Quincy Miller’s horse wouldn’t behave herself as they rode down Ferry Trail on their way to the Jacobi parlor house. She kept swerving her head and sidestepping almost into the ditch.
“Are we close?” Quincy asked his father Reuben. Soon Quincy would be going out on his own to try his hand at the fur trade, while his father ran the haberdashery. Quincy needed to at least prove he could ride a horse.
“Come on, boy. Don’t dillydally.” Reuben led the way, not looking back at his son. He took a nip from his flask.
Reuben Miller was a practical man. He had pulled up stakes and brought his wife and boy Quincy to the New World in 1810, and he was one of the few migrants to bring a family out west. He did this not for companionship but to have workers to help him with his prospective business. Mrs. Miller had been of hearty French/Norwegian stock, reminding Reuben of a Clydesdale, but she had died of pneumonia the first winter all the same. The western wilderness was cold, dark, and unforgiving. Reuben took a country wife soon after to cook and mend and clean, trading rum and a horse for the Cayuse woman. She too had died of illness. Quincy was his only child. It was time the boy pulled his own weight.
The boy needed to become a man, and The Lamb was the perfect place for it. The building was a grand two stories and high up on a riverbank. A second building was under construction. The Lamb attracted men from all around the territory like flies to honey. If only his haberdashery was doing as well. A scrawled sign read, “Welcome wolves to The Lamb.” Quincy needed to become a wolf and bedding a native wouldn’t do it. The Lamb was the only place around that men could pay to bed white women, and for a little extra, they let you knock them up to boot.
A boy played near a black cherry tree. Not a mixed-blood child, but a little, white, blond boy. Having come to the new world as a baby, Quincy couldn’t remember having ever seen a blond boy like himself before. All of his playmates had been descended from native women, most of them half-breeds. He waved. The child shied away and hid behind the tree as they rode by.
Quincy and Reuben tied their horses with the others.
Inside was just as grand as outside. In the entry room, a glass-cut chandelier burned with countless candles. A steep staircase led to the bedrooms on the second floor, the muffled sounds of sex coming from above. To the right was the parlor.
The parlor was like a saloon. French, British, and Russian fur traders sat at tables and along a bar. All the men were clean shaved. Any self-respecting mountain man shaved, though many had bushy sideburns. A Russian in buckskin and a dingy top hat had a triangle-shaped three-stringed instrument called a balalaika. A gentleman, a little “how came you so,” staggered about and gave the Russian a coin. In exchange, the Russian played a folk song that started slow and increased in tempo.
“This is Russian territory now,” said a man playing cards.
“See how long that last,” said his friend with a thick French accent.
“As long as people don’t start killing each other over it,” said a third, dressed to the nines.
Quincy followed his father, intimidated by all these rough men. They did the trade he only hoped to do. He grabbed his father’s arm, only to be shrugged off.
Reuben worried that his son would become a Nancy if he didn’t bed a woman soon. He had caught him with a squaw boy. While that kind of behavior could be expected of young men, he knew of a few mountain men that had kept up with the practice. He wanted to nip that weakness in the bud.
Near the bar, off to the side, were white women in thin dresses. Most of them were fat, but then Quincy realized they weren’t fat at all, just pregnant. The ones who weren’t showing had large breasts that he assumed were swollen with milk. One woman even had a baby to her breast. He had never seen so many white women. There were two blondes like his mother and even one with flaming red hair. Many of them were beautiful, but they also looked alien and rattled him deeply. Would he have to lay with one of them while his father watched?
Many native women sold themselves like this, though none in a fancy parlor house. Quincy had slept with one and had kept it secret from his father. All the native women Quincy knew that got pregnant ended their pregnancies as quickly as they could. His father’s country wife had shown Quincy the special bone blade that she inserted into her uterus to get rid of all his younger siblings. Other native women used medicinal plants to help induce miscarriages.
Maybe white women always kept their babies, Quincy thought. Or maybe they just didn’t know how to get rid of them. His father had said white children were more precious than half-breeds, but the only white child he had known personally had punched him and stolen his toy horse. Most of the half-breeds he knew acted respectful and were useful because they knew more languages. In truth, they seemed more skilled at everything.
A dark-haired white boy, maybe six or seven, was here in the saloon. He tugged on Madam Jacobi’s dress.
“Shoo, Howie. Shoo.” Madam Jacobi said. “Don’t be underfoot. Your mother has work to do. Go play with the others.” She took a candy from her apron and gave it to her child, who only ran off once the candy was unwrapped and in his mouth.
Quincy found himself feeling jealous. He doubted anyone would be giving him candy or telling him to go play ever again.
Madam Jacobi approached, smelling strongly of perfume. “I do spoil him so,” she said to Reuben. “Now, what will it be today, fellas?”
“You’re looking very fine, Madam. Is that a new dress?”
“All the way from France.”
“I’m not usually for all the foofaraw, but it suits you. A milkmaid for me, as per usual, but my son here will try for fatherhood if there’s a filly left at a fair price.”
Madam Jacobi held up her hand to the group of women and snapped her fingers once and then twice in quick succession. Quincy assumed it must be some kind of code because a big-breasted woman came forward immediately and took Reuben’s hand. Quincy thought she was beautiful, though not as beautiful as many of the native women closer to the haberdashery. Why had they come so far just for white women? A girl with rouged cheeks not much older than Quincy came forward after a quick exchange with a girlfriend around the same age.
