Max’s advice was worth thinking about. After all, Los Angeles wasn’t such a peculiar place, inhabiting many classes of people shackled with expectations specific to each group. Movement between classes was next to impossible, as it was in much of the country.
A man might inch his way up if he were of correct breeding, and capable of proving his assets of wealth or skills. As I had in Cactus Valley, one might appoint himself a position that was in high demand, as in the case of marshal in a town plagued by trouble. But such was rare. Money or material wealth was more likely to provide a man a higher station in life. The gold boom had seen to this in recent years.
A woman could marry upward—perhaps one or two rungs from a peasant culture—should she be fortunate to possess an unusual level of beauty and grace. Yet her intelligence was rarely seen as a factor of mobility.
Generally speaking, one’s social class was defined at birth in the 1870s.
“Play your cards with care, Llano,” Max had said earnestly. “In this world a man is often a wrench to be turned, or a nail to be pounded down by another man. Perhaps Sid Blackmoore means well, but there will be dangerous work. Envious of your rising station, men who do not look as you do will feel compelled to interfere, and will do so, undaunted.”
Max Doyle had been reared of privilege, I could see. He had scruples and a regard for humanity. A tiny voice had once told me to guard myself of his influences. But his advice turned out to be consistently universal and sound. And I said as much while thanking him at supper later that day.
He had bank business to attend, and with an advance on my salary I sought to renew my arsenal by paying a visit to the local mercantile.
Jacob’s General Store was two blocks south of my room, amongst a cluster of clapboard buildings that housed a livery and a wet market of meats and produce.
“What’ll it be, young man?” The owner appraised me carefully. Some of his customers were no doubt brown-skinned Californios. But I had been parched by the harshness of the desert sun and the relentless driving of its sands against my face. My once fare features were now hardened by creases and lines around my wary eyes. The long hours upon the range had aged me well beyond the twenty years I believed had passed since my birth.
“I’ll need a good pistol, sir.”
My days of wearing low-slung pairs was over, I had decided. In the line of work I was to do aboard the San Pedro Line, a concealed yet large caliber revolver was going to be a better choice.
“Perhaps the latest Colt, if you carry ‘em.”
He grinned past a silver tooth and adjusted his round-lensed glasses on his nose. “Well, then. I’ve got a new .45 that shoots six, straight and true.” He handed one over the counter with the slightest reluctance. As I tried its balance and feel in my hands his eyes glanced about the store as though I’d a partner and a plan to rob him of his merchandise.
The Colt felt natural to both my hands. “How much for this one?”
He wanted thirty-five dollars, which included a box of shells. It was a fair price, for I’d seen higher priced iron elsewhere.
“I’ll take the gun and the shells, if you include that shoulder harness for an extra six dollars,” I said, pointing to one of fine leather priced at ten dollars.
He turned it over in his mind and finally agreed. I selected two shirts and a pair of pants for the new job. He smiled and looked a bit relieved when I handed him two gold pieces totaling fifty dollars and strapped the harness on, loaded the gun, holstered it before walking out.
With humor I wondered if he was still searching for a villainous partner who might be lurking about.
As a chuckle over the storekeeper’s anxiety came to my throat something in the air disturbed me. The street was quiet as dusk fell on the city. Too quiet? Or was it the presence of someone that alerted me?
“Well, well! If it ain’t that dirty rotten two-bit marshal that sent me packin’ out of Cactus.”
The voice was familiar. A drifter who’d made random threats on the town’s people; a man I deemed dangerous to the community and had ordered to ride by nightfall one blazing hot day.
“You were wise to leave Cactus when you did, Calvin.” My words were calm, with sincere compassion. There was a time for such when a man of Calvin’s sort carried around a grudge for some past authority of no relevance to me.
“Wise?” He was caught flatfooted by my remark. “Durned if it ain’t yella!” he snarled. “On account of runnin’ away from a breed marshal.”
We locked eyes, yet I could see Calvin wasn’t alone. My voice was even when I said: “A man is yellow when he backs down from trouble that’s his moral duty to confront.”
Did I sense the odor of whiskey? Fury filled the young man’s eyes. “You pushed me out! And that rankled.”
“Reckon you had other choices,” I said quietly. “Could have drawn on me that day. Or refused to leave and played hob at sundown. But you left peacefully, Calvin. Sometimes that takes a bigger man.”
Was he buying my logic? I had no evidence of it, and my senses became acutely alert for a hasty draw. I kept steel eyes on his, relying on my peripheral vision to examine his hardware, then his two partners who stood off to the side.
Calvin’s lips thinned and his voice hardened. But I found myself stepping closer to him.
“I’ve made myself a name here, like you did in Cactus, Llano Kid.” I let him talk. Get it off his chest. Suddenly we were toe-to-toe at point blank range! I somehow knew his soul wasn’t into it. Beads of sweat welled up on his forehead and he twitched nervously. His breaths came choppy and I could see Calvin wasn’t ready to die.
Nor was I, so when he drew it was half-baked, and my palm swept his pistol to the side as I yanked it from his hand. I dropped the gun to the dirt and we just stood there, his chest heaving.
“Go now,” I spoke quietly. “You’re too young to throw it all away, Calvin. The past is gone. Your future is alive with opportunity. Look around this town. A man can make it here. That includes you, and real friends who stand by you.”
My words hung in the twilight as a mother embraces her child. Calvin nodded and backed up a step, giving me space to pick up his gun.
“I doubt you need this here, Cal. I carry one only because of the nature of my work.” As I spoke I emptied the chamber of its shells and put them in my pocket. Then I handed the gun back to him, butt first. “I’ll be seeing yuh.”
I turned and walked away without looking over my shoulder, knowing one of them could have shot me in the back. But the encounter had sobered all four of us. I let out a breath and turned toward the hotel.