I- The Catalyst
After breakfast the next morning, Janek walked to the stagecoach depot. He read the arrival and departure schedules written on the chalkboard behind the ticket counter. He started to purchase a ticket on the southbound run scheduled from Ferndale and asked, “The coach departing this afternoon only goes as far south as Mendocino?”
“Mendocino is an overnight stop. If you pay for fare all the way to San Francisco, you can stay with that stagecoach. The fare is three dollars.”
Janek took his purse from his inner coat pocket and rummaged through it several times. The purse contained exactly three dollars. How odd, he thought. When I paid Lise Anders for my room last night, I had at least three hundred dollars. “I’ll have to wait to buy the ticket,” Janek said. “I apologize for taking your time.”
He left the depot and tried to remember what he had done after he arrived in town. He didn’t want to believe he was robbed while he slept. The purse was in his coat, and his coat was draped over the foot of his bed. He was certain he had not dropped it on the way to the depot. I’m letting my grief distract me, he thought.
As he crossed Main Street, he felt a sensation likened to delicate fingertips brushing his chest. His mind lost focus and he began to black out. With great effort, he measured his breathing until his thoughts were clear. He shook his head to chase away the residue of the episode, and then continued to cross the street. On his walk back to the boarding house, he approached the Palace Saloon and went inside.
Although it was only eleven o’clock in the morning, there were already several customers. He stepped up to the bar and ordered tequila. The bartender plunked a shot glass on the bar in front of him and filled it with tequila. Janek heard someone call his name.
“Mr. Walesa! Come join me.”
Evan O’Malley was standing at the other end of the bar, smiling and waving his hand.
To Janek’s surprise, he was glad to see Evan. He joined him.
“I didn’t expect to see you in here. You’re going to get a bad reputation patronizing the Palace before noon,” Evan said, laughing. “But I guess it doesn’t matter since you’re leaving this afternoon.”
“I’m not leaving. I can’t afford the stagecoach ticket.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to have to earn the money. Do you know where I could get short term work?”
“I don’t, but Guthrie might know.” Evan shouted at the bartender. “Guthrie, do you know anyone who needs someone to do odd jobs? My friend here needs to earn a few dollars.”
Guthrie sauntered to the end of the bar. He examined Janek from his frock coat with silk facings and braided binding on the collar, to his white cambric shirt beneath a double-breasted vest that revealed a gold watch chain.
“Old man Bixby died last night. I reckon Reverend Arnold will need someone to dig that grave.”
The thought of digging a grave repulsed Janek. He felt his mind begin to lose focus, but the feeling passed.
Guthrie continued to eye Janek and said, “You look soft for a job like digging graves. You think that kinda work is gonna suit you?”
“I assure you I’m capable of manual labor.”
Guthrie snorted in response.
Janek ignored him and said, “Can you take me there, Mr. O’Malley?”
“Aye, and by the way, it’s Evan.”
“Alright then; it’s Janek.”
As they walked to the church, Evan explained that he was the oldest of four children and the only son. “I’m twenty-six and Margaret, the oldest of my little sisters is sixteen. Ellen and Eliza are thirteen-year-old twins. I had three little brothers die before my sisters were born. It was hard on my mom.
“My family raises dairy cattle. Our farm is a mile outside of town, which is where I live when the schooner isn’t running up and down the coast.”
He went on to say that he hated farming much to his father’s disapproval.
“I went up to Eureka a few years ago just to see what it was like. I spent two days wandering around, getting to know the town. I saw a schooner anchored in the harbor. There was a help wanted ad at the harbor office for a deckhand on that very schooner. I didn’t have any sailing experience, but I could read and write so they gave me the job with potential to become first mate.”
Janek’s worries dissipated as he listened to Evan.
“My father had a conniption when I told him what I’d done. He made it seem like I’d betrayed the family. He still hates what I’m doing even though I was promoted to first mate over a year ago. So where’s your family? All you told me was Oregon.”
Janek didn’t want to talk about his situation, but wondered if saying the words aloud might begin the healing process. He was uncertain if death was an appropriate topic for casual conversation.
“I’m from Albany, Oregon in the Willamette Valley. My family has a farm there.”
“Farming doesn’t agree with you either?”
“My father sacrificed a tremendous amount to put me through school. I would have continued to help out on the farm after graduation.”
“So why didn’t you?”
The fingertips returned to wisp across Janek’s chest. He blacked out before he was aware it was coming. Without his conscious knowledge, he told Evan his family was dead. He spoke of his shock and guilt, and his profound regret that he had not been there to care for them or say goodbye. When his confession was through, his world brightened, leaving him with no memory of the blackout.
The First Congregational Church of Ferndale stood on the southeast side of town. The clapboard New England-style rectangular structure with rows of long windows lining each side was built in 1850. The steeple towered above the small front stoop. The front and side yards were narrow and the grass was mowed. The back door opened onto a cobblestone courtyard. Several mausoleums were nestled in the steep hillside on the far side of the courtyard. Stone steps climbed the hill to a cemetery.
Janek looked up at the steeple with uneasiness as he and Evan walked through the tall arched gate with FERNDALE CEMETERY lettered in the iron work across the top.
