“- - - the leather tassels on his sleeve slapped wildly, making love to the wind like a horse's mane”
The Ghost of the Gold Coin
Excerpt from The Ghost of the Gold Coin©
I got the final pieces of this story from a snaggle-toothed Harley biker who smelled like a public toilet. It cost me fifteen dollars in beer. But he had details I needed about the Fresno cardiologist who vanished last April 16th, caught somehow between that day and July 25th of 1853.
When I first moved to Mariposa, the Gold Coin was still open. Severely weather-beaten on its exterior, paint so faded you couldn’t read the name of the bar, and interior so dark it took three full minutes for your eyes to adapt. You could smell every one of its years as if it had never once been washed. In short, it had a lot in common with the few remaining miners in town.
On my first exploration of the interior, I felt for a bar stool within the gloom.
“I’ll have a Bud,” I told the lurking shadow behind the bar.
“Why don’t you have a red beer?”
“What’s a red beer?”
So I dutifully sat down, and locked eyes with a pretty girl – a bit on the heavy side, but pretty – reclining on the wall above the bottles.
Her body position was more suggestive of laziness than suggestiveness itself, but her clothing had been draped by the painter to accentuate the important stuff, and she had enough of that to keep one’s attention for a few moments. Until she was eclipsed by the shadow of the barkeep.
“What’s her name?” I asked.
“I call her Lucy.”
“What does everyone else call her?”
“You’d have to ask them. Drink up.”
In the cave-like permanent dank, I couldn’t tell the color of the liquid, so I took it on faith.
“Some people say she’s the ghost of this place.”
“What ghost?” I asked.
“Place is haunted,” he said casually. “Has been for more’n a hunnert years. News to you, huh?”
“News to me. Say, this tastes like tomato juice.”
“Yeah. Tomato juice and beer. Good, huh?”
“Eh-h, different. So tell me…”
“Can’t. Got work to do.”
And it was just me and Lucy again as I sipped my combo of beer and what the advertisers promote as “part of a nutritious breakfast.”
The floor began to shudder. An ominous low pitched rumble oozed through the walls. I spun and sprinted for the door.
“Hey you! Get back here and pay for that drink.”
“Earthquake!” I yelled at him in a what-are-you-dumb-or-something? tone.
“Ain’t no earthquake. Just bikes.”
And the door banged open, just missing my nose, sending a blast of wind across my face. The black leather hoard poured in.
I watched them take the barstools they wanted – including mine – and fill the place with boisterous guffaws, belches and farts.
Poor Lucy, I thought. Women like her had to take all comers, like them or not. She and the bartender would be busy for a while. I turned to leave.
“Hey, Red Beer! Pay up.”
So I walked over to squeeze between a couple of black leather shoulders to pay for, and leave behind, my beer.
“ Fresno Freaks,” the dim light revealed on the back of their jackets.
“Oh, sorry. Am I in your place?” said the one to my left. The one sitting right in front of my half consumed drink.
Well, that drink’s not yours, is it? flashed into my brain as a retort, but, my survival instinct suppressed my urge to say it.
“Just leaving,” I mumbled, my eyes downcast to avoid meeting his.
“No. No. I’ll move,” he insisted.
His first comment I took as brutal sarcasm. Perhaps, the prelude to a fight. But two polite exchanges in a row? How strange. I looked up.
No beard. Hair cut short and trimmed carefully around his ears. Intelligence sparkling in his eyes. Now I was weirded out.
He turned to the biker next to him, said something, and he moved over to his buddy’s suddenly vacated stool.
“There you go,” he said. “Sit down.”
I wanted to leave, but the safest move, I figured, was to do what he told me to. I sat down. But what to say? What to say…
“What are you drinking?” he initiated.
“Barkeep calls it a red beer.”
“Vile,” he retorted.
“That was my response,” I agreed. “How about you?”
“Yellow beer. The way it should be. I like my beer to look the same going in and coming out.”
Good Lord, I thought. This guy must have graduated at the very top of his fifth grade class before dropping out to begin his life of crime.
“You come here often?”
I couldn’t believe I’d said that. I cringed at myself.
“Actually, yes. The whole group of us makes this run every spring, but I’ve been back a few times since last year. I’m doing research. You live here? Maybe you can help me. I’ve been coming up, to research the ghost of this place. The Gold Coin ghost. You know about it?”
I reached into my fund of knowledge. “Well, some say it’s Lucy up there,” I pointed, “Me, myself, I ---.”
“Lucy? That’s not Lucy. That’s Darlene.”
“Oh, well,” I said turning sheepish, “I call her Lucy. Others call her by different names.”
“Only the bartender calls her Lucy, that I know of.”
“Really? What a coincidence.”
“And I’ve heard those conjectures about the ghost’s identity. Got any other local information?”
Silently, I was forced to upgrade my assessment of his education from fifth grade to --- oh, the hell with it.
“You know, you’re blowing my preconceived ideas of outlaw bikers. Aren’t you afraid you’ll be burned at the stake or something?”
