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Authors: Victoria McKernan

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BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
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“Stupid, stupid cattle!” Marguerite cried. “What do they need to say all the time? Do they talk about how pretty is the hind end of the cow in front of them?”

At the beginning of the journey, women had sung as they walked; children had laughed and chased butterflies. Now they trudged along like battle-weary soldiers. Babies screamed with diaper rash and mosquito bites. The women's skirts were frayed and tattered at the hems. The dogs were matted with burrs. Every day was alike, except when some catastrophe burst through the numbing torpor. Twice, tornados spun dangerously close. Once, on a perfectly sunny day, a single cloud appeared and pelted them with hailstones the size of plums. Another day, lightning struck and killed one of the German brothers’ prize cows. But most days were just long and dull. Still, they were making good time, twelve, sometimes fifteen miles a day. Another few weeks and they would see the mountains.

“No better place in all the world than the Rocky Mountains,” Jackson said one evening as he scraped the last spoonful of beans off his plate. He was in a good mood, for he liked beans. There was rarely enough fuel or time for the hourlong cooking they needed, but they had been lucky finding buffalo chips that day.

“Going to be a lot of work, hauling all these wagons over,” William Buck grumbled.

“Been done plenty of times now,” Jackson said. “Won't be easy, but you should have seen it twenty years ago! No real trail then. We were still figuring out ways to get through.”

“How long have you been out here anyway, Mr. Jackson?” Aiden asked, taking advantage of the man's rare chatty mood.

“Came out in 1831. Fur trapping. Them was some fine years—beaver everywhere, like mice in a feed bin when the cat's up and died. I brought in near six hundred skins to my first rendezvous, and that was being fresh out of nowhere, not knowing my ass from my elbow.”

“What's a rendezvous?” Aiden asked.

“Grandest party ever there was! Once a year, in July, after the spring hunt, all the trappers would meet up in one place for the companies to buy the pelts.” Jackson stretched back and got himself comfortable. “Lord—you want to know some fine festivities.” He looked at Aiden and smiled big. “Skins went for plenty then—three dollars for the poor ones, six for a good pelt. Trappers came in, got three or four thousand cash money in their hand, then drank and gambled it all away in a week.” Jackson tipped his head back and laughed. “Why, a man could go back east and buy himself a castle if he'd a
mind to, but instead he'd get stinking drunk and piss it all away.”

“How come?” Aiden asked. “How come you didn't, well, piss just half of it away and save you some?”

“Ah—wouldn't that be a smart thing to do.” Jackson laughed. “But see, boy—I'll tell you some wisdom. People set up how they want their life to be. Sometimes they don't know that's what they's doing, but it is. The rich folk back east, for example, they pile up accumulations to keep them chained down there. And the mountain man, well, he piles up nothing to keep him chained out there—” Jackson waved a hand toward the western sky.

“Why'd you quit, then?” Buck pressed.

“Quit? I didn't quit. Ran out of beaver. We killed ‘em all. I trapped six hundred my first year, not even sixty my last. We killed ‘em all. You'll see. Another month we'll be up there and you'll see. Beaver scarce as dinosaurs.”

“So what'd you do then?” Aiden asked.

“Oh, various type this ‘n’ that employs. Went south and shot me some Mexicans in the war, tried out the gold, did some trade.” Jackson leaned back and pulled his hat down over his eyes. “Lately I schoolmarmed a bunch of you sorry-ass tenderfoots across the country, which is right now wearin’ me the hell out, so enough of the questions.”

Aiden had somehow expected to wake up one day and just see the mountains there, tall and snowy and stabbing at the sky like the picture of the Alps in the
Atlas of the World.
But the horizon crept up so slowly that they appeared at first only as a faint rise on the far edge of the earth, like a line of
baby teeth. A week later and he could make out some edges and peaks. But they were still at least a hundred miles away.

As the wagon train dragged on across the plains, they began to see the toll the journey had taken on others before them. Broken wagon wheels stuck up from ruts in the ground, their spokes bleached and spiky as fish bones. As the reality of the mountains loomed closer, the group often came upon whole loads of belongings that had been jettisoned as emigrants ahead of them realized the impossibility of hauling heavy loads over the peaks. There were little furniture graveyards full of mahogany chifforobes, oak desks and ornate bedsteads. The wood made for nice campfires.