They entered the courtyard, and a man approached them. “Evan, it’s good to see you!”
“It’s good to see you too, Reverend. How’s the church renovation going?”
“It’s nearly finished. Lise is inside cleaning the floors. I see you brought along a new face.”
“This is Janek Walesa. He’s looking for odd jobs. Guthrie said you might need a grave dug.”
The reverend turned to Janek and said, “I’m Reverend Niklas Arnold.”
Janek reached to shake the reverend’s hand. “It’s nice to meet you Reverend.”
“What brings you to Ferndale, Mr. Walesa?”
“I’m passing through.”
“Where are you headed?”
Reverend Arnold raised his eyebrows. “You embarked on such a long journey with no money?”
Janek mentally sighed. He was a stranger, and he supposed these people had a right to ask him questions. On the other hand, his money was lost or stolen in Ferndale, and he didn’t know whom he could trust. It wouldn’t help matters if he accused someone of robbing him at the boarding house.
“The situation is embarrassing.”
“I’m an accountant, and I wouldn’t be irresponsible with money, but I somehow misplaced mine after I arrived here.”
“You’re an accountant? The closest accounting offices are in Eureka, and the fees are sky high. The church ledgers need to be reconciled. We spent a lot of money on the renovations. The church council would pay for your services.”
Janek preferred to earn money doing tasks better suited to his chosen profession, but he couldn’t understand why the reverend would be willing to put the church ledgers into a stranger’s hands. It made him feel uncomfortable.
“Reverend Arnold, you don’t know me.”
“I don’t know the accountants in Eureka either,” Niklas Arnold said, sweeping his arm as if the said accountants were standing beside him.
“I’m sure they are established and have credentials.”
“Do you have credentials?”
“Then I see no problem.”
Janek was unconvinced, but he needed money and digging graves wasn’t going to pay his way to San Francisco. “When would you like me to look over your ledgers?”
“Shall we say, Monday morning?”
Janek tried to look conciliated.
Lise Anders opened the church’s back door and stepped into the courtyard. “Mr. Walesa, what are you doing here? I thought you had gone to buy a ticket at the stagecoach depot.”
Niklas frowned and said to Lise, “You know Mr. Walesa?”
“He’s staying at the boarding house.”
Niklas was relieved that Lise’s association with Janek Walesa was only business. He replied to her question before Janek could answer. “Your boarder has misplaced his money and is looking for work.”
“Oh,” Lise said. She looked at Janek. He looked away in embarrassment.
“I have to get going,” Evan said. “Mom has a list of things I’m supposed to pick up for her, and I haven’t started. See you all.”
Reverend Arnold said to Janek, “The burial site is on the south end of the cemetery and marked in chalk lines. Tools are in the shed. I’m going to walk Mrs. Anders home.”
Janek was left alone in the courtyard with his uneasiness. He thought of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church where he and his family had worshipped in Albany, Oregon. As children, he and Liv had been relegated to the youth room where they learned Bible verses and the liturgy. It was a comforting memory from a time when life held abundant happiness.
Perhaps, there is solace to be found in this simple church, he thought. He went inside through the back door and found he was in a vestibule. Coat hooks and benches lined the walls on his left and right. He opened the vestibule’s inner door and stepped into the church.
The inside of the church was as plain as the outside. The pulpit was to his left. A large crucifix hung on the wall behind the pulpit. A long aisle, flanked by thirty rows of shining wooden pews, ran through the middle of the church from the pulpit to the front door. The long windows gleamed and flashed as he walked down the aisle.
He sat in the pew nearest the front door and closed his eyes. A spiritual presence lured him into darkness, and the feeling of the wooden pew beneath him receded.
Evan O’Malley returned to Main Street. He loaded his wagon with supplies from his mother’s list and drove home. As he rode, he thought of the painful admission Janek had made on the way to the church. Janek’s facial expression and the tone of his voice exuded desolation. Experiencing intense emotion from another man was foreign to Evan, and in his opinion, repeating those tormented words to anyone would be profane.
He knew the majority of people in Ferndale, but he was close with only a handful of people whom he trusted. He preferred Eureka with its saloons, and the ladies who frequented those saloons. The ladies loved Evan’s lean muscular body; his charm and attentiveness; and his sparkling green eyes. He and his schooner mates were known to spend entire days in a saloon, drinking, carousing, and sometimes getting into brawls. After a day like that, without exception, he continued drinking with a woman or multiple women, who appreciated his stamina to fuck them most of the night.
Despite all the drunken sprees, Evan had the wisdom to forge relationships with businessmen and politicians who patronized the saloons in Eureka. He envisioned owning a schooner one day, and he would need professional backing to reach his goal. As a result, he built a reputation for discretion, sitting in the saloons, drinking with bankers and lawyers who were liars and cheaters, and listening to their woes without comment.
Thinking of Janek on his ride home, he discovered something he knew little about: sympathy. His father, William, was a hard-hearted Irishman with no patience for emotional displays. Sympathy was a rare commodity in the O’Malley household.
Evan resolved to keep Janek Walesa and William O’Malley from meeting.