Mr. Eberlings Son

Part 2 - First Branching

Branch A

Branch B

IV

Flint saw the action of killing Jasper in his mind, saw the padlock coming down hard on his head and the body collapsing to the ground.

As rapidly as the thought of killing Jasper crossed Flint’s mind it departed, and it left in its place the unpleasant feeling that he had come so close to committing an execrable act. He closed the gate and replaced the padlock to its place.

He strode forward to touch Jasper on the shoulder and said to him, “I need to tell you something before you go in there.” Jasper looked at him inquisitively. “If you really are Jasper Eberling, then you need to know that your father already thinks I’m Jasper, his son,” Flint said.

Jasper’s rage kindled hot, and he grabbed Flint by the shirt and shoved him against the gate. He shouted, “Are you saying you’ve been lying to my father!? Is that what I’m hearing? That you’re a damnable chiseler? Was it to bilk my father of his fortune? Is that it? You come in here and think I’m gone forever so you can steal everything from me?”

“Look, I didn’t come here to bilk nobody,” Flint replied defensively, “I came here looking for a place to rest my head for the night. I was en route to Cripple Creek looking for employment. They thought I was you, and I went along with it. I didn’t originally have intention of doing nothing. If you want me to pull foot and leave here forever, I’ll leave. But I tell you I’ve come to like this place and to care for these people, and I don’t want to leave.”

“You expect me to believe this?” he spat into Flint’s face.

“Ask them,” Flint shouted back, pointing at the house.

Jasper let him go, conceding, “We’ll see what my father has to say about you.” He looked at him again and said, laughing a little, “You really do look like me, you son of a whore.”

Jasper walked in through the front doorway as Flint followed behind him. Horatio’s pale, stiff form emerged from a room, wearing a dressing gown and carrying a candle in his hand. “Excuse me sir,” Horatio politely interjected, “May I help you?”

“Horatio? Is it you?” Jasper said. He ran towards him and grabbed him in a hug. Horatio looked at Jasper confused, then back to Flint still confused. “It’s me! Jasper! I’ll explain in a moment. I want to see my parents first.”

Horatio turned to Flint to see if it was acceptable, and Flint nodded, saying: “Show him to Mr. Eberling.”

Horatio led Jasper up the stairs, saying, “Mr. Eberling is right this way.”

Mr. Eberling lay in bed with a book in front of him, his round, red face glowing in the candlelight. When he saw Horatio, Flint and some mysterious third person enter he spoke up, “What’s the meaning of this? We’re not entertaining guests at this hour.” He sat up a little in bed, but he was too feeble to stand.

Jasper kneeled at the side of the bed, quietly intoning, “Father, it’s me,” and grabbing his hand to hold.

“Who are you?” Mr. Eberling asked, taking his hand from him.

“It’s Jasper.”

“Whatever do you mean? Jasper who?” Mr. Eberling asked, looking now at Flint and then back to Jasper, “You’re not Jasper my son. You don’t even look like Jasper. I know what Jasper looks like.” Mr. Eberling carefully compared the two with his eyes, “You do look remarkably similar to him, I must admit.”

“Father?” Jasper pleaded.

“No!” Mr. Eberling shouted, “Get away from me! Get this fraud out of here. Jasper, please take this man away. These are not the types of things you ought to confront an invalid with.”

“He’s not your son,” Jasper pointed to Flint aggressively, “He’s a fraud. He’s a roper. He’s been pretending to be me.” Jasper turned to Flint and asked, “And how long has this been going on?”

Flint spoke up, “Less than a year. I only came here about 11 months ago. And it’s true.” Flint breathed deeply, “I’m not Jasper. I didn’t mean to deceive you. I was stranded here by accident. It was by chance I ended up here. It was by chance I met you. It was by chance you confused me for him. And I just let it happen.”

“Well, I’m…” Mr. Eberling looked back and forth between Jasper and Flint, not sure what to think or feel. He was disappointed, angry, confused. He shared a brief look with Horatio. He could see that Horatio was resisting the urge to say that he’d told him so, and Mr. Eberling looked back at him with a look of apology.

After a few moments, a smile overtook Mr. Eberling’s face. He looked at Jasper, and said, “I’m happy. Nothing matters now that you’re back. To have you back, to really have you back, my son. My real son. Oh, give your father a hug!”

Jasper leaned forward and embraced his father in the bed. After pulling away, Jasper asked, “Where’s mother?”

Mr. Eberling dropped his eyes and admitted quietly, “She died. Two years ago. I’ve been batching it since then. And I don’t have much life left in me either. I’ll be with her soon in heaven.”

Jasper’s eyes quietly drained some tears, and he squeezed his father’s hand. “I ought to have come back sooner,” he said quietly, “I knew I ought to have come back sooner.”

“What happened? Why didn’t you?” Mr. Eberling asked pathetically.

Jasper shot him a searching glance. He responded with exasperation, “I had to escape from the kidnappers on my own. And I didn’t come back because I was furious with you. I couldn’t forgive you for years.”

“Why?” Mr. Eberling asked.

“You were responsible for Deborah’s death!” Jasper answered with intensity, some of that long simmering rage boiling up again. He calmed himself after a moment and said, “But I’ve forgiven you for that.”

“So, my daughter is dead?” Mr. Eberling asked. His eyes dropped and a deep frown sank his mouth as more tears emerged. He looked up and asked, “But how am I responsible?”

“How are you responsible?” Jasper asked in disbelief, “Because you didn’t just hand off the ransom. That’s how. They would’ve let us go. You’d be many thousands poorer, but you’d have both your children back, and you and I wouldn’t have lost so many years.”

“Ransom?” Mr. Eberling asked, his face looking both confused and disturbed by this information.

“They sent you a ransom note,” Jasper said, an uncomfortable feeling growing in his stomach. Mr. Eberling shook his head. Jasper added, “They said they sent you a ransom note. They said they sent it! Why wouldn’t they send it? They said you didn’t want to pay.”

“What happened?” Mr. Eberling asked. But abruptly he decided against it, telling Jasper, “You know what? Save it for the morning. I’ve already had too much excitement for a man in my condition. It isn’t healthy. I’m anticipating an unpleasant story from you. My doctor said I ought to avoid excitement, and strong emotions.” He then turned to Flint coldly and asked, “So, what is your real name, since I’d rather not have to call you Pseudo-Jasper?”

“Flint,” he said.

Horatio chuckled slightly and explained, “Flint? Mr. Eberling always liked that name.”

“Do you want me to call on the sheriff and have him tossed in the calaboose?” Jasper asked.

“By good rights he may deserve our contempt and censure” Mr. Eberling said, glowering, “But I’m still a Christian and want to forgive. I’m not going to expel you in the middle of the night, but you’re on notice. You shan’t be able to stay indefinitely. “We’ll discuss you tomorrow too.”

Jasper said to Horatio as he departed, “Call Patrice to make up my room. I’ll meet her up there.”

“Your room is occupied by Master Flint here,” Horatio said clearing his throat, “It will take a few minutes to remove his effects from the room and…”

“Don’t trouble yourself. I don’t want to wait. I’m tuckered out. I just had a long journey. We’ll do that tomorrow. Just make up the guest bedroom for me.”

When Jasper arrived in the guest bedroom Patrice was tidying up the bed, and he ran up to her from behind and hugged her vigorously. He’d frightened her, and she yelped and turned to him saying, “Jasper! It’s such a shock to find you here.”

“Patrice, it’s so wonderful to see you,” Jasper said, grabbing her from a hug so firm that he was able to lift her off the ground, “You’ve aged quite a heap, I must say. I reckon it’s been a while since I’ve seen you.”

“My apologies Jasper, sir,” she said, lowering her eyes.

“How’re you getting on with my doppelganger? Is he a good man?”

She spoke quietly saying, “He’s treated me well, sir.” After she said this, she abandoned her meekness and pleaded to Jasper passionately, “Please don’t send him away, sir. Let him stay. He’s upright and honorable. You can trust him. Please, do it for me.” Then she quieted down and added, “Of course, nothing compares to serving under you, sir.”

“Thank you. You’re too kind. And don’t worry about Flint, now. We’ll sort him out later after we get a better assessment of his situation. I’m off to bed. So, how about our usual night ride? Help put me to sleep? It’ll remind me of the golden days of youth to be pirooting between the legs of my favorite maidservant.”