Jefferson J. Jackson had made it very clear that no one in his wagon train carried more than the absolute necessities. There was barely a blanket chest or a trunk to be found, even among the prosperous families. One day they came across a great load of abandoned furniture. A small piano was set carefully on a smooth bit of ground. Inside was a hopeful note written in elegant script:
Property of Mrs. Richard D. Wain-wright, moving to Portland, Oregon. I will pay $100 for safe delivery.

“Don't nobody even think about it,” Jackson said when Maddy read him the note. “I'd sooner tote along a dead elephant. At least you could eat it if you had to.”

The piano had ivory keys and intricate pearl inlays that gleamed in the sun. The varnish was starting to crackle from exposure, but the piano was still playable, though a bit out of tune. Even though no one thought to cross Jackson in the matter of transporting the thing, there was a near unanimous rebellion against moving on, despite three or four more hours of good travel time left in the day. People were hungry
for music. The furniture would make nice fires too. They would camp right there, they declared, and Mr. Jefferson J. Jackson could very well just accept it. He did. It had been seven weeks since the party in Sweetwater. They were making good distance, and it wasn't a bad idea to store up a few hours of fun against the trials that lay ahead.

While they made camp, everyone who could play took a turn at the piano. Some of the mildest women jostled each other and argued to go next. War nearly erupted among the ten Thompson children. Back home they had fussed through years of piano lessons, sullenly pounding their way through practice, but out here the little instrument was exotic and exciting. Polly and Annie could play all the popular songs: “Beautiful Dreamer,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?” Gabriel True gamely thumped out a few marches, but Marguerite didn't play a note.

“A preacher's wife and she doesn't play?” Mrs. Holling-ford was scandalized. “Have you ever heard of such a thing? Not a single hymn!” She fluffed her skirts, sat down herself and pounded out a good twenty minutes of dreary church music before someone else managed to take control of the keyboard.

“Isn't it all just too beautiful?” Maddy clutched her arms around her knees and rocked with happiness. She hadn't heard a piano since she was five years old.

“It's not even a real piano,” Polly sniped as she sat down beside them. “It's just a little parlor spinet. We had a baby grand piano in Charleston. Stephen Foster himself played it once.”

Polly babbled on about all the concerts and recitals she
had been to and the famous singers she had heard. Maddy and Aiden had never heard of any of them, except of course Stephen Foster, who had written every popular song anybody ever sang.

“Look at Doc Carlos,” Maddy whispered to her brother. “The way he looks at the piano. Like he's starving for the music. You suppose he plays?”

“I reckon he does. Doctors are smart,” Aiden said. “And they come from families with pianos.”

“How do you know that?”

“You know what I mean; families with money and schooling and nice things, like those in Virginia. They all played piano. Father and I used to look in the windows for the parties. Our ma served for them, you know. She wore a nice dress and a lace cap.”

“Was she beautiful?”

“Like the stars and the springtime,” Aiden said. His voice caught in his throat. It was what his father used to say.

“I'm going to ask him to play some,” Maddy declared.


“Doc Carlos. He might just be shy. I'm going to ask him to play the piano.” The music and the bright campfire, blazing with table legs and dresser drawers, made her feel bold.

“He's gonna say no and go away and leave him alone,” Aiden laughed.

“But he won't up and kill me, will he?” Maddy said. She made her way around the circle and crouched down beside the silent doctor.

“Doc Carlos,” Maddy said, tapping his shoulder. “Can you play us something?”

He jumped. “What?”

“Will you have a turn at the piano?”

“I don't play.”

“Oh, sure you do, Doc,” Joby urged. He smiled at Maddy “He kin play good. Fancy songs. Only no words. And you can't really dance to ‘em. But they're nice anyway.”

“Play us something, then,” Maddy encouraged him.

“I haven't played in a long time.”

“Well, I don't think most other folks have either.”

“You played that time in the church,” Joby urged. “Before it got burned down.” He turned to Maddy. “Made all the soldiers cry.” He was trying to whisper again, but as usual, this made his voice actually louder.

“You play, Doc?” Reverend True asked. “Go on— otherwise you doom us to eight more rounds of ‘Beautiful Dreamer.’ “

“It's okay if you make mistakes,” Maddy said. “Things don't matter out here the same way. No one's going to laugh at you, especially, for someday they might need doctoring!”