“You’re cute,” she said, once she got near him. She had prominent gums when she smiled.
“Don’t coddle him,” Reuben said and flicked the girl’s ear.
“Ow!” She rubbed her ear to get out the sting. Quincy knew that feeling well. “Yes, of course.” She kept her head down. “Yes, sir.”
Reuben swatted the big-breasted woman on the rump. “Come now. Times a-wastin’. I want my milk.” He charged up the stairs, dragging her along.
Quincy saw that his girl’s gummy smile had dropped into a near frown, which made him a little sad. She took him upstairs in no hurry, and they went into a room with fancy wallpaper and got undressed.
“Do you know how?”
He nodded. “I know how. Get on the bed.”
She got on the bed, surprised by his authority, and spread her legs.
He got on top of her, came after a few thrusts, and then got dressed. Only after they were done did he really see her. Her body was long, thin, and very pale, with purple bruises on her arms and left thigh. She was taller than he was. He still felt like a boy. Bedding a white girl or a native girl seemed to make no difference.
“You are very beautiful,” he told her as she used water from a basin to wash out her vagina.
“I don’t want a baby,” she explained. “Don’t tell.”
He went out into the hall to wait for his father. The walls were thin, and he heard his father playing with the milkmaid. It was taking a long time. Maybe I should’ve tried to last a bit longer, Quincy thought. He decided to give his father privacy—the sounds were unsettling—and went downstairs to check on the horses to kill time.
His horse was defecating in a watery torrent. No wonder she had acted up earlier. Hopefully, some grazing would settle her stomach. He knew how he became ornery when he was feeling sick.
He backed up to get a better look at the fancy parlor house. It seemed to lean to the right, but that wasn’t it at all. It was the ground. The ground slanted down to the left and created the tension, which increased the longer he looked at it. It made his skin crawl.
At the corner of the house was the shy blond boy, crouched down. Quincy went to see what the kid was doing. If Quincy’s mother had survived, he would probably have a younger brother that looked something like this boy.
The child was smashing an opossum with a rock. The animal was still alive and twitching, its lower spine broken. Quincy told the kid to stop. The child, angered by this, bashed Quincy’s shin and ran off.
“You little bastard!”
Quincy limped after the kid, who ran down into a root cellar at the east side of the house.
The stairs were numerous and steep and led down into virtual darkness. Quincy descended, the ache in his shin still bothersome. This root cellar was oddly deep into the earth. In the dimness, he found children playing. None were older than six or seven, and they were pulling rocks out of the wall and making stacks. The children, seeing him, gathered around like birds to birdseed.
The Madam’s son was here among them, likely the oldest. And there, near the back of the group was the blond boy. All of the children had rocks. Quincy had become a man today, and he wouldn’t be disrespected by a small child.
“Come out here.” The blond boy was hard to see, besides his hair and eyes which stood out in the dimness. “You say you’re sorry or I’m going to give you a whoopin’!”
The group parted as the blond boy came forward.
“What have you to say for yourself?”
Teary-eyed, the boy clutched his rock to his chest. “Sorry.” It seemed genuine.
“Okay. Good.” Quincy scratched the back of his head, feeling awkward and not sure what to do next. All the children were staring.
“Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” the boy cried.
“Gosh. It’s okay. Don’t do it again. Golly! You’re forgiven.” Quincy just wanted the boy to stop crying.
The boy threw his stone and conked Quincy on the noggin. The sharp pain was more of a shock than anything else. Then a larger stone, flung from the darkness, broke his nose. One hit his ribs. And another smashed his kneecap.
He went down, howling, grabbing his knee. Once his head hit the floor, he knew he was done for. The children swarmed forward and smashed his face and skull with rocks. Blinded by his own blood and too concussed to fight back, he moaned as they broke open his skull and smashed at the soft tissue of his brain until he was dead.
“A boy fell!” Howie yelled as he ran up the stairs. The children put the bloody rocks back in the walls where they had found them.
After a time, Reuben ran down the stairs, stripped to the waist and with milk still on his chin, to see what had happened to his only son. The children all backed away, coyly avoiding his gaze.
“Any you yunks see what happened?” Reuben asked them.
They all shook their heads.
“We found him at the bottom of the stairs like this,” Howie said around the candy in his mouth. “I called out as soon as I saw.”
Reuben knelt down by the body. The face had been obliterated, just a red pulp, but it was definitely his son. The body had on his son’s clothes.
“Just as well,” Rueben muttered, as he lifted the thin, lifeless bundle that had been his boy. It didn’t seem to weigh much more than a large dog. Quincy had never gained the proper amount of muscle.
Rueben buried Quincy behind the parlor house in a shallow grave near the many graves of other boys and girls. The graveyard looked out over the winding river. It was pretty enough.
“Well, shit,” he said after his boy was under the earth.
Rueben didn’t want to search for another country wife just so he could have a half-breed. He wanted a white child. He convinced Madam Jacobi to sell him the blond boy for two payments, one due now and one due in the spring. Rueben hoped this boy wouldn’t turn out to be a Nancy like Quincy, weak enough to be killed by a small group of unruly children.