He laughed, which was a considerable relief.
“My name’s Jerry,” he extended his hand. “I’m a cardiologist.”
I gave him some false name and said I was a nuclear physicist.
He laughed again. “Monday through Friday I do heart caths at a Catholic hospital in the Valley, exploring the insides of people who spend their lives smoking and eating donuts. On the weekends I change my clothes, my mode of transportation, and my persona. Keeps me sane.”
You sure of that? I thought.
“Good for you,” I said. “And you chase ghosts?”
“Yep. And it’s time to go to work.” He slid off of the barstool. “Want to come along?”
“Going down, José,” he called to the bartender, walking toward the obscure back of the place.
“Okay. Brang me up a case of Miller, would ja?”
From a dark wall, Jerry pulled open a dark door and disappeared through it. He aimed a small flashlight on a set of old steps leading down. He swung the light around to illuminate my step.
“Loose board there. Careful.”
“The bartender is José?”
“I didn’t hear any Spanish accent,” I observed, following him slowly down the steps.
“He’s Irish. You didn’t know that? Thought you lived here.”
“Where are we?”
“Cellar. Basement. The dark underbelly of the bar. Call it whatever. This is where the ghost hangs out.”
I looked behind me. Dark, of course. Dark above. Too dark to see my feet. Dark everywhere, except for the flashlight.
Except for that feeble, inadequate beam of narrow light that wimped out even before it found the walls.
“So. Have you seen this ghost?”
“How long you gonna keep looking?”
“I’m not looking. I’m smelling.”
“Huh? What did you say?”
“I haven’t seen it. Or heard it. Or even felt it brush by me. But I have smelled it. Several times.”
“So. What does a ghost smell like?”
“She smells like - - - like - - spice. Like Thanksgiving. Allspice? Cloves? Cinnamon, maybe.”
“‘She’?” So the ghost is Lucy. Er-r, Darlene.”
“No. Don’t you think Darlene is more a beer and sweat girl?”
I think you’ve been inhaling too many Harley fumes, I thought.
“Come look at this.” He, and more importantly, the flashlight, disappeared behind a wall of earth.
I followed quickly.
“This side hasn’t been used much over the years.”
“Can we go back up now?” I suggested. I was bored. Not nervous, bored. Really.
Then I tasted something. Something musty on my lips. I wiped at what I figured would be a cobweb. Nothing on my lips, except for a subtle taste. Grainy, like dirt. Pungent. Familiar, but not identifiable. There was a hint of spice. My imagination, I told myself.
“Can we go now, Jerry? I’m getting pretty thirsty.”
“Now back here, on the wall, rumor has it that John C. Fremont dug a tunnel. Under the street, up the hill, all the way to his mine. The Mariposa Mine. But no one had ever found any physical proof of such a tunnel. Just a rumor.”
“Like your ghost,” I said. ”So, are we ready to go?”
“This bar was first built as his assay office, you know. But anyway,” he continued, “look what I’ve found.”
His flashlight beam was crouched down near the junction of earthen wall and earthen floor.
“It’s a different color dirt here in this area. And the dirt is looser. See? Easy to scrape away.” He began to pull dirt from the wall with his fingernails. Suddenly, my lips were ablaze with the pungent, spice-laden taste again, wrapped in hundred year old mold.
“I’m leaving. Gimme the flashlight.”
“Whoa!” He wrestled the flashlight back from my grip. “What’s your problem?”
“A little freaked out, I guess. By the darkness down here.”
The taste of chocolate – yeah, it was chocolate – flared intensely. I sucked in my lips to protect them, like some old guy without his dentures.
“Okay. We’ll go back up. Help me with the Miller.”
The gray cave of the bar upstairs was like daylight by comparison. I wanted out – into the April sunshine. But figured I owed Jerry a beer.
“So,” I began toward what I really wanted to ask. “Thanks for taking me down.”
“Sure. What I was trying to show you is… I wonder if I found something like a tunnel there, or, just some loose dirt.”
“Loose dirt,” I shot back. “But tell me, did you taste your ghost down there?”
“I mean smell. Smell. Did you smell the ghost down there?”
“Uh-uh,” he gurgled within a mouthful of beer. “Doesn’t happen every time.”
“How do you know it’s her? How do you know the smell is the ghost? Maybe it’s some stuff in the air from years of humidity down there. Maybe it’s mushrooms.”
“Well, not for me. It reminds me of my abuela, now gone, who - I’d actually forgotten this until I smelled it while poking around down there - who always gave off the fragrance of some kind of spice.”
“Abuela, as they say it in Spanish. Grandmother.”
“So what’s your grandmother doing hanging out in the cellar of a run-down bar?”
“Don’t know. That’s why I keep coming back. Of course, it may not be her. It’s just that the smell reminds me. It’s probably not her. it may not even be a ‘she’.”
“It’s probably not cinnamon, either,” I blurted.
His eyes suddenly narrowed. