed away would surely reveal to these people that he and this Jasper person looked completely different. Horatio insisted that he must at least trim it, since it had become overgrown and haggard. Flint allowed this, and Horatio trimmed the beard with scissors and touched the razor to the edges, sharpening the lines. Horatio insisted that he must trim his hair, which was overgrown and knotted. Flint permitted him to trim it a little, even as he felt that the closer they brought his external appearance to the Jasper they knew, they more evident the differences would start to become. Horatio brushed through the wiry hair and trimmed the long curls that puffed outwards atop his head, laying his hair flat.

Stepping out of the bath and dressing in a bathrobe, Horatio led Flint to his bedroom, a large, beautiful room with a massive four-poster bed, a huge wardrobe and an ornate chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Through the windows he could see the whole village spread out below him. When Horatio opened the wardrobe, Flint saw that it was filled with clothes, clothes long unworn that had evidently belonged to Jasper. Horatio removed one suit, which still looked in decent condition and offered it to Flint. He was reluctant to put it on, but after Horatio absolutely refused to let him put back on the dusty clothes he’d arrived in, he conceded. He found that it fit him fairly well.

“You have lost some weight, Master Eberling,” Horatio commented, “We shall have to take these in around the waist. And oddly the sleeves are a bit short. Maybe it shrank, or you have had a late growth spurt,” Horatio chuckled, “We can take care of that too, of course.”

 

II

When Flint entered the dining room and presented himself, Mr. Eberling found that he looked much more like the long lost son he had remembered.

He waited for him seated at the dining room table where plates were already set out for dinner. Mr. Eberling rose to have a better look at his son, and he again took him in his arms and cried a bit on his shoulder.

“Oh my, I’ve missed you so much. I thought I wouldn’t live to see you again.” Mr. Eberling stood back and looked up into Flint’s eyes, and his own eyes smiled beneath the wet of tears.

“I bet you’re starving!” Mr. Eberling announced heartily, “Please sit. Your cheeks look hollow, like you’ve hardly eaten in days.”

As soon as Flint sat down the dark-haired servant from earlier stepped into the dining room with a bowl of soup and placed it before him. The servant placed a hand on his shoulder, and she said, “I didn’t have the chance to say that it’s nice to see you again Master Eberling.” Flint looked up and smiled to her as she left the room.

Flint started eating as soon as the bowl was put in front of him. He didn’t wait for Mr. Eberling to be served but wolfed down the soup as fast as he could, hunching over his food as he ate.

Mr. Eberling merrily dismissed the impropriety, just as a bowl was placed in front of him, by telling him, “You must be hungry.” Flint for the first time realized that he’d done it improperly and halted self-consciously. He looked at Mr. Eberling and observed the way he ate, slowing down his eating and straightening his posture.

“Don’t wait for me, Patrice,” Mr. Erbling said to the servant, “just bring him his steak.”

Patrice went to the kitchen and brought out a large slab of steak with mashed potatoes covered in beef gravy on the side. Jasper stared at it in amazement and whispered, “You mean there’s more?” under his breath.

“It must have been a long time since you’ve eaten well,” Mr. Eberling smiled pleasantly, “You must tell me what you’ve been up to.” Flint was about to speak with a mouthful of food, when Mr. Eberling raised his hand, and told him “But after you’ve finished eating, of course. You’re so starving, you’ve forgotten your table manners.”

Flint had trouble slowing his eating, but he tried his best to mirror Mr. Eberling’s stiff posture and slow, smooth movements.

“You’ve lost the noble bearing of an Eberling,” his father jokingly commented, “But don’t worry it’ll come back to you. It’s all just a bunch of affectation and masquerade.” Mr. Eberling added, as an afterthought: “Come to think of it, you might fit in better in my business if you acted more like our common workers. They’d probably like that better than the refined and formal old patrician they’ve got as a boss now.”

For the first time he could remember Flint had been served more than he could eat, and he had to push away the remainder of the food. Flint could not think of having left a table full and with food left over, and he looked at the food guiltily, his mind instinctually thinking he should hold onto it just in case he had none for tomorrow. The servant, though, came in and took away his plate nonchalantly and returned with even more food, placing a bowl of ice cream in front of him.

Flint poked at the ice cream incredulously with the spoon he’d been given. He wanted to ask what it was, but suspected that he should know. Mr. Eberling was still working on his steak, and he lacked guidance on how to eat it. He scooped out a bit and, when he touched it to his tongue, was surprised to find it so cold. Quickly it melted, and he tasted the vanilla flavored cream with delight. He had never tasted something so sweet and delicious.

Mr. Eberling looked at him with a large smile, commenting, “You look like you’ve never eaten ice cream ever before in your life. Have you really so entirely forgotten the taste?”

After dinner they sat together in the drawing room and smoked. Mr. Eberling, while sitting before a fire burning in the fireplace with a pipe in his hand, told Flint, “I’m quite surprised that you haven’t asked about your mother.”

Flint was at first startled by this question, visibly displaying a shocked expression and feeling perspiration rising to his skin. But he recovered, and responded ambiguously, “I wanted to, but I was afraid to ask.”

“As you ought to be,” Mr. Eberling replied with a sad smile, “If you’d expected the worst, you’re right. She’s left this world for another. She passed away nearly two years ago.”

“I’m sorry to hear it,” Flint said, lowering his eyes and letting the silence protract.

After a few moments of silence, Mr. Eberling perked up and said, “Well, we can’t wait any longer. You’ll have to tell us about what’s happened. Where have you been? Why did you leave? And whatever happened to your sister? We’re all curious to know.”

Mr. Eberling took a seat in a large chair. The two servants stood in the back of the room, equally eager to hear what’d happened.

“You’ll be disappointed,” Flint began, trying to speak more slowly and carefully than usual, the way he heard Mr. Eberling speak, “It hasn’t been anything exciting. I’ve just been travelling place-to-place getting work where I can find it. I’ve been doing some construction, farm work, clearing land, and some mining work when I can find it.”

“Mining?” Mr. Eberling brightened up excitedly, “Now that’s my son. I worked in the belly of the mines myself too when I was young. There’s no way you can fully understand how to run a mining business, until you’ve spent some time working in them. I’ve always told you that, but you never listened, before. And now I find you’ve been working as a common miner all this time! So wonderful! But I must apologize for interrupting. Do go ahead.”

“The mining wasn’t the worst work I’ve done. At least I didn’t have that blasted sun burning down on me, though it’s dreadful dangerous and toilsome,” Flint commented. He cleared his throat and continued, “I’ve been travelling by train, mostly. Seen many parts of this country. See, that’s why I wanted to go. To get out and experience things and see new places.”

“I could have sent you travelling, son,” Mr. Eberling rose from his chair, “You didn’t have to do it like that. You didn’t have to run away without telling anyone and for so long! Did you really need to spend so many years travelling? I don’t know whatever could’ve kept you, when you knew that you had a father here who loves you, and friends too, some of which aren’t going to be around forever. It was selfish of you!”

Flint looked up towards him intimidated and speechless. After a long silence, he said, “I know and I’m sorry. I know it was selfish. I had to do these things on my own, is all, get out and see things for myself. I ought to have come back sooner.”

Mr. Eberling took a deep breath, letting the anger be breathed out of him as he exhaled. “I’m unfortunately obliged to accept your apology,” He said, “So what exciting stories do you have for us, Jasper? Come now, you were always great at spinning a good yarn.”

There was a long pause as Jasper hastily sorted through his memories in search of something noteworthy. There were many umms and errrs before Flint spoke. “Well there was the time one of them farmer’s bulls escaped and chased after us and damn near gored me in the prat… I mean, in the behind,” Flint began, “It was quite scary since the lot of us were running around off our nut, and trying to hide, while the one guy who actually knew a thing or two was running off to get his horse. We looked like a bunch of scatterbrained fools.” Then there was a long pause after he finished as everyone waited for the denouement. Flint merely added, “And that’s it. One feller caught the horse and no one got hurt.”

“Yes, good,” Mr. Eberling said with a polite smile as the room fell silent and conversation came to a stop.

“You know I believe we ought to save the rest of this talk for tomorrow,” Mr. Eberling said to break the silence, “I just realized I ought not be keeping you up so late when you are so tired. Be assured that we want to hear more, but I believe you’ve satisfied us for the night. One more thing, though. We really must know what happened to your sister?”

“I don’t know,” Flint said innocently, “She wasn’t with me.”

“I had thought she’d gone with you,” Mr. Eberling nodded gravely, saying, “She disappeared at precisely the same time. Well, that’s too bad.” His face was full of disappointment as he added, “Get some rest. You need it.”

As Flint was leaving the room, Patrice said to him meekly, “Sir, would you like me to turn down your bed as usual?”

Flint answered uncertainly, “Yes. Please. You’re so nice to offer. It’s awful kind of you.” But then he cut himself off, thinking that perhaps he wasn’t supposed to thank her. She left the drawing room and ascended the stairs towards his room.

Mr. Eberling ascended the stairs with Horatio beside him and noted to him, out of earshot of Flint, “He does seem quite different, don’t you agree? I’m not the only one to notice how Jasper’s changed?”

“Undoubtedly sir,” Horatio nodded, “There are clear differences. Almost as if he is not the man he claims to be.”

“Of course he is,” Mr. Eberling, “The years have merely changed him. We’ll have to get used to the new Jasper.”

“If you were merely to ask him about a story from Jasper’s youth that only Jasper knows about, that would prove it quite adequately, would it not?” Horatio said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mr. Eberling nodded, meditatively, “I’m glad to have him back. We don’t want to antagonize him and have him running away again. Don’t talk anymore about this nonsense.”

“Indeed, sir,” Horatio replied.

Mr. Eberling said his goodnight and entered his bedroom while Horatio departed. Flint followed behind them and entered Jasper’s room, removing his jacket as he entered. When he stepped inside and closed the door, he was surprised to see Patrice still there, standing beside his bed. She slowly folded back the covers for him while she shyly turned her head partially towards him, just glimpsing him out of the corner of her eye.

She unbuttoned the buttons of her dress slowly, letting it fall to the floor. Underneath the dress she wore a cotton shift over cotton drawers. She removed the shift, shyly covering her exposed chest.

She was a woman approaching middle age, and though the flower of her youth was fading, she still had much of the beauty of her prime. Her body was firm, like a person who’d lived a physical and active life, but also youthful, like a person who’d been sheltered.

She turned her head slightly more towards him as she removed her drawers and quietly stepped into the bed.

Flint caught a glimpse of her small breasts and the triangular patch of hair between her legs. The images of the many whores he’d purchased over the years flashed through his head. Though the desire for sex was almost overpowering, he guided himself by the image of Jasper that he had formed in his mind.

“Um, Patrice,” Flint said, looking for his words, “You don’t have to do that. That’s not necessary.”

Patrice’s face fell and she held back a few tears, while she said, “I’m very sorry sir. I know you must be disappointed. I have aged markedly since you last saw me. I will leave at your behest.”

“No, no, you don’t need to leave,” Flint said approaching, his desire to comfort her overcoming his desire to be like Jasper, “Please, don’t be upset. It’s just been a long time, and I’m still trying to get used to the way things were.” He paused for a few moments, regaining his composure, and added, trying to be comforting, “You’re still very beautiful, and I know I’ve gotten older too. I don’t mean I didn’t want it, just that I want to wait.”

The words seemed to comfort Patrice, and the sadness left her face.

“Would the master permit me to sleep beside him tonight, at least,” she asked meekly.

Flint nodded, “That would be delightful. Of course.” He undressed and stepped into the warm bed beside her.

“May I move closer, with your permission sir?” she asked. When he nodded she moved her warm naked body close to him and put one arm over him.

In that frozen position, the two of them slowly faded to sleep. Flint reached sleep first, and Patrice watched him while he breathed his heavy breaths, before joining him soon after.

Jasper had spent the day hiking across his acreage with only a brimmed hat to protect him from the sun, while he inspected and repaired the miles of fence that enclosed his land. His only escape from the heat of day along his arid, mostly treeless farmland was the small farmhouse he shared with his wife and child. Inside he found his wife, Isabel, preparing some corn and bread. The cool of the indoor shade was refreshing and he scooped up a sip of water from a barrel.

He spoke to his wife in Spanish, with his homey American accent: “If I recall the date correctly, I believe my papa’s birthday’s soon to arrive.”

“You father’s birthday?” she asked in her fluent Mexican accent, the words rapidly flowing off her tongue, “Why are you thinking about it now? We haven’t celebrated it before.”

“It’s only that,” Jasper mused, removing his hat from his sweat-soaked brow, “he’s getting closer to death each day—him and my mama both—and I want to return in order to see them. I want to forgive and forget and be with them a little more before they die.”

“You want to travel all the way there to see them?” she asked, “You’ve told me your home town is very far. How long will this take? We have many things to attend to that do not wait—crops, animals, my parents, our child. You can’t just set these aside. And I can’t attend to all of them by myself while you travel.”

Jasper stared off silently and disappointed. Their small boy hung in a cloth stretched out like a hammock underneath the table. Isabel rocked him gently with her knee while she worked on the food and he now quietly dozed.

Isabel said: “You’ve told me many times that you were going to write to them. Do it this time. Post a letter to your parents. Please, I want you to. Invite them to come here. I want to meet them.”

The thought of writing his parents made Jasper visibly angry, but he tentatively promised, “Yes, I will do it this time.”

“Right now?” she asked.

“No,” he said, letting some of that anger seep into his words, “I still have things I have to do while I can, while the sun’s still up.”

“But tonight you will?” she asked.

“Yes, I will,” Jasper said, leaning over and kissing his wife on the cheek as she smiled warmly. He returned to the outdoors to his finish the day’s duties.

That night, Jasper sat lethargically in the corner. The heat and sun had sapped all of the energy out of him and he only put off his sleep for the sake of his letter. While Isabel, on the other side of the room, cleaned up the kitchen after their dinner, she watched him, waiting for him to begin his letter.

“If there’s one thing I miss about my former life,” Jasper said out of nowhere, “It’s the respect. No, even more than respect: subservience. When I was young, I was the son of the first man in town. Adults many years senior to me deferred to me. Here, they may respect me as hard-working, but they don’t look up to me. Nay, they look down on me as an outsider. I look like an American, I talk like an American, and they think when they see me, ‘there goes that gringo.’”

Isabel chose not to respond to what he said, and instead reminded him: “Jasper, you said you were going to write that letter to your parents. Remember? You promised me.”

“I did indeed,” Jasper said, “I’ll be at it in a moment. I just was thinking about what I would use for paper. I don’t believe we have any paper here. Tomorrow, I’ll get some paper and write it then.”

“No, tonight Jasper,” Isabel insisted, “If I let you put this off once, you’ll put it off forever.”

“Without paper? Impossible. What do you expect me to do?”

Isabel made a loud, exasperated sigh and crossed the room. She picked up a few books they had and flipped through them hastily. One of them, a pious book of sermons, she found with a blank page at the end and she tore it out. On the one side was the publisher’s imprint along with a list of other books by the publisher, but the other side was blank. She slammed the paper on their table and said, “Here! Here’s your paper. You think you can find ink or do I have to do that for you too?”

Jasper pulled himself up onto his feet, scrounged around for a bottle of ink and a pen and sat down at the table with a small burning candle to see by.

He began to write, in English: “Father, mother, it is your son who is writing this letter. I am still alive and in excellent health. I expect that you have given up all hope of ever finding me again, and probably have long come to believe that I am dead. It is not so. I indeed escaped my captors without your help. I am sorry to say that my sister did not survive, and it will be with a heavy heart that I will have to explain to you the details of these sad events in person. I am writing now for the first time because I am reminded of how old you have grown, father, and that the time for reconciliation everyday grows shorter. I can fully say that I have forgiven you and want to see you again.”

The note continued for a few more lines with information about his current condition and location and an apology for the crudeness of the paper and ink he was using. He told them that it would be impossible for him and his family to travel, and begged his parents to come to him to his farm so that they could reconcile in person. He signed off with “From your son, sincerely and with love, Jasper.”

Jasper folded the paper and tied it with a bit of thread. Posting would be no mean feat, but there was a boy at a neighboring farm that would probably be willing to run it down to the post office for a few coins the next morning. Or, perhaps he could borrow a horse from one of his other neighbors, he thought to himself.

Even though he knew it would be some days before his father would see the note and perhaps a number of weeks before he would, even at the soonest be able to see him, he couldn’t help but feel anxious for the reunion.

III

Travelling at the speed of the locomotive, Jasper’s letter arrived into the hands of the Deep Spring postmaster two days later and was picked up from the post office by Horatio that morning. Horatio made a habit, in deference to Mr. Eberling’s privacy, of scrupulously avoiding looking at any of the letters before Mr. Eberling saw them, such that he instantly placed the letter from Jasper along with a few others underneath his arm and walked back to the mansion.

When he stepped into the mansion, Flint was passing by and noticed the mail. Assuming that Horatio had seen their contents, he asked, “Anything of interest today?”

“I do not know, sir,” Horatio said politely, though eying Flint with suspiciousness, as he frequently did, “It is Mr. Eberling that I always permit to be the first to see the mail.”

As he spoke, Horatio transferred the stack of letters from beneath his arm to his left hand. All the letters were sealed, as usual, within envelopes, except one, a letter that had been folded and held together with thread. It was hard not to notice such a conspicuous letter. Out of curiosity, Flint tried to look at it more closely, but Horatio hurried off up the stairs. In that brief moment, Flint was only able to catch one detail from the letter, the word, “Jasper” appearing in the return address.

Flint rushed to catch Horatio saying, “I can take the mail to my father.”

Horatio looked at him oddly, saying, “I am almost there, sir. Besides, I was already planning to visit his room for other purposes.”

Horatio hiked to the top, rounding the corner and stepping into Mr. Eberling’s bedroom. He found Mr. Eberling sitting on his bed surveying some paperwork. The space of the bed offered him more space to spread out the many sheets of paper that he was trying to simultaneously examine and in a more comfortable and relaxing space. It was for this reason he had transferred himself from his office to his bedroom to continue his work.

When Mr. Eberling saw Horatio with mail in hand, he said, “Set it down on the bed here, I’ll get to it in a minute.”

Flint watched from the doorway as Horatio set the mail down on one of the few empty spots on the quilt just near the edge. He picked up a tray with the remains of Mr. Eberling’s lunch and departed, giving Flint one last wary look as he saw him eying the mail. Flint could see the string-tied envelope sitting on top of the stack of letters within arms reach of Mr. Eberling.

Flint walked into the room and sat down on the bed. He moved some papers and the letters aside, to make room for himself. He deliberately set the letters behind where he sat, so that they were hidden behind his back.

He looked at his pretend father as if he wanted to talk with him. He asked tentatively, “Thurston?”

“Thurston?” Mr. Eberling said, “You never call me that. You know I don’t like it.”

Flint had only just recently learned Mr. Eberling’s full name when he peaked at one of his letters and saw atop “Mr. Thurston Eberling.” He had made the mistake of calling him Thurston once to Horatio who cocked an eyebrow and asked, perplexed, “Since when have you addressed him as Thurston?” Flint had mumbled out a vague excuse, “I didn’t mean anything. Disremember it.” Now he realized that he should’ve probably not attempted it now.

“Father,” Flint said to Mr. Eberling, “I wanted to ask,” thinking hard for something to inquire about, “How’s output in the Central City mine?”

“Good so far,” Mr. Eberling responded looking over the paperwork, “If current output continues, this year ought to be up from last year. We’ve been poking through some rich ore. It’s a promising vein that could last us a few years.”

Mr. Eberling continued talking and Flint nodded his head, urging him on as soon as conversation flagged, but behind his back he was surreptitiously grabbing the envelope from the top of the stack while Mr. Eberling was distracted, and stuffing it into the back of his pants. When the deed was accomplished he stood up, saying he had something to attend to, and backed out of the room, so that Mr. Eberling didn’t have a chance to see his back side.

Once in the hall, he pulled out the letter and inspected it, pulling away the string and peaking beneath the folds. He soon saw the words, “Father” and “Jasper” leaping out at him. He stuffed the letter in his pocket, just before Horatio appeared in sight at the bottom of the stairs.

He retired to his room, closing the door behind him. He read the letter through and realized it had to be destroyed immediately. Not wanting to call one of the servants to light his bedroom’s fireplace, he walked down to the kitchen. He lit the oven and set the letter aflame.

Patrice entered and saw the last remnants of the letter burning and asked casually, “What’s that you’re burning?”

Flint scrambled for an excuse and said, “Oh, just an old bit of newspaper. Nothing important. Trying to make a light for a candle.”

“It’s still daylight, sir,” she commented, confused.

“Well it’s dark in here,” he said, looking around the kitchen. It was true that the room didn’t receive as much exterior lighting as some parts of the house.

“Then don’t remain in here,” Patrice said.

“By all means,” Flint replied and walked out of the kitchen.

This was not the first time the threat of being caught had emerged, and it never seemed to stop emerging. Flint didn’t have the skills or knowledge of a wealthy, well-educated man. He knew no French or Latin; his spelling and handwriting were deficient; he barely knew how to ride a horse, or dance, or conduct himself at the dinner table; and he knew nothing about many topics of which he should have at least had the rudiments of knowledge. But fortunately, his family and acquaintances were all so steadfastly convinced that he was Jasper that they always found a way of explaining these lapses: “He’s been away so long,” “He’s forgotten over time,” “He’s never really known them that well to begin with,” “He’s grown accustomed to a less refined way of life,” and so on. Flint speculated that perhaps even this letter wouldn’t be enough to convince them and that they’d just explain it away as some crank after the family inheritance, but he wasn’t willing to take that risk.

The hardest part about being Jasper was that Flint had to restrain himself from the habits that he had so long enjoyed and indulged in as a common laborer. He would regularly pass Sam’s saloon, where usually one or two of the dancing girls would linger out front during the daylight hours to relax in the sun, showing off their legs and their cleavage. Before he would’ve taken his day’s wages and spent it all at the saloon, buying a whore, a drink and throwing the rest away at faro or poker. He’d wake up the next day with nothing in his pockets, and he’d have return to work to buy back the privilege of doing all of it again the next day. Now, he felt obliged to restrain himself and try to fit the part of what Jasper would do, or at least what Flint thought that Jasper would do. Now he stayed away from the saloon, like he thought a gentleman would.

“When would it end?” he silently worried, “When Mr. Eberling was dead? Perhaps. Perhaps not until I myself am dead.” It was a dreadful thought.

But the ample luxuries that Flint found himself easily getting used to—the servants and fine clothes, the power and respect, and the never having to worry about money or food—these things more than made up for what he missed, and he was willing to make great sacrifices to retain them.

Flint worked as a clerk in one of the offices of Mr. Eberling’s company, the Earth and Mineral Works, several days a week in order to get to know the company. His father would take him on tours of the several mines he owned and talk to him about the true secret to his success in business.

