An Affair of the Harte

An Old West mining town receives an unexpected arrival and a startlin' predicament.

An Affair of the Harte
By Angela Rasch

Almost everyone left; them who didn’t have the sense to move on had their pick of dozens of abandoned shacks to assume by squatter’s rights. The mine, located close to our small town, at the far end of a five-mile long, box canyon, had “petered out.” Keepin’ one’s “peter out” had been the wellspring that fostered the fix we found ourselves in that spring.

Every whore, except one, had left when the gold vein dwindled from a shaft that paid nearly ten thousand a foot, to a trickle, which barely kept us in necessaries. That one young female who had stayed wasn’t the kind who you would ever give such a scurrilous title as whore. Chastity had a 24-karat heart; whilst the others had Babylon in their ancestry, Chastity’s parentage came over from a land of milk and honey.

Although they said she had “sabe” -- her fanciful nature prompted every man in our rapidly diminishin’ town to love her. The other prostitutes who had serviced us men would read books, play solitaire, or have their dinner whilst you did your business. They smiled only when you handed over your pouch -- in stark, and somewhat naked contrast to Chastity, who went out of her way to make you feel special.

Each week, upon first seein’ a client’s manliness, she would utter that tiny staccato yelp of her sex, as if she were startled by its sheer mass. Miner after miner swore Chastity had been a virgin the first time they snookered down with her.

Monumental battles had been waged over her honor; four of which had ended in fatalities. You weren’t anyone in Pinewood Junction, if you didn’t have a scar to prove how highly you regarded her. Bickerin’ and fightin’ filled the long hours between shifts in the shaft. Alcohol greased the path from brains to fists, in a camp populated by those who had turned their backs on the effete civilization of the East.

Chastity didn’t believe in hooker monogamy, the kind we heard some kept-women in the big cities practiced. Her charm stemmed from never lettin’ on that anyone else in her whole, entire life had ever satisfied her as much as you did. Even men with their tools shriveled from a quick jump in the creek to wash off a week’s stink before bedding her, were told how “gigantic” she found them to be.

Not a one among us would have stopped short of stompin’ a rattler, treein’ a puma, or some such human sacrifice for our blue-eyed lady of the evening.

Chastity would seduce you, so that you knew the only gift she wanted in life was a moment or two of bliss impaled on your “mighty lance”, or “steel pole”, or “giant snake.” She often times seemed like a poet, and told us of her dream to learn to read and write so as she could put down her notions. Oakhurst offered to teach her a few words, but that was nixed by general consensus, given the kinda words Oakhurst allowed to slide like creek-moss from his tongue.

Although Chastity blushed ragingly when it came time to settle-up, and termed your payment for services rendered as “such a nice and unexpected present” -- she did financially well for herself. Many a miner dreamt of the wealth that eluded their pick and shovel and had designs of marryin’ her and livin’ the rest of their lives off what she had squirreled away in that rickety shed functioning as a locale for both her home and business.

It came as no surprise -- on that morning when Chastity sluiced her breakfast for the fifth day in a row -- that bedlam broke out. Every man in Pinewood Junction staked his true and rightful claim as the legit father of the coming bundle of joy; three lost fairly solid teeth in the process.

The arguments and lost tempers went on for days. It was a cinch that one of us had done the deed, and equally undeniable that beyond speculation the impregnator could be anyone of the fourteen who still worked the mine. Each, exceptin’ maybe Antoine, enjoyed equal “access” and had driven home their personal pick with practiced regularity, at least once a week.

As our tiny town stood at least thirty miles from any livin’ soul -- and that soul a mountain man who seemingly preferred goats -- we each had a one-in-fourteen claim to the child and lifetime partnership with the girl of our dreams. . .and her riches. The only other soul we ever saw was the leathery, old gal mule-skinner who brought supplies and hauled out our gold once a month; and she lacked man seeds.

Most of us had been through the Civil War and felt we had used-up all our luck gettin’ through that mess with our being and most of our limbs. Hence, nobody gave any thought to settlin’ the issue of fatherhood by lot, or through any other such game or contest, except for Oakhurst, a gambler who no one would bet with -- on anything. He had missed that part of gambler’s school where they taught the basic guidelines for keepin’ your trout coming back.

Chastity took to her delicate condition like tomato sauce to Sicilian spaghetti. As her stomach swelled, her smile and natural beauty likewise grew. She appeared to be the healthiest of us all in a camp of downright robust human beings whose greatest maladies were an occasional lethal day-after and lumps caused by flyin’ fists. We hovered around her seeing to her every need and whim. When she craved waffles one of the men made flapjacks, and then carved them to the unique shape of such -- and browned them in a pan.

One of the less-sensitive of the group asked Chastity if she had womenfolk to be with her at the time of the expected one’s birth. The clouds that ascended on her otherwise always angelic face told us she was on her own; and that cur who had asked the unwarranted question was soundly kicked in the arse by all within earshot.

There was talk of bringing in a doctor or a midwife, but Chastity just laughed and told all she came from a “long line of squat-and-droppers.” Not eager to discuss such female problems, we accepted her wisdom -- so when complications arose, we were at a complete loss to help her.

“Gopher,” so named for his annoyin’ and filthy habit of sucking on a blade of grass when one never knew who had pee’d where, tended to Chastity during her ordeal. At her passing we were struck with the want to celebrate over the wonder of the birth of the child -- and the need to mourn.

To dispel our melancholy Gopher assured us the child was healthy, except for one small problem.

“Is my child a boy?” Shuffles asked, ignorin’ the begged question. For his impertinence as to whom the child belonged, he would have been rewarded with a two-by-four alongside his head had we not outlawed “swingin’ lumber” at camp meetings after the need became all too obvious.

Gopher shook his head slowly from side to side. “That’s the problem.”

“Then ssshe’sss a girl,” Gap said, whistling on hissssss s’s. “Thass no problem. Golly -- a little girl would be great. Chasssstity sssaid ssshe favored a girl.”

A hush fell over the assembly as we remembered the dear departed. Everyone yanked off their hat and bowed their heads.

After we had respected enough, Gopher spoke again. “That little cuss’s cute as a button, but I’m sayin’ you just can’t tell.”

“Kin’t tell” I asked, afraid, for sure, I knew what he spoke to.

He shook his head.

I took a gander myself and was staggered by the sight; it clearly would not do. I recovered and shrugged.

“Jerusalem,” Lefty howled. “If’n you two jackasses can’t tell, you’d best step aside and allow someone in there who’s not an idgit.”

Lefty — who hadn’t come back from war as whole as he would’ve liked, having lost most of his right arm at Gettysburg — pushed through the crowd. He spent two long minutes, by my gold railroad pocket watch, starin’ at the little one’s privates. “Can’t tell,” he said, “but I’m fairly sure it’s a boy.”

“Shit,” I said with utter disregard for Lefty’s legendary fits of temper, “I wasn’t quite certain, but if I had to say. . .that baby’s a girl.”

“We gots to make up our minds, one way or the other,” Peckerhead hollered.

Skunk moved close enough to shave Peckerhead with his forehead. “Why do we ‘gots to’ -- you whistledick no-account?”

“Ya,” Kentuck added, while starin’ at Peckerhead in the way a mountain lion eyes a fawn before havin’ lunch, “Whistledick the bug f____r — why do we ‘gots to’?”

“It’s the law,” Rummy interjected. Rummy had once been a big deal lawyer’er, but after one of his criminal clients got hung, and then later the real killer confessed -- he took to a life of insobriety. “A baby’s got to be legally classified on the birth certificate as male -- or a female. No matter what dreadful impediment weighs us down we must strive to meet the letter of the law.”

“D___ the law,” Antoine said with a slight French accent, which we all thought was his way of trying to convince everyone he wasn’t interested in men. Antoine was a good enough fellow, but he lacked manliness. He said he was French, but we all thought he was truly Greek, and no one jumped into the creek for a bath if he was already washin’ hisself. “We make our own horny-handed laws,” he added.

Antoine was right about that. We had quite a few laws other places didn’t have, like the one about no two-by-fours at meetings. And, we had also done away with several laws we thought were utter nonsense, like the one about not stealin’ another man’s wife. None of us were married; and we all thought such a law was unfairly discriminatory -- should we ever have opportunity thrust our way.

Antoine, although popular with a few men for reasons no one cared to suspect, once had been the subject of a town vote. We had been deciding if we should purge ourselves of improper persons, him being the one. I voted to rid us, but when it seemed like “gettin’ rid” meant hangin’ him, I and four others changed our votes and the matter was tabled for another time.

Rummy stood up, which started a round of betting as to how long he could remain vertical, although no one laid as much as a dime with Oakhurst — fearin’ a fix. “Let me get this straight. Are you sayin’ we ain’t goin’ to issue a proper birth certificate for this baby?”

Antoine giggled.

His nervous little laugh caused everyone’s skin to crawl, even those not covered with lice.

“S'il vous plait. Is there anyones in this room with a birth certificate?”

We all looked around nervously. Ignorance of the law had cost many of us dearly over the years; and no one wanted to be the first to admit a possible jailable failin’. Given the sanctity of the moment, with birth and death and all, one by one we all stammered a confession of being certificateless.

“Theeen it is settled.” Antoine had asserted himself, which Chastity had affirmed he did in private with her, after his manhood had been challenged; even though most of us felt she had covered for him.

I took off my hat, which told everyone I had silently thought of Chastity and was showin’ my respect; so general quietude and bare heads broke out again.

Skunk broke the silence with a fart, which was his habit. “We should at least be democrats about it. Let’s vote on the ‘lil cuss’ sex.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m suspectin’ this isn’t ballotable under any constitutional law.”

For a second I thought my brilliant argument had carried the day, but Rummy’s subsequent “Tarnation!” trumped my reason.

We had slopped down whiskey to celebrate the birth of the baby, and then we had imbibed during the impromptu wake for Chastity. Finally we had tossed down a few as the hair-of-the-dog. As had become our custom, whiskey ran freely during any town meetings, which gave reason for some of the fighting -- and all of the popularity of them assemblies. “Tarnation” and “G__ D___” accounted for a large percentage of the lively debate.

Wouldn’t you know it — after five secret ballots, and four hours of ensuing deliberation, including a motion to waive the two-by-four law, the vote remained deadlocked at seven to seven. Half of us saw the kid as a female; and the other half knew without a doubt that “he” was a boy.

“Shit.” Rummy said for all of us, which was only right, as he had made a living with his mouth.

I took off my hat and everyone else did likewise. A bird twittered.

For the next fifteen minutes, miner after miner looked over the infant and offered their “expert” opinion. Many of them had placed bets weeks ago as to the sex of the unborn, and much anticipated child -- and now were hunkerin’ down to protect their position.

I slipped out and brought back a case of whiskey, as I could plainly see the need. Bottles were passed from lip to lip with no discerned need for a glass or cup.

Kentuck stood. “I don’t give a rat-shit as long as the little tyke stays healthy. Buts — we need to know what to teach the baby in preparing for life.”

An all out donnybrook broke loose. Those of us which could teach “him” to wrestle, shoot, and hunt asserted our rights. Only to have others come up with fool ideas that they were better suited. The only way to settle an argument about wrestlin’ is to roll around together on the ground, which we did.

Them, like Antoine, who were so inclined, offered to give “her” cookin’ and sewin’ lessons, which met with little competition, but when Antoine said he would give “her” dance instructions Oakhurst first spit, and then spoke.

“Fairies dance.” From his tone you could tell he hadn’t meant magical creatures.