Reverend True laughed. “Go on, Doc! Miss Polly—”

Polly was playing an especially mournful version of “Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”

“Miss Polly, how about we let Doc Carlos have a turn? When you're finished, of course.”

Polly played a dramatic flourish, gathered her skirts and slid off the seat in a huff. Doc Carlos unfolded his long legs, got up in one swift, easy motion and strode over to the piano. The sun was just setting then, with a crimson light that turned the pearl inlays a glowing pink. He tried out the feel of the keys, then ran his fingers up and down the keyboard in a sparkling river of notes. All throughout the camp, people stopped to listen. Even the men who had drifted off to pass a
whiskey jug came close to hear. The music was strange and complicated and forceful, like the feel in the air when a storm was coming—sharp and heavy and scary and exciting and beautiful all together. Maddy dashed back to sit beside Aiden.

“Have you ever heard anything like that? Do you think that's Hindu music?”


“Those pictures in the
Atlas of the World
—the temples and the statues of the idol Buddha and the Taj Mahal, the ladies with those sari gowns of precious silk? Doesn't it sound exotic like that?”

“Carlos isn't a Hindu.” Aiden laughed and threw his arm around his sister's shoulders. “He grew up in New York City. His father was from Spain.”

“How do you know that?”

“Sometimes he and Joby eat with us. One night, Buck asked him what kind of foreigner he was. Carlos said just that. Born in New York; his father was from Spain.”

“Oh,” Maddy sighed. “I so want to meet a Hindu.”

“The music is called
Annie said, rolling her eyes. “It comes from Europe.”

“I think this piece was written by a fellow called Mozart,” Reverend True explained. “German or something.”

“Mozart was from Austria, dear.” Marguerite leaned her head against her husband's shoulder, a dreamy look in her eyes.

“Well, definitely not a Hindu.”

“No, I think not. But Austria is very exotic,” Marguerite added, seeing how disappointed Maddy was. “I've heard the
whole city of Vienna is painted with real gold! And they drink hot chocolate all day.”

“Like the Aztecs!” Maddy was suitably impressed, though she had never tasted or even seen chocolate herself. “They practiced human sacrifice,” she added.

“Austrians?” Reverend True exclaimed. Marguerite shoved him and giggled.

“Aztecs,” Maddy replied. “To worship their god. They cut people's hearts out alive!”

“Oh my.”

“I could play this if I wanted to,” Polly said dismissively “This is all the boring music they make you learn before you can play fun tunes. Beethoven and all of those dull old fellows. You can't dance to it! They aren't even songs! They're called études and—and symphonies. He probably just quit before he ever learned popular songs.”

“Ain't it pretty, though?” Joby's whisper rang out loud. “Didn't I say he could play nice? Made the soldiers cry in that church that day. Some not even eating their piece of bread, just listening to the music.”

Doc Carlos played for a long time, and no one else ever wanted a turn. The sun set and the full moon rose and a chill mist sent children cuddling close for warmth. More dresser drawers and table legs were tossed onto the fire.

“You know,” Maddy said, leaning drowsily on Aiden, “isn't it nice how sometimes the world just turns perfect for a little while?”

Carlos played like he forgot where he was, like the piano was pumping his blood instead of his heart. Sometimes his hands ran out of keys on the small instrument
and there were odd spaces in the music. His shirt turned dark with sweat. Joby fell asleep, curled on his side beside Maddy. The sky grew dark. The furniture fire burned down low. Suddenly there was a loud crack like a gunshot. Carlos fell back and flung an arm in front of his face. Some of the men jumped up and reached for guns while women grabbed children.

“Wait, wait!” Marguerite cried. “It is just the piano!”

The back of the piano had split open, and wires sprang out the crack. The jolting of the trail had weakened the joints; the sun and weather had dried the wood. The passionate playing had snapped the wires, and now the music was only memory.

“Looks like the symphony is over,” Jackson said gruffly as he got to his feet. “We still move at daybreak, Mozart regardless.”

Everyone began to get up and drift off into the quiet darkness. Carlos sat on the piano bench, shivering. Aiden got up, took off his own jacket and put it around the doctor's shoulders.

BOOK: The Devil's Paintbox
8.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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