Mr. Eberling confessed to Flint one day: “You know, when you were younger, I had doubts about you taking over the family company. Nothing wrong with taking advantages of the thrills and excitement of youth, of course. But I always feared you’d never grow out of it. I’m glad to say, I’ll be handing the company into capable hands when I pass away, which ought to be soon, I’m afraid.”

It was generally believed that this would be Mr. Eberling’s last autumn. They had been planning a short trip in October to see some of his nearby mines, but Mr. Eberling, growing weak, was now looking like he would unable to handle even such brief travels.

“Don’t say that father. You’ll prove all the doctors wrong and still be upright when they’re long underground,” Flint told him with passion.

That night, as Flint lay in bed with Patrice beside him, she consoled him as he told her about his fears over Mr. Eberling’s imminent death. He admitted to being excited about taking over the company but also being deeply upset about losing a man who’d been a true father to him.

To take his mind off the topic, he asked her, “Tell me stories, Patrice.”

She asked, “Stories about what?”

“Stories about me, when I was younger.”

“Why would you want to hear stories about yourself?” she asked, confused.

“You remember different things than I do,” Flint replied, “I want to know what you thought of me and how things looked from your perspective. You’re allowed to be brutally honest. Don’t spare me the truth.”

“Well, when I first started working here you were a spoiled, temperamental, overgrown baby. Is that honest enough?” she asked and Flint nodded.

“It’s not easy for me to be this critical,” she said. Flint encouraged her and she continued, “One of the first things I remember was about a week after I started working as a maid here. You pitched a fit over some trivial thing (I don’t exactly remember what). Your mother hadn’t given you something you wanted, I think. And you went into the kitchen and pulled out plates and smashed them on the floor one by one while screaming. I was there in the kitchen when you started doing this, and I had to make an effort to stop you, which proved exceedingly difficult. And of course I was thinking, ‘What have I gotten into?’”

She stopped and Flint urged her on, saying, “What else do you remember?”

“If we’re just going to talk about bad things, I remember when you got hurt when you were somewhat older. Your father wouldn’t let you ride his horse, since it was still too big for you, but you insisted anyways. You saddled it up and took it out, and just to show how naturally good you were at it, you ran it at a full trot and tried to jump the fence behind the house. Because you had no idea what you were doing, you chewed gravel when the horse jumped. Your parents ran to you to see if you were okay as soon as they found out. They did everything to console you while you cried. But me and the other servants were saying to each other, “It’s about time that tendsome brat got what’s coming to him.’”

“So that’s all I was?” Flint nodded with a smile and a laugh, “Just a little brat who was difficult to control and always getting into trouble.”

“That’s how you seemed at first,” she said, “It took time to warm up to you. You teased me so much and played such pranks on me all the time. At the time you probably just assumed it was all in good fun, but I really hated it. It made me cry.”

She stopped and looked at Flint uncomfortably. Flint felt a flush of anger at this mysterious Jasper but he held it back.

Patrice saw his flushed face, but misinterpreted it. She said, “I’m sorry sir, I’ve been too open with you.”

“No, these are the types of things I wanted you to say. I earnestly thank you,” Flint said, grabbing her hand in his and holding it firmly.

“It was all the nights lying beside you that opened me to another side of you and made me feel differently about you, more tenderly towards you. And you’ve especially been so wonderful since you returned. You’ve aged into the man I always hoped you would.”

After hearing these words Flint leaned in and kissed her perfunctorily on the cheek. She pulled him towards herself and kissed him full on the lips. She whispered, “I’ve missed you so much.”

During the following weeks, Jasper and Isabel waited for a response, laboring away their days and drowning away their nights in sleep. Eventually, after having received no reply from his parents, Jasper insisted one night that he must travel to meet them. A raging argument soon erupted.

“You’re just going to abandon me and your son, and for what!?” Isabel shouted, “To see your parents, who have written you off!? Who don’t care about you!? Who don’t even respond to your letters!?”

“I have to see them. Why can’t you see this is something important to me?” Jasper asked imploringly.

“If it’s important, write to them again. Tell them to get down here or send you money to visit him. Don’t go out on this foolish trek just so they can slam the door in your face in person!”

“They’re not going to do that! They’re my parents,” Jasper shouted, “And I can’t wait too long! I’m not leaving tomorrow. I’ll finish harvesting the crops and then I’ll go. You’ll be fine without me.”

“You never realize how much work I do, and now I’ve got to do your work too. My parents can barely help. I don’t see why this can’t wait some few weeks. You can write to them again. You’ve made the gesture. If you keep writing, you’ll get through to them. Address it to your mother this time. In the end, you’ll persuade them to come down here or at least send for you. It just takes a little patience. Don’t be hasty!” Isabel pleaded with him.

“You can do without me,” Jasper shouted, “Hire extra hands!”

“With what money?” Isabel desperately asked.

“I don’t have time for this. My parents don’t have time for this! The life of a miner is short. My father will not last. Miners know to live for the time they have.”

“Well you gave that up when you decided to get married and have a child. You made commitments. Walking out on them is just like you: a spoiled rich man’s son who’s used to getting what he wants.”

“Don’t you say that!” Jasper lashed out and slapped her across the face. Their baby was crying furiously. Jasper looked at the child and said more calmly, “I’m not that way anymore.”

Isabel went to the child and picked him up in her arms and began to comfort him. “Do whatever you want,” she sobbed.

“I’ll be back,” he weakly consoled, “You’re the most important thing to me. And I love you above all.”

She obdurately looked away from him as she held their child in her arms.

Over a week later, Jasper left on foot heading north. For food, he stole from farmhouses and killed some small game with a gun he’d brought. He walked for long spans alongside the railroad tracks, hitched rides from passing freight cars and gradually zigzagged northward into the mountains towards Deep Spring.

When he arrived in Deep Spring, the sun was set, and the night was already dim. He walked down Clark Street, and he saw the carousing in the saloon as its light poured out onto the streets. A few lights flickered in the windows of houses scattered across the slopes. He could see his father’s house clearly, its light-speckled silhouette in front of the darkening sky.

The gates had been locked for the night and Jasper banged on them and shouted to be let in. Flint, smoking beside the fountain was there before anybody else had heard.

Flint saw the shabby traveller and replied to him with little civility: “Why are you bothering us at this hour? The master of the house is probably asleep by now and he needs his rest. Come back tomorrow.”

“I’m Jasper, and I’ve come to see my father,” he said, “Let me in.”

Flint was startled by this revelation. He looked at the face on the other side of the gate. Even in the dim light, he could see the resemblance. The face he saw was so much like his, only handsomer. The man’s body was stouter and slightly taller, and his broad, square-jawed face evoked strength and dominance. But they were similar enough that it was easy to see how, after so many years away, someone could confuse the two.

Nonetheless, he responded. “You’re not Jasper. You’re mistaken, aren’t you? We already have a Jasper here.”

“I beg your pardon,” Jasper spoke, raising his voice, “I didn’t ask your permission. I told you to take me to my father. I’m not leaving this spot until I see him. You must be new here, servant, else you would recognize me immediately. Now address me with respect and let me in!”

Flint hesitated for a few moments while he considered his next action.

He pulled a key from his pocket and unlocked the gate. A weighty padlock held the iron gates together, and Flint took at it in his hand and opened the gate slightly. He stopped Jasper before entering and told him, “You’re going to have to hand that over,” indicating the gun Jasper carried in a side holster, “We don’t want a stranger coming in here with a gun.”

“I’m not a stranger here,” Jasper said as he walked haughtily towards Flint. But as he said it, he handed Flint the gun, and he passed him by with an impatient sigh.

Flint looked at the back of Jasper’s head, and he felt the weight of the padlock. “One blow to the head,” he thought, “One blow to the head is all it would take.”

[Trunk splits into Branches A and B]

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