Patrice stiffened and slightly recoiled, but she didn’t speak. She stuttered, “I’m… I’m…”

Jasper smiled confidently, saying, “Don’t worry yourself Patrice. I’m only getting the run upon you. I’m a married man now. No more of those dalliances for me. However, you were my first. You shall always be special to me. You know that, don’t you? I don’t believe I ever told you at the time that you were my first, but considering I was only fifteen years old… I believe I was fifteen. I suppose I could have lost my hymen to a whore. But I didn’t. It wouldn’t be as special, I reckon, now would it?” Jasper smiled warmly, adding, “Do you remember how frigid it was that night? I invited you to keep me warm, and when you got in bed, you were like a trembling flower. Oh, you’re the pink of purity Patrice.”

Patrice was visibly uncomfortable to hear Jasper recount the story, and she leaned towards the door as if she wanted to flee the room but was restrained by duty.

“Well you just go ahead and cut a path out of here,” Jasper nodded, “It’s time for sleep.”

Patrice went directly to Flint in his room. He was stuffing a few items of clothing into a bag. He commented to her as she arrived, “I don’t know if any of this truly belongs to me. I came her with basically nothing, and we may have bought some things while I was here, but it wasn’t with my money. They’re not really mine. ”

“Don’t go,” Patrice said, “Jasper says you don’t have to go yet.”

Flint turned to look at Patrice and said to her, “You must hate me now, for being something I’m not this whole time.”

“No,” Patrice said, “I don’t hate you. You’ve never been something you’re not. You’ve just changed names, is all. You’ve always been what you are. I’ll just have to accustom myself to calling you Flint.” She smiled tenderly and looked up at Flint softly. Patrice continued, “Even when you came here and said you were Jasper, you were a stranger. You were completely different than the Jasper I knew. You were a totally new person. I thought time had changed you. I should’ve been suspicious. People don’t change that much. You were so much better than he was. It was like I was making Jasper’s acquaintance for the first time.”

“It sounds as if you didn’t like Jasper?” Flint asked, setting aside his packing.

Patrice laughed a little, admitting, “When he was young, I didn’t like him. He was spoiled and horrid. He would play tricks on me and embarrass me as much as he could. He would hide in places and leap out to scare me and would steal my things and hide them. And I told you that when he was fifteen he forced me to have sex with him,” Patrice gulped uncomfortably, and Flint stared on, “The first time was a spontaneous act that surprised both of us. He didn’t intend for it to happen, and I didn’t resist. But after that he started forcing me do it all the time. I didn’t like it, and I tried to avoid him, but I couldn’t.”

“Why didn’t you leave? Take a new job?”

“There’re no other servant’s jobs around here like this. This is no great city; only a few people have hired help. I’d have to leave Deep Spring to find another situation. And I didn’t want to do that, since I’m near my family here. I learned to tolerate Jasper after a while. It was routine. And as he aged, things changed. He was stronger and more attractive, more mature and confident. Also, he was rich and powerful. It was…” She stopped to think, continuing, “I don’t know how to describe it. I think you can understand, since you’ve worked as a laborer at the very bottom. He was my boss, and though it was humbling, he was also so young and handsome and so dashing. He was someone I wished I could be with and wished I could have. Even when he was engaged with Jane Marshall I secretly wished I could have him as a husband. Even though he used me, I thought that I wasn’t worthy to be with him, such that it was like an honor to be doing something for him. I was really overwhelmed and charmed by him because he was just so above me, and I enjoyed every minute I could serve him.” She sighed as if to admonish her childhood self, “I don’t feel that way anymore. And I don’t feel that way around you either.”

Patrice leaned forward and kissed Flint on the lips after she said this to him.

She told him: “I now know why you haven’t allowed yourself to lie with me yet. It’s because you didn’t want to take advantage of my ignorance. Now that you’re not pretending to be Jasper anymore, you can. I know a woman shouldn't say these things, but I want you to.”

They again lay down in bed beside each other, but this time when Patrice approached close to him, he took her in his arms and kissed her firmly on the lips. He laid her down on the bed that night and slowly and sensually made love to her.

They stayed awake beside each other for hours, chatting quietly. In the depth of night, though the entire house was asleep, Flint decided to draw a bath for her. He shuttled the buckets of heated water into the ceramic tub until it was full, and she stepped into it. He took the soap and cleaned her naked body, patting her dry once he was done and laying her down on the bed to sleep.

V

Jasper was besides Mr. Eberling’s bed for breakfast, sitting in his chair while Mr. Eberling lay in his bed, propped up by a stack of pillows. Horace and Patrice both lingered at the door to hear what Jasper had to say, while Flint stood in the hall, listening but out of sight. Jasper began to tell his story so animatedly while he ate his breakfast, that Mr. Eberling insisted that he either slow down or finish his food first. He chose the latter and only continued the story once his plate was clean.

“We were kidnapped,” his story had begun, with a slightly melodramatic tone and some vigorous gestures, “While we were en route to Central City. I don’t know if you remember it, father, but you were visiting your silver mine in Central City then. Deborah and I, we were riding there to surprise you. On the path, we came across a huge fallen tree in the middle of the road. As soon as we stopped two bandits with revolvers in hand jumped us from behind. They had their canisters on us before we even heard them coming. They asked us for all our loot. Deborah and I were willing, but since we’d left in a hurry we didn’t have much on us, a bill or two and a few coins. We had our horses, but they expected more. They were aware that we were the Eberling children and expected us to be carrying pocketfuls of silver wherever we went. They didn’t even believe us at first. One of them went through the effort of thoroughly searching all of our pockets and bags, and found out, sure enough, we weren’t lying. They got mad as hornets then.

“They decided that the next best option would be to kidnap us and ransom us. They tied us up, placed us on our horses and rode us off. There was this dilapidated shack in the woods they had. It was filthy as an outhouse and nearly as rank. Everything was caked in layers of soot and dirt, which were probably the only thing keep the rotting wood in those walls upright.

“They held us there and wrote their ransom note. It took them a good while. I could see them struggling to write it and offered to help, but they didn’t trust me. Probably thought I was going to plant some secret message in it. After they pulled something together, one of them left on horseback to deliver it.

“I’d be curious to see what type of incoherence those men strung together. One of them acted like he could write, but they were the type of simple-minded mudsills who could probably barely put their name to paper. You read it, though, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t receive it,” Mr. Eberling said, “No ransom note. No nothing.”

“Sakes alive!” Jasper ejaculated, “I always thought you did. For all these years I thought you did.”

“Why would you think that?” Mr. Eberling asked.

“They made it seem like they’d sent it,” Jasper continued, “They pretended like they were waiting for your reply. The one that left to send it had returned several hours later and claimed it was done. So I assumed you received it. They waited, and waited and waited, for days.

“After a time, I gave up expecting us to be ransomed, and I decided to try and escape. I was able to cut away the ropes they had holding us without them noticing. Once I was free, I was able to pull the gun directly from the holster around one of the bastards’ waists. But I didn’t realize the other was fast as greased lightning on the draw. He shot at me before I had a chance to react. The bullet missed me and I let drive a bullet right at him, right in the chest. Only then did I realize that the first bullet had found Deborah. I got so infuriated I shot that second bastard repeatedly until I heard the click of an empty chamber.

“After that I tried to help Deborah. But there was nothing I could do. The bullet was deep inside of her and her blood was spilling everywhere, all over the floor.

“That first feller was bleeding to death, but he could still talk. He taunted me in the bitterest tone, saying, ‘Your father wouldn’t ransom you for cow feed. That’s what he said. He wanted nothing to do with you no more. His two worthless children! He’d wished he’d never had you! Maybe if you hadn’t shot us, we’d have taken you in, shown pity on you, you cocksucker. Whatever did you do to make your father hate you so much?’

“I got furious at him and started yelling at him that he had no right to talk to my father like that and grabbed him, ready to lather him some more, but he was dead within moments anyways.

“As for Deborah, she bled to death from the lead to her stomach. And I was furious at you. Deborah was dead because you couldn’t just pay these critters off. Or so I thought.”

“How could you think such a thing of me?” Mr. Eberling asked.

You were never proud of me. I knew it. I wasn’t a businessman, didn’t have my heart in the mining business, didn’t have the discipline for hard work, at least not then. When they told me you refused to ransom I believed them. How could I know otherwise? They said they’d delivered the note. As far as I saw it: Deborah was dead and you had abandoned me. There was no one left in this world for me.”

“Hm!” Mr. Eberling harrumphed disapprovingly.

“I headed south for endless many miles before I stopped. For months I traveled, until the people stopped speaking English, and I had to stay in a small Spanish town called Santa Lucia. I worked as a farm hand, for long hours in the hot sun with families almost as destitute as me as my employers. I liked the life far better than I thought I would, and settled into that lifestyle with ease.

“After a long courtship, I jumped the broom with the widowed daughter of one family: a young beauty named Isabel. I had finally found a good wife. I had to lie to her about being previously engaged, but I told her all about my former life, how I’d gotten there and my complete change of circumstances. She admired me for what I’d become. She loved me for the affection I showed her and the kindness I gave her.

“I took over operation of her family farm, which her old parents had struggled to keep alive. We had a child, and I settled into my new life. But I still had a nagging desire to reconcile with you and find peace with that part of my life. It was hard to get away from there, even temporarily. I did eventually find the time. I made the long trek in a fraction of the time it’d taken me to get there, and here I am.”

“So it is,” Mr. Eberling said, “I am glad you have returned. I wish it had been sooner. “

“So what has become of this wife of yours?” Horatio asked.

“She’s still back home,” Jasper said, “I have to send her a letter. Can I make it with the day’s post?”

Mr. Eberling nodded, adding, “But you best hurry.”

Jasper quickly wrote up a letter in Spanish, including some money to pay for her transportation and explaining the state of things in compact sentences.

He handed it off to Horatio to take to the post office. Flint intercepted Horatio in the hallway and insisted that he would take it. Though seemed to suspect that some duplicitous scheme was afoot, he still handed over the letter. Flint jogged down to the post office to deliver it to Abe, the postman.

Flint handed it to him, asking, “Today’s mail has not left yet?”

“No, not yet,” Abe responded distractedly. Then he noticed who was there and asked bluntly, “So you’re the fake Jasper, right? I want to be able to tell you two apart.”

“I’m Flint,” Flint replied, “I’m surprised you know already. Word travels fast.”

“Word indeed does travel fast nowadays.” Abe noted, “Didn’t you know this is the age of the telegraph? And it didn’t have that far to travel from that house up there to here.”

Flint left the post office and headed into The Bugle Post. Sam was there as usual behind the bar, filling up two growlers of beer for the young courier, William, to run up to the mines. William earned his small income each day by running goods and messages to and from the workplaces and homes of several of the citizens of Deep Spring when they were too lazy or too busy to make the trip themselves.

Sam smiled cheerfully and said, “A drink for you Mr. Eberling? Or is that right? If you are Jasper, then I will be damned if you and that other feller don’t look identical.”

“I am the other feller,” Flint said despondently, “Flint’s my name.”

“You know, I had always wondered why Jasper had changed so much after you arrived,” Sam said as he poured Flint a drink, “You see Jasper was a notorious character around here. He was a feller whose antics you could hardly miss in a town this big. But when you came, it was like he’d suddenly found religion and renounced his sinful ways. It was monkey shines to me. I’d never have expected it of him.”

“I was never all that responsible or industrious, myself before either,” Flint confessed, with a laugh, “But I tried real hard to pretend to be since I thought that that’s how gentlemen of means behave.”

“Well, not Jasper,” Sam replied with a hearty laugh.

“What was Jasper like, when you knew him?” Flint asked.

“Well, as I said, always notorious, a little hellion when he was a young boy and still quite the wild wolfer as he got older. I can’t say I didn’t get the chance to know him, since he was in here often, usually getting roistered on whiskey and disappearing into the back with the girls. He didn’t care much for cards, but he did love the whores. Our selection changes regularly as girls move out of town and I have to bring in new ones, but I can’t think there was one girl we ever employed that Jasper didn’t get to know top to bottom, from the hair on her head down to the last freckle on her inner thigh. That whoremonger was in here a heap of times. My business went down markedly when he disappeared. By the by, how did he disappear, and whatever happened to his sister?”

“Kidnapped,” Flint replied.

Sam eyebrows rose in shock and he asked: “How did that happen?”

“You’re probably better off waiting for Jasper to tell the whole story,” Flint conceded.

Jasper didn’t receive as prompt a reply from his wife as he’d hoped, and he sent her another communiqué urging her to come to Deep Spring as soon as possible. He realized that the opportunity for his father to meet his wife was quickly disappearing and he didn’t want her to miss it. But she balked in her reply, citing concerns about travelling with her parents and the stewardship of the farm while she was away.

The following days Flint and Jasper spent much time in each other’s company. Jasper and his father had wanted to discuss what to do about Flint, but had kept putting it off, and Flint and Jasper only grew closer over the course of these days.

The question came up of how identical the two of them actually were. To test this, they decided to both groom and dress identical and see how easy they were to tell apart. They cloistered themselves in Jasper’s room and both shaved their faces clean, trimming their tops into a wavy, medium-cropped haircut, with large shaggy sideburns down to the bottom of their ears. When they put on identical ensembles of dark suits and bowler hats, the two of them were hard to distinguish.

Everyone waited outside the room for Jasper and Flint to emerge. Flint was the first to step out. Everyone had been used to seeing him with his neat, trimmed beard and Jasper with his thick, scruffy beard. They took a guess at who it was, Mr. Eberling and Horatio guessing Jasper, with only Patrice correctly identifying Flint. Once Jasper emerged and the two stood side by side, everyone saw that they looked uncannily similar.

Flint and Jasper decided to use their identical appearance to play some pranks, before their new look became public knowledge. Jasper first went down to the post office to pick up his mail. Waiting out front was the young courier, William. Jasper handed him the mail and said, while placing a coin in the boy’s hand, “Could you deliver this to the Eberling residence for me, little shaver?”

The boy presumed, accurately, that he was looking at Jasper and smiled cordially. He responded promptly, “Certainly, sir,” and raced down Clark Street towards the mansion. At the front door, after making the trip in short time, the boy knocked. Flint opened the door, identically attired.

“Thank you, my good boy,” Flint said taking the mail from the boy, then asking “Did I already pay you?” He patted his pockets, then seemed to recall. “Oh yes. I did pay you down at the post office. But here’s a tip for being so fast on your feet,” he said, handing the boy another coin.

The boy looked up at Flint, flabbergasted, and speechless. He thought he saw Jasper now in front of him again and forgot to say his thanks as the door closed in front of him. He then dashed out of there even faster out of fear.

That evening Jasper got riotously drunk, downing shot after shot at Sam’s while surrounded by encouraging well-wishers. But as he become more drunk, he grew louder and more belligerent, and Sam tried to send him home. Sam soon had had enough and told someone to fetch the deputy to escort Jasper out of the saloon.

The young Sheriff’s deputy, Peterson, was at the bar in a few minutes ready to act authoritative and haul him in.

Jasper protested, “I’m just a little slewed. Let me be.”

Peterson tried to lead him away and Jasper drunkenly threw an unsuccessful punch at the deputy. He dragged Jasper to the police station and dumped him in the cage in the back of the sheriff’s office, locking the barred door afterwards.

The deputy then sat down at a desk in the front office and leaned back in his chair while his eyes grew heavy. He only seemed to drift off for a moment when someone banged on his window again.

He opened and someone was standing on the other side again saying, “Could you come back to Sam’s?”

When the deputy arrived at Sam’s, sitting at the bar was what appeared to be Jasper, clean-shaven and wearing the same outfit, but now entirely sober.

The boy asked, exasperated, “Now, how in blazes did you get out?”

“Nothing like a few minutes in the pokey to dry a man out,” Flint responded, “I just let myself out since I was sober and decided to grab one last shot of dynamite from Sam here before I head home.”

“How in blazes did you get out?” the deputy said as he stepped forward and grabbed Flint by the arm and dragged him away, “By gum, I hope I didn’t leave the door unlocked. Am I going to have to chain you to the wall, or you going to stay in there this time?”

Flint went with him with little resistance and they again entered the Sheriff’s office, but when the deputy went to the back and turned the corner there was Jasper still in his cage, sitting upright, waiting for the deputy to return.

Flint and Jasper opened their mouths for a hearty laugh, and the deputy shouted, “By gum, when did you two start dressing just like each other? I ought to lock you both up for sawing me like that.”

A few days later, Jasper sat down to talk to Mr. Eberling about Flint, telling him, “I don’t want to kick Flint out. I’ve grown accustomed to him, and I’ve talked with him about what happened when he first came here. I reckon he’s a virtuous Christian man who can be trusted, and I enjoy his company.”

“Well, you are the one who’s actually going to be around long enough to bear his company,” Mr. Eberling said, with obvious reservations, “Who am I, who’s this close to death, to argue?”

“Do you not want Flint to stay?” Jasper asked.

“I can’t answer,” Mr. Eberling said, “It’s hard to describe how he broke my heart. You weren’t here at the beginning. You don’t understand how he made all of us love him by pretending to be you. We gave him our love. And now we know he is not you, and we, or at least I, feel cheated of that love.”

Jasper nodded understandingly while he listened. “So, you don’t believe you can forgive him?”

Mr. Eberling shrugged his shoulders, saying, “All men ought to be forgiven.” He added, “The decision of whether to let him stay is yours.”

Flint was at the time staying away from the house as much as possible, now sitting at the bar in Sam’s saloon.

Sam was eagerly talking with him about his business: “You know the secret to the success of my saloon? Because I have managed to build a monopoly on vice in this town. I have the drinking, I have the whores, and where else can one go for cards and gambling in this town? Sure there are some other places for gambling, and Lady Grey’s brothel in the outskirts is a real nice place, but this is the only complete den of vice within the town. Who wants to hop around from place to place to fill all his needs? You can whore at Lady Grey’s but you can’t gamble. You can gather your friends and gamble in your parlor, but no whores. Here you have it all. Who wants to scoot around from place to place when they’re just trying to have a good time.”

“Your place is top-sawyer,” Flint nodded, “And I’ve lived in many a town, big and small.”

“Also, I handle the prostitution business well too. My girls are cheaper than Lady Grey’s and they’re real beauties too” Sam added, “One of the best things I changed from the last feller who owned this place, is I keep changing my girls. That last feller just kept the same ones. They were nice girls, but I send away the girls who aren’t pulling in the chink and bring in new one from nearby towns all the time. I don’t believe the girls like it as much, but the men in this town, they love it. Every time a new calico queen rides in, word spreads throughout the town and it’s practically like a line out the door as every man in town wants to ride that horse.

“Why don’t you try one out? You haven’t been with one since you arrived. I’ll give you a very good price, half the regular price for any girl you choose, do with her what you will. Her body is yours.”

Flint smiled appreciatively and said, “One day in the past I would have said yes, but not today.”

“Why not?” Sam asked, “They can be gentle for a delicate boy like you.”

“At first I avoided this place because I was pretending to be Jasper. I was tempted. I’ve been the patron of many a bed-house. Now I stay away because I just want to be with the woman I love. No offence to your girls, but they just ain’t her.”

“Men falling in love is not good for my business,” Sam said, “But I still enjoy hearing it.”

Jasper entered at that moment and Sam said, “Jasper, welcome. Have you come today to wet your whistle or wet your prick? We have plenty of both. I’ve been disappointed that I haven’t seen much of you since your return.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Jasper apologized, “But I’m here to speak to Flint.”

“Whatever for?” Flint asked.

“My father and I, we have decided to let you stay. He wants you to resume the work you were doing at the Earth and Mineral Works. Personally, I was hoping you could extend that hiatus a bit further for my sake. But, either way, we want you at the house.”

“This calls for a celebration,” Sam announced, and he poured three glasses of cactus wine. They all raised their glasses and Sam said, “To Jasper here, for being a rip-roaring gentleman.”

VI

The days of leisure and diversion were not to last. Mr. Eberling was close to his end, and it was only a matter of days before he breathed his last. No one had expected anything but that Mr. Eberling would soon expire, but when the day came, it still came as a shock. Both Jasper and Flint had spent many hours at Mr. Eberling’s bedside in these final days. They were both devastated when Mr. Eberling settled into the mattress of his bed and ceased to move.

Before his death, he’d spoken to Flint in private. He’d told him: “I‘ve always wanted to forgive everyone who has ever wronged me before I died. I’ve forgiven a great many people and hope perhaps that you are the only one still unforgiven. I can’t approve of what you did, but I can understand it. You’re a man of his circumstances. And the fact that my real son eventually returned to me is such a good thing that it makes it difficult for me to be bitter. I’ve asked Jasper to let you continue to live here and work for the Earth and Mineral Works. He’s going to have a controlling interest, and it will be entirely his decision when I am gone, but I believe he’ll respect my wishes.”

“Thank you Mr. Eberling,” Flint said with effusive gratitude, “I wish I could have more time to earn back all the kindness you’ve given me.”

“You’ll pay it back through my son,” Mr. Eberling said, “That’s what I ask of you. And I know you’ll do it.”

That ended up being the last time Mr. Eberling and Flint had any real conversation. His coherence declined with his health, and he left this world muttering in confused words.

Jasper sent Isabel a letter saying that she needed to stop delaying and bring herself to Deep Spring. In her reply Isabel still balked. She couldn’t leave her aged parents behind and she was worried about the stress of a long trip. Her father’s health made her nervous, and she was waiting for a window of opportunity when he would be feeling well enough for her to make the journey. It appeared as if she was making every effort to put off leaving, perhaps forever, the home in which she’d lived since childhood.

At the wake, while Mr. Eberling’s closed eyes stared into the blackness, Flint wept discreetly over the body of a man he’d grown to love.

Flint was rather surprised when they asked him to bear the coffin as a pallbearer, and he stoically bore the burdensome weight to the grave that had already been opened up for it. Mr. Eberling was buried next to his wife in the Eberling family plot in the Yarrowdale Cemetery.

The next day, there was a reading of the will. Mr. Eberling’s share of the Earth and Mineral Works was mostly given to Jasper, who now held a controlling interest. Some smaller shares went to Mr. Eberling’s younger brother Winston, to Patrice and to four other women—Mrs. Sutton, Miss Field, Miss Garcia and Mrs. Thompson—who Flint was unacquainted with.

Afterwards Flint asked about these four women, who had all also been present at the wake and the burial.

“They are the remnants of my father’s great love,” Jasper answered. Flint raised his eyebrows inquisitively. Jasper explained, “They’re his four bastard daughters.” Flint raised his eyebrows in surprise and Flint continued, “Love my father as much as I did, he was a real scoundrel for a time. He was repeatedly unfaithful to my mother, and she knew about it. Those women are the products of some of his infidelities.”

“He sired four children by his mistress?” Flint asked, “And only two by his wife?

“No, by four different mistresses,” Jasper replied, “And those certainly weren’t the only women he was unfaithful with, just the only ones that produced progeny. For example, he had an affair with Patrice’s mother, though bore no children with her. Came close, but it miscarried.”

“Had an affair with Patrice’s mother?” Flint asked, and Jasper nodded. Flint asked, “Is that why he made Patrice a servant?”

“You’d be better off asking her,” Jasper replied.

Flint approached Patrice as soon as she had the opportunity, and she openly confessed: “It’s not really something that’s spoken of, but yes, my mom had an affair with him. I got the impression that of all his mistresses, she was the most special. He was especially disappointed when she miscarried. He’s become something like a foster father to me. My mother used to work as a maid for him when I was a baby. Mr. Eberling was still quite young and his business was growing and he’d just purchased this house. He hired her on as a servant to help his wife out with the home duties, since the house was so large and his wife was overwhelmed with balancing her domestic and social obligations. But he was so charming and energetic that my mom, who had been widowed by a mining accident, was completely smitten. So, he started a secret romance with her. It was his first infidelity. Unfortunately, the first of many. When his wife was away for her weekly card games and the weekly meetings of her women’s groups, Mr. Eberling would accost her in the kitchen, picking her up off her feet and sweeping her into her bedroom, where he would throw her onto the bed. In that same room where I live now. I was too young to understand what was going on, but I witnessed some of it.

“I lived in this house for a few years, even though Mrs. Eberling hated my mother. My mother eventually was kicked out, and I was left to live with my aunt on her farm while my mother worked as maid at the Clark House hotel. But it didn’t pay too well and my mother had to move away to find a better paying job as maid and cook at another wealthy mansion. I wasn’t able to join her, which made me sad. But Mr. Eberling took me in and employed me as his maid, acting as helper to a somewhat older Spanish maid named Anna. I later discovered that all of this was part of Mrs. Eberling’s plan. Since I was a child while here and Mr. Eberling looked at me as something like a daughter, Mrs. Eberling knew he would never touch me. She was hoping to one day dismiss Anna and just have me. And she was none too soon, since after I was here for about a year, Anna became pregnant with another of Mr. Eberling’s daughters and Anna had to go.”

Jasper a few days later threw a large party and invited all of the employees of the Earth and Mineral Works in Deep Spring to his house. The party was billed as a memorial to the recently departed, as a welcome to the new owners, and as a thank you to all of the hard work of the employees. Jasper sang and drank and celebrated late into the night.

The next day he awoke with a dangerous fever. Dr. Brown, the town physician, was called to check in on Jasper. The wizened old doctor inspected Jasper all over, looking at his eyes and his tongue and the back of his mouth. He listened to Jasper’s chest as he breathed and inspected his stool. After all this, he diagnosed it as a bilious fever and prescribed a calomel diuretic, a medicinal tonic and plenty of bed rest. He read off this prescription to Flint and Patrice without the least sign of concern, absolutely confident in the efficacy of these medicines. But to Flint and Patrice, Jasper’s paleness and weakness were distressing.

Jasper himself was worried and ordered Flint to send an immediate letter to Isabel telling her that he was sick and she had to be here as soon as possible, concerns about her parents be damned.

Dr. Brown’s prognosis declined as the days past, and his unflagging optimism began to sag. Even after Jasper had endured multiple purgations at the urging of the calomel and had consumed considerable quantities of patent medicine, Jasper’s health continued to decline rapidly.

With death everyday beginning to appear more and more like an immanent inevitability, Jasper summoned Flint to his room and asked him: “I want you to take care of Isabel after I’m gone. My wife and my son are going to need your support. Treat her as if she is your wife and my son as if he is your son. In fact, if you can I’d be even better if you could marry her. I need someone committed to helping her. If you can do that for me, then I can rest easily in my grave, assured that you will stay with her and remain faithful to her.”

“What if she doesn’t want to marry me?” Flint asked, already looking for an excuse.

“Well, dash it all to hell, I’ll make her marry you!” Jasper shouted, “And she better do it. She’s my wife, she ought to do as I say.”

“But what if she doesn’t?” Flint asked again, “You really can’t force her.”

Jasper was silent for a few minutes as he thought to himself, then he burst out, of a sudden, “Tell her you’re me,” his eyes opening up as if the idea was a revelation to him.

“No!” was Flint’s immediate reply, which emphasized by vigorously shaking his head, “What good will that do to lie to her?”

“You’ve been me before,” Jasper said, “I was only borrowing the role for a short time. You’ll take it back.”

“No!” Flint said again.

“You’ll give her happiness. You owe this to me. You almost stole my whole life. Now this will be your reparation for that,” Jasper said, and turned away as if would hear no more. He added as an afterthought, “You speak Spanish don’t you? Of course you do. Now I remember. You’ve worked down south. You’ll have to speak to her in Spanish. It’s so perfect that you speak. You were destined for this.”

Though Flint couldn’t deny that he still owed a certain debt to Jasper, he was extremely hesitant.

Jasper told him, “She’s the most wonderful woman. You’ll see. I didn’t have the gift of charming women that my father did. I struggled really. My first wife (well fiancé that is), to tell the truth, courted me. And she certainly was no prize, though she was beautiful. Isabel is a true beauty and a wonderful woman. I’m doing you more a favor than you’re doing me. How I managed to court her successfully can only be explained as divine providence. I was meant to happify her. And now that I’m passing away, you’re the new vessel of providence.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe she’s a worthy wife,” Flint said, “It’s just that it’s unjust to her. It’s wrong.”

“No, you got this all mixed up in your mind,” Jasper said, “You’re going to make her happy, and how can it be unjust to make a good woman happy? I know this is a bad box I’ve put you in, but in the end, if you do as I say, everyone will end up happy.”

Flint told Jasper that he would, though he was still secretly undecided.

Patrice tried to speak with him as Flint sat in the drawing room deep in thought. Flint couldn’t respond to the questions she asked him, and only looked up at her with sad, plaintive eyes.

Not until the moment when a carriage carrying Isabel hastily rode down Clark Street to the Eberling gate and parked beneath the porte-cochere was Flint able to make up his mind.

Isabel was ushered through the gate while Flint waited for her. Huddled in a riding cloak, she stood up from her seat and stepped out of the coach. Horace had been at the gate opening it for her arrival and, now closing it, he returned to the front door. But she was inside the mansion and striding through the entry hall as Horace raced from behind to intercept.

“Mrs. Eberling,” Horace addressed her after clearing his throat.

“Dónde está?” she asked impatiently, adding, “Jasper, por supuesto.”

Horace didn’t understand what she was saying word for word, but it was clear what she wanted. “Right this way,” Horace said, gesturing towards the drawing room where Flint waited.

Horace opened the door and there was Flint who stood up when he heard her.

Flint now understood what Jasper had been saying about her. Isabel was a stunning Spanish beauty. Her hooded cloak covered her black hair, which trickled down her glowing face and in front of her ravishing dark eyes. Those eyes stared at Flint so intensely that he hesitated. It was like a vision out of one of his adolescent fantasies, in which he was the beloved of some exotic foreigner who kissed him with her round, red lips. She was the vision of some Indian princess or some Spanish noblewoman, but with the poise of a bullfighter raising her hand for the kill.

Flint had thought he was decided, but once he saw her before him, he wasn’t sure. He paused a moment as he collected his thoughts, and reassured himself one last time that he was still resolved on the decision he’d made.

IV

Flint saw the action of killing Jasper in his mind, saw the padlock coming down hard on his head and the body collapsing to the ground.

Flint closed the gate as Jasper stood with his back to him, but he didn’t return the padlock to its place. Instead, Flint raised the heavy padlock and swung it down upon Jasper’s skull. Blood splattered on his shirt, and there was a dull groan as Jasper fell heavily to the ground. Flint raised the padlock and crushed Jasper’s skull again and again until the body on the ground was motionless. He breathed heavily from the exertion and trembled with the padlock in his hand.

Flint had not known what it would be like to murder a person until he had done it. As his breath slowed down and he looked over the gory sight in front of him, he realized that he was not a murderer—not in his essence. It was not his nature to murder. His body rebelled against the act, and it was only with a concerted will that he was able to overcome this resistance.

Flint raised the padlock to his eyes to look at it under the dim light. He could see the red of blood covering the edge that had been used to bash Jasper’s skull. Flint grabbed his shirt and hastily tried to clean the blood from the lock. It had to be returned it to its pristine appearance before it could be put back in its place upon the gate.

After replacing the lock, he looked down at the corpse on the ground before him. Only moments before it had been breathing Jasper’s name. Now it was a weighty mass he’d have to drag into its grave. He grabbed the arms and pulled the body along a garden path in the direction of the back of the house. As he dragged he pondered, his mind buzzing in a flurry of thoughts, all radiating around the question of what he would do to cover up his crime.

He realized that it would take perhaps a few hours to bury the body. Flint had, among his many grueling occupations, been forced to dig ditches several times. It was slow work, and, coddled by a life of leisure, he wasn’t as strong as he used to be. Someone would be bound come out looking for him before he was finished, wondering why he’d remained outside so long and wasn’t already asleep. Better if he went inside, went to bed and snuck back out after everyone was asleep.

But what would he do about his clothes? They were covered in blood. He pulled off his jacket, but there was blood on his shirt and on his trousers. He certainly couldn’t enter the house wearing only his union suit. Maybe if he could wear something over it, he could escape notice, but he couldn’t think of where he’d find something for this purpose. He considered sneaking in through the back door and stealing something from the kitchen. It was an option, but it was risky.

A better idea then came to him. He hid the body behind a bush and tried to wipe away the trail through the dirt the dragged body had created. He went to the fountain and poured a generous amount of water into the dirt. He took the mud and smeared it on his clothes to cover up the blood. He put a bit on his face to cover some of the blood there and tussled up his hair to complete the look.

When he stepped into the light of the house he was a startling sight. He looked like a young boy in desperate need of a bath after a day of adventures.

Horace saw him as he was walking up the stairs and said with restrained surprise, “What has happened to your clothes, sir?”

Flint smiled pleasantly, and he said, “I stepped into a puddle of mud out there, and it was just so slippery that it yanked me off my feet. It only got worse from there. As I tried to get up, I only drabbled my clothes further.” He laughed nervously as he said this.

Horace commented, still shocked, “Your fine clothes are completely ruined, sir.”

“Well, at least I’m whole,” Flint said.

“Let me draw a bath for you and wash out those clothes immediately. If I start washing them posthate, I perhaps can salvage them and return them to a more presentable condition.”

“It’s late and I’m dragged out. You ought to go to bed. I’ll be good. I’m entirely clean underneath. I just need to wash my face and I’ll be right as rain.”

“I insist, sir,” Horace persisted, “At least permit me to wash your clothes. The sooner I start cleaning them, the easier the stains will come out.”

“No need, please,” Flint replied, “I’ve never really liked these clothes. We’ll give this suit away to some poor feller in town who’s content with some nobby clothes slightly soiled.”

Horace reluctantly held his tongue, but he grabbed Flint, pulled him into the master bedroom and displayed him before Mr. Eberling, hoping to find some support.

“Look at what your son has done to his finest suit?” Horace admonished.

Mr. Eberling laughed and commented, “When he was young, we could hardly keep him clean. He came in looking like he’d taken a bath in a mud puddle almost every other day. I guess he misses those days.”

“It was an accident. My feet aren’t so nimble as I thought, and it’s dark out there,” Flint said with an artificial laugh.

“Well, stop showing him off and clean him up then,” Mr. Eberling said to Horace.

“He insists that I wait until morning. He is completely intransigent. Perhaps you can persuade him,” Horace noted.

“I gave up trying to persuade him a long time ago. If he’s decided that he prefers being dirty to being clean, all we can do is ask him if he’ll have the good courtesy not to sit on our furniture. In the end, he’ll have his way no matter what we do.”

Horace conceded and let go of Flint’s arm. Mr. Eberling laughed a bit more while he watched the two of them leave.

Flint entered his room and closed the door to escape from the rest of the house.

Patrice arrived soon after, as shocked as the others as soon as she saw Flint’s filthy appearance.

She offered, “Please sir, let me clean you.”

Flint refused with a petulant “No!”

She insisted, “It would be a pleasure for me to bathe you. I can draw the bath in no time and we’ll have you ready for bed with little delay.”

She tried to help him out of his clothes, but he recoiled. “Please, I don’t need your help!” he snapped at her.

She backed away meekly and apologized, “I’m sorry sir. I shouldn’t have insisted. I’ll simply wait in bed for you.”

“No, you can’t be in here,” Flint shouted at her, “Just leave me alone.”

Patrice was frozen in shock by Flint’s sudden rage. She looked apprehensively at the clenched fists that quivered at his side, already bracing herself for the anticipated blow.

Flint saw her fear and tried to soothe her, “Maybe tonight you’d be better off sleeping in your own bed. I’m in a freeze at the moment and I fear it’ll be a long spell before I’m calmed down. You don’t want me keeping you up. And besides, I don’t know if I’ll be able to get to sleep tonight with you here. I’m asking you just this one night if you could please leave me here alone.”

Patrice resigned herself with quiet meekness, recoiling with dejection and saying quietly, “As you wish, sir.”

Flint watched with painful silence as she shuffled out of the room with bowed head.

Once she was gone, he sat down and waited. He remained in place until the house was dark and noiseless. He left his room in the same dirty, bloody clothes and snuck back out into the darkness. There were shovels in the stable, and he grabbed one. He dragged the shovel and the body up a hill extending out behind the house. In the midst of a cluster of trees he began to dig.

Each shovelful of dirt felt heavier than the last, and the hole only gradually opened up by his labor. Flint, more now than he had before, realized how distant he was from his life as a laborer. His body had grown soft and flabby. His muscles were already overworked and he hadn’t even finished the hole.

Flint gave Jasper’s body only a few feet of earth before he pushed it in with his foot. He then, shovelful after shovelful, filled it back up and flattened the earth on top.

Returning the shovel, Flint stripped out of his soiled clothes and dumped them in a washbasin. He vigorously tried to clean the bloodstains from his shirt, jacket and trousers—scrubbing and scouring and soaping and rinsing—but they just didn’t seem to come out. The red stains seemed, by the candlelight, to fade with the repetition of each new application of the soap but not quite to disappear.

He eventually ceased his efforts and retreated to his room. He lit a fire in his fireplace and stoked it until the flames reached high in the fireplace and the heat made him step back. He placed his clothes on the fire one after the other, using a poker to hold onto the wet clothes and drop them on top of the hot fire. The drenched clothes fizzled and steamed, and the fire heaved heavy breathes of smoke, which poured into his room. In time, the clothes did disappear. The fabric evaporated into ash and the remaining scraps and buttons settled into the rippling light of the coals. Flint watched in a daze as he nudged the fire with his poker. He was now so tired that he could barely stay awake, and he dropped into his chair wearing only his union suit underwear and falling asleep.

Morning came too early. Horatio entered to find a strange sight: Flint in his underwear sleeping in his chair with a dirty poker resting on his hand. The black soot from the poker sullied the carpet, and Horatio promptly stepped forward, replaced the poker to its stand besides the fireplace and cleaned the soot from the carpet.

Horatio woke Flint from his sleep, intoning, “You need to wake up, Master Eberling.”

Flint’s hair and face were still dirty. Horatio commented, in a disgusted tone, “You also need to clean up, sir.”

Flint felt unwell when he awoke. Not only was he tired from lack of sleep, but all of his muscles were sore from the unaccustomed exertion of the previous night. He had also slept awkwardly and felt the strain of his uncomfortable position.

Flint dismissed Horatio groggily and quickly cleaned off his face and hair in a washbasin. He could see the traces of red from the blood in the water, mixed in with all the dirt and grime. This worried him enough that he took the water and poured it out the window to hide the evidence.

From then on that day everything was, to all appearances, normal. For everyone but Flint, nothing had changed. Mr. Eberling was still sick and lay in bed. He asked Flint about his muddy encounter the night before and Flint was forced to embellish his story.

Patrice asked after Flint’s dirty clothes, and he simply said he’d disposed of them and shut off any further inquiry.

Flint had his food alone, while Mr. Eberling took his food in bed, and he set himself asleep at the usual hour.

But Patrice wasn’t there beside him in bed that night. Apparently his actions from the night before hadn’t just kept her away that night, but had affected her enough to keep her away the next.

Flint walked down the stairs that night and entered the kitchen. She had a small apartment adjoining the kitchen in the interior of the house and Flint pulled open the door without knocking. Patrice turned her head to look up to see who was at the door. She had been trying to sleep, but was so far unsuccessful, and when she saw the imposing shadow of Flint at the door, she pulled the sheets up to hide beneath them.

As Flint looked down upon her, timid and quiet, he felt a stirring of attraction. He strode towards the bed, and he kissed her on the lips, forcefully, aggressively. They hadn’t made love before and he felt entirely ready for it now.

He pulled down the sheets to expose her attired in her nightshirt, which covered her to her ankles. He slowly pulled her nightshirt upwards to expose her nakedness while Patrice remained still and motionless. Her eyes shyly looked downward as she was gradually undressed. She began to squirm to cover herself and closed her legs tight. Flint had to pry her legs apart as he dropped his trouser. He entered her while she turned away, and he weighed his heavy body upon her as she silently complied.

When Flint finally rolled off of her, sweat on his skin and heavy of breath, he stared at the ceiling and thought back to all of his regrets. At this moment, a new one came to mind.

“Patrice, I ought not have waited so long,” he told her plainly, “I believed there was some reason to wait, something I was waiting for, but as of now, I can’t think there ever was such a thing. I was holding back for nothing.”

“Am I still satisfactory to you, sir?” Patrice said meekly.

“Undoubtedly,” Flint replied.

At the same moment he began to realize how cramped Patrice’s small bed was in comparison to his much roomier bed upstairs and asked, “Would you like to join me upstairs in the bed of my room?”

She said, “Do you require me to join you up there?”

Patrice’s response rather surprised Flint, and he stoutly replied, “Require you? No I was just inviting you to join me, since I don’t think the two of us could comfortably sleep here. I don’t believe I could require you to do something like that.”

“Then I would be more comfortable here, sir,” Patrice said hesitantly.

“Then I won’t try to persuade you,” Flint said to her. He stood up from the bed, pulled his pants up and fixed himself up.

“Goodnight Patrice,” was all he could think to say.

She replied with a courteous, “Goodnight sir,” and he left the room.

V

That next morning, while Flint was heading out through the gate of the mansion, he opened up the padlock that held it closed at night. He’d failed to check it the night before and noticed, with a panicked shock, some flecks of blood on the bottom corner. Horatio had been the one to unlock it yesterday morning. Had he noticed it? Had he thought it suspicious?