“Zat’s a low down thing to say. You take zat back,” Antoine stammered, with indignation. When Oakhurst would not -- Antoine flitted across the floor and slapped him. In the ensuing brawl, we were treated to an astoundin’ contrast in combative styles. Antoine brought a curious mixture of scratchin’, kickin’, slappin’, and bitin’ to the máªlée, while Oakhurst preferred a more traditional style, for a man. They rolled, screamin’ in the anemone, syringas, lupines, and azaleas. Neither could claim a clear victory when they finally quit out of pure tuckered-out.

Between each legitimate skirmish we verbally argued about the child’s gender. The only thing we agreed upon was the child would stay with us. With some it was greed for the heir’s gold, for others it was the closest thing to paternal love I had seen since St. Louis.

At one point the baby started to cry.

“He’s hungry,” Kentuck opined. “We should milk that female ass and feed the little cuss.”

“Now you see,” Stumpy said, “you just made my point. It’s important to know what sex something is. You wouldn’t milk an ass if you didn’t know what sex it was — would you? I’d like to see one of you jackasses try.”

That remarkably stupid observation touched off a disgustin’ battle that caused us all to forget about the baby’s hunger.

Eight hours later we had worked our way through to a squabble about the baby’s teen years, should the child not be able to decide its own sex. It had been posited that a determination would have to be made before the next war, so the baby would know if he would have to don a uniform or keep the home fires lit.

“How will the baby know to look for a woman or a man, when its time for sex?” Rummy had asked THE question.

No one said a word until Kentuck, a confirmed drunkard, started in agin on Antoine. “There are some of us here that have first-hand knowledge on not knowin’ a man from a woman. . .when they’re in heat.”

Three hours later, after a brawl that swelled to include as many as nine participants, Kentuck had discovered what Oakhurst had already found out about the potency of girl-fightin’. We were all, more or less under the influence of amber liquid and suffered no pain when struck or otherwise. Pass out and fued were the watchwords and spirit of those days. I hadn’t experienced such hostility since we ran out of tobacco several months back.

“She,” I said pointedly, “is going to be a girly-girl and will need a pink house.”

Lefty tossed a whiskey bottle just right of my ear. “It ain’t my style to pee on your’n Fourth of July parade, but no boy is going to live in a pink house; and ’sides we ain’t got no pink paint.”

I quickly ascertained the bottle he had chucked had been an empty and thusly forgave his rash moment of inconsiderateness to my well-being. “We got lots of whitewash.” I stood and put my nose an inch from his’n. “We’ll jest mix some of your rotten blood in and it’ll be pink as a rabbit’s ass.”

During the epic battle the ensued I recalled it’s a rabbit’s nose that’s pink.

I thought about gettin’ my gun and fightin’ him to death after he hit me for the umpteenth time, but gunfights in our town were pretty much laughable as no one could hit anything with a pistol at more than fifteen paces and shooting at each other with rifles was considered chick’nshit. Using a shotgun, while practical, drew intimidatin’ frowns.

About that time Chastity’s carcass started to reek to high hell. Kentuck reckoned it had been four days since the birth/death.

Before we could get a real good cremation-versus-burial debate boilin’ Stumpy walked amidst us with tears streamin’ down his face. “The d_____d little cuss ain’t movin.”

The fear of the consequences of our stupidity crep up and knocked us all.

“They get like that when you don’t feed them,” Rummy said, and then passed out, agin.

***

We all left that worthless mining town after dynamitin’ the shaft. Before going, some of the more articulate and learn’d posted a carved wooden tombstone over the baby’s grave. Its somber words barely reached our sorrow.

“Here lies a babe who’d the serious misfortunes 2 be born amongs dumbass men who thought it more impirtant to carry-on about things that duzn’t matter, not tendin’ to things that do.”

The End

(Inspired by “The Luck of Roaring Camp” and other works by Bret Harte)



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