Flint pulled a handkerchief from his pocket, wetted it with his spit and wiped away the blood. He carefully inspected the lock and the gate to make sure there were no traces. There were. He had never realized how far and wide blood could spatter when it was beaten out of a man. There were tiny drips of blood on the railing of the fence, on the leaves of plants, on the dirt. Flint pulled the leaves off the plants, wiped away the red dots from the fence and kicked the dirt to cover up the blood.

When he was in his room that afternoon he studied his hair in his glass. He hadn’t really washed it his hair the morning after the murder and perhaps some blood had sprayed into it. It was hard to see, but he thought he saw some flecks lodged in the depths of his combed hair.

He cleaned his hair again this time more thoroughly, drawing himself a bath and arduously soaping his hair while he sat alone in his large ceramic basin.

Though it was difficult to perceive these small flecks of red, he still believed that this wasn’t enough. He walked down to the Yanksley River and dunked, rinsed and scrubbed his hair until it hung heavy and dripping over his brow.

However, when he returned from this expedition to inspect himself before his glass, it still appeared as if some few bits were left.

The next step he took was the only solution he could think of. He locked himself in his room and took his razor to his hair. He carefully slid the blade across the skull as if he was shaving his beard.

Several times Patrice knocked at the door, asking to be let in so that she could make the bed and tidy the room, and each time Flint rebuffed her.

After a long struggle with the full mass of hair, which now dusted his shoulders and lay on the ground in piles around him, his hair was gone. His scalp was red and agitated from the coarse touch of the naked razor, but it was clean and free of any trace of blood.

After he finished this, he unlocked and opened the door to his room but remained waiting inside. He hid behind the bed beneath a clump of sheets. Patrice entered the room to perform her long delayed morning clean.

She groaned when she noticed the hair that littered the floor and covered the rug. She’d have to sweep up this hair and take the rug outside to shake it out, adding to her already numerous duties.

She decided she would first make the bed and walked towards it. She reached forward to pick up the sheets from off the floor, when suddenly Flint leapt up from beneath them. Patrice shouted at the sudden fright.

Flint, quite unintentionally, had emerged with one sheet on top of him and, realizing what he looked like, added, “I’m the Canterville Ghost. Come from beyond the grave.”

“You frightened me, sir,” she admitted, now calmed down and her breathing returning to normal, “But will you permit me to make your bed?”

Patrice pulled the sheet from off of him and when his pale, hairless scalp was exposed, she found herself shouting with fright once again. The hairlessness made him look so deathly wan and ghostly that she momentarily thought that he was truly dead.

“You scared me again,” she said, adding with obvious disappointment, “Sir, you’re beautiful hair!”

“I committed it to dust,” Flint said, “It’ll have to be regrown.”

When he stepped out of his room to the rest of the house, Horatio stared at him in disbelief, commenting: “Master Eberling? What have you done to yourself?”

Patrice again avoided visiting Flint’s room that evening. He wandered from the house to The Bugle Post in frustration.

When he entered, Sam greeted him warmly saying, “What a novel thing to see you here at night. Back in the old days, you used to come all the time, but not once since that first time after you returned. What will you have?”

“I just need some deadshot,” Flint said. Sam poured a shot of whiskey and Flint picked up the glass and downed it.

Flint turned around to see the evening’s performance: three of Sam’s girls dancing on a small stage while a man in the corner played at the piano.

Sam spoke into Flint’s ear from behind while Flint watched the muscular white legs of the women kicking in the air: “All of these girls are new to you, you know. I’ve had a whole new lineup since you left. I know you’ll especially like that blonde beauty. Her name is Bella, just like a French Madame, and she loves to fill the cock alley just as much as she loves to dance. Nay more.”

After Bella finished dancing, Flint approached her and gestured upstairs with his eyes. He forcefully pulled her off her feet and carried her to the room. Once there, he pulled of her corset and skirt as fast as he could and threw her to the bed. He was in no mood for foreplay, no mood for tenderness, and certainly in no mood for making love.

Mr. Eberling passed away in his sleep after many days of weakening strength and declining health. Horatio discovered the body in the morning. He had entered at the usual hour to wake Mr. Eberling from his sleep. When Mr. Eberling failed to stir after he called him multiple times, he hesitantly approached the body, and upon touching his skin, he felt the cold.

Horatio was not pleased to have touched a dead person and left the room immediately in a tizzy, calling Flint and Patrice to the scene with some panicked tears. It was Flint who approached the body, said his goodbyes in solemn words and placed Mr. Eberling’s two hands upon his chest. In this position, Mr. Eberling looked like he was simply relaxing upon the bed in meditative peace.

The undertaker was called, the body prepared and a wake was held in the living room of his house. Around the coffin where Mr. Eberlings body lay, everyone in town, and even many from nearby towns gathered. Their faces were dour, their skin pale, their clothing dark, as they mulled around in quiet conversation. A few of them occasionally cried quietly as they remembered things about the well-loved man.

At the burial, Flint was among the pallbearers who bore the body down to Mr. Eberling’s plot of earth in the Yarrowdale Cemetery beside his wife.

Mr. Eberling’s younger brother, Winston, stepped forward to give a eulogy at the burial and spoke solemnly: “I’ve always had to live in the shadow of my older brother. He was a businessman with both a silver tongue and a silver eye that could see the metal hidden beneath the earth. He struck it rich with his first mine and spent the rest of his life building up a company that allowed the rest of us to live comfortably. I have worked as an assistant to him at his company for a long time and have always been trying to learn what he already knew without ever having been taught. He took care of me like no other brother and helped me every step of the way. Now that he’s gone, I really feel like an old man without his walking stick. I don’t know how I’ll do it. He was the strength for so many of us. We’ll struggle without him. And even though we asked so much of him, he always had enough to give and more. I’m going to miss him. The world has lost a great and generous man who can never be replaced.”

Flint was called forward to make a statement, which he did reluctantly. “My father was one dedicated and accomplished feller,” Flint said, bumbling his way through his speech, “A real gentleman of the first water. He built a business for himself and for his family, and it has succeeded and lasted. And I hope I can keep his legacy going. But he was also a dedicated and accomplished father, raising me well and treating my mother and me with a heap of love and generosity. He’ll be missed by all of us. There’s nothing we’ve got to replace him. I’ll miss him. And I wish him heavenly reward in the afterlife.”

He stepped down and wiped away a tear from his eye.

As he returned to his seat, he looked across the faces in the crowd. He saw one woman that was looking at him rather intently, almost menacingly. She wore a black dress, which was stuffed with a sumptuous and well fed form. On her head was a large black hat, with red flowers decorating the rim. He didn’t know him, but she apparently knew him.

VI

Flint saw the woman the next day, dressed in the same outfit, when he sat down for the reading of the will. It took place in the drawing room of the Eberling mansion.

She still looked at Flint intently. She approached him before everyone took their seat and extended a hand to shake, merely saying, “Hello, Jasper. It has been too long.”

Flint stood up and shook her hand, but replied simply, “Yes. Indeed.”

There was a long silence, during which she appeared to be waiting for him to speak. When he saw the lawyer entering, he sat down, thankful to have been saved from that conversation.

“Please be seated,” the lawyer said as he walked to the front of the room bearing a bundle of papers. The mysterious woman sat next to Flint and he could see, out of the corner of his eye, her watching the lawyer.

“My name is Edward Lewis; I am Thurston Eberling’s counsel. This afternoon is the event of the reading of Mr. Eberling’s will and it appears that all of those with an interest in this will have been able to attend. I do hope that my wires reached you promptly and provided you enough advance notice to be here.

“As to the will, I have been in close correspondence in these past few weeks with Mr. Eberling and I can assure you that this documents genuinely represents Mr. Eberling’s wishes at the time of his death.

“Before I read the contents of the will, Mr. Eberling has included a short statement which he asked me to read to you: ‘To those who are to be beneficiaries of my fortune I do hope that you understand that you were appreciated and indeed loved immensely during my life. If I did not do you the good honor of showing my appreciation while I lived, I hope that now I can assure that it was there and it was strong. You must understand also that, as future shareholders in my company, I have actually put much trust in you, and equally as much burden upon you.”

Flint saw the woman brighten up at the words “future shareholders,” and she leaned forward eagerly.

Edward Lewis continued reading the statement, “‘This company which I have built is my one great accomplishment and my hope is that it will be my family’s legacy for generations to come. Please care for it well and help it grow. Please also cherish it as a reminder of me and as a way for me to always be present with you all.’”

Edward Lewis stopped for a moment and looked up, continuing: “That’s the end of his statement. Now I will proceed to read the will.”

Horatio was mentioned first. Mr. Eberling had given him a sizable bonus for his years of service as well as a few of his possessions, such as a painting that Horatio was particularly fond of and a significant gold share.

Next was Patrice. Mr. Eberling also gave Patrice a large bonus and a few possessions, including a jewelry set that had belonged to his wife. But most significantly he also gave her a share in his company, stating: “I give to Patrice, out of my 75% share of The Earth and Mineral Works, a 2% share of my company. Though she has never directly contributed to the company, her service to me has given me the freedom to improve the company. My debt to her is great and too long overdue.”

Next were four women, Mrs. Sutton, Miss Field, Miss Garcia and Mrs. Thompson, who were spoken of together. He gave them also shares of his company, writing, “A shame and a debt too long unacknowledged and even longer overdue is owed to these four women. If one cannot correct the past, then one can correct the future, and I give to the four of them, out of my 75% share of The Earth and Mineral Works, a 2% share to each of them individually. May they prosper as they should have from the beginning.”

Next was Mr. Eberling’s brother, Winston. He too was given some various objects from the house, a share of Mr. Eberling’s gold reserves, and most significantly a share of the company as well: “To my brother Winston, who raised me well and always gave me assistance when I was in need, I give, out of my 75% share of the Earth and Mineral Works, a 12% share. His great generosity and assistance in the early days of my fledgling company were indispensible in getting it off the ground, and he indisputably deserves a share in it.”

Jasper’s share was next and, as was expected, the rest of Mr. Eberling’s property was bequeathed to his son: his house, all the goods within it not already bequeathed, all savings and investments not already bequeathed, and of course, “The remaining 53% of my share of the Earth and Mineral Works I pass on to my son. Though his contribution so far has been slight, as he is my son and the flesh of my flesh, I deem him most worthy to carry on the legacy of this family business. He has proven himself in these final months as willing and capable and will make up for the little he has contributed so far by giving his everything to the company. I know that I can trust the company into no more capable hands than his.”

The woman seated next to Flint did not look pleased to hear this. It appeared as if everything had been given out and everyone was, understandably, wondering why she, who had to travel quite some distance to arrive here, had been brought.

It turned out that after all that, though he had bequeathed nothing to her, he had added a statement directed at her nullifying an undisclosed agreement between them, “And to Mrs. Jane Prescott Marshall, more than ample time has been given for you to establish your income on a sufficient level of independence. This will brings to termination any and all debts and obligations owed to you, per our original agreement.”

Everyone looked at the woman, who Flint could only assume was Mrs. Marshall, and she flushed with anger. When Mr. Lewis announced, “that concludes the reading of the will.” Mrs. Marshall stood up in a fury and stomped out of the room while everyone watched her leave.

Flint walked to the resting place of Jasper in the forest behind the house later that afternoon. It was not to pay his respects, but rather because he’d begun to worry that perhaps the grave was too obvious, that someone would pass by and suspect something of being buried there and trying to dig it up. He was able to find the spot without too much difficulty. The position of the hole was obvious, since the dirt had been clearly turned up and the light undergrowth had been interrupted in a human-body-shaped hole. He picked up some sticks and fallen leaves and strewed them over the spot in the hope that they would better conceal it.

That evening Horace found Flint taking a drink in the drawing room and announced, “Excuse me, Mister Eberling, but you have a visitor.”

“Who is it,” Flint asked.

“Mrs. Marshall,” Horace said ominously.

“Mrs. Marshall?” Flint asked.

“Yes, your former fiancé. Don’t you remember from earlier today? She’s now Mrs. Marshall.”

“Ah yes,” Flint replied, “Send her in.”

Her heavy steps could be heard echoing as she entered into the main hall. She stepped into the drawing room, saying sarcastically, “I like what you’ve done with your hair Jasper,” and waited for Flint to stand up and offer her a seat.

He merely asked her, “How may I help you Mrs. Marshall?”

“We shall skip the formalities,” she said and walked over to a chair and sat down, “I was expecting my annuity to be continued after your father’s death. It wasn’t.”

Flint stumbled for a moment thinking how to properly reply. He awkwardly replied: “That was a decision between my father and you and he decided…”

“Don’t patronize me you pestilent rat,” she intoned derisively, “You inherited most of his fortune. The agreement is between you and me now, and you’re going to continue the annuity undiminished. In fact, if you agree now, I won’t force you to increase it. I’m being generous, mind you. My costs have gone up considerably. You see, the life of a prominent society lady can be pricey and my husband’s income is quite a few pennies short. Be lucky I’m not asking for a pay raise.”

“My father has just died, can’t we just leave it? Whatever reason it was he gave you that annuity can be rested with him,” Flint pleaded.

“Whatever reason?” she shouted, incredulously, “The reason is you! Don’t you remember you fetid maggot?!”

Then she stopped suddenly and looked at Flint more closely, saying suspiciously, “You don’t remember do you?”

“Why would I not remember?” Flint replied weakly.

“You sure have changed since you returned. You never used to be so…” she said, pausing as she thought of the word, “conciliatory. Yes. What was our agreement about? I seem to have forgotten.”

Jane Marshall smiled with pleasure as she watched Flint squirm uncomfortably and hesitate. It was obvious he didn’t know, but he was trying to think of some way out of this.

She asked calmly, “If you would be so kind, might I ask you to remove your shirt.”

“What!” Flint replied incredulously.

“Actually, you just need to expose the back of your right shoulder,” she said as she stood up from her seat, “If you could show that to me.”

She tried to grab for Flint’s shirt, but he moved away from her. “Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “I’ve seen you quite a bit more naked than that.” Then she corrected herself adding, “That is, if you’re Jasper.” She grabbed him and forcefully yanked at his jacket and pulled apart the shirt beneath at the collar, ripping the fabric, until his shoulder was fully exposed and she could examine it closely.

It was only a moment’s inspection later before she could announce quite confidently, “It’s not there! Gone! Vanished!”

She stood back for a moment to glower in triumph, explaining, “You probably don’t even know what I’m looking for. So, I’ll tell you. You see Jasper had a scar there. I would know. I gave it to him. During one of our many quarrels. I used to think of it as an affectionate love smooch, a way for me to brand my property.”

She walked around in front of him and compared her hands to Flints, adding, “Your hands are smaller too. And now that I look at it, you have distinctly different ears. His were shorter and stuck out more. And his eyebrows really never were quite that thin.” She smiled a gleeful grin at every new discovery.

“Yes, though you two look very much alike, there’re several differences. Small though they may be. The more I look the more I see, though I don’t find that I like looking at you. I guess all I would be curious to know is what happened to Jasper. Did you kill him so you could take his place or did you just show up and pretend to be him?” she asked, pausing to wait for his answer. Changing her mind, she said, “You know what? I don’t care. I guess I might be thrilled to hear that sycher is dead, but really I do not care. It’s a late night and I just want to get this over with. You may be different than Jasper but you are just as unpleasant to be around. How much of an annuity are you now going to pay me?”

Flint sat stiffly and quietly in his seat, swallowing hard and little able to move. “And in exchange you’re going to keep my secret,” Flint said.

“If I ever told your secret,” Jane Marshall pointed out, “I believe we can safely assume that would mean the end of my annuity, since they would stuff your stupid, bald waste of flesh into the nearest crowbar hotel and probably hang you for your impertinence.” She smiled with pleasure: “That means, that what you and I have is a self-binding agreement, since neither one of us has any reason to see it contravened. No papers need to be drawn up or signed.”

Flint stood up from his seat and walked towards the fireplace. He leaned against the wall for support and rested his forehead against the mantelshelf. One hand reached down and touched the handle of a poker that stood in a stand besides the fire.

“I believe it was that poker right there that your hand is touching,” she said, and Flint turned around quizzically. “That I scarred Jasper with,” she explained, “I was aiming for his head, but my governess, unfortunately, skipped the swordplay lessons when I was a child; so, I never learned how to wield a weapon like that.” She smiled as she recalled the events, relishing each word, “You can’t imagine how he was yelling at me. I don’t know if you ever met him, but he sure could yell. I just picked up that poker and swung. The metal dug right through his flesh and he just screamed with pain.”

Flint’s hand started to wrap around the bronze handle of the poker. The metal was cold, but it started to warm under the tension of his hands. He pulled the poker out of its holder and rested it in his two hands. It was light, but firm—not easily bent or broken.

[Branch A splits into Branches A1 and A2][Branch B splits into Branches B1 and B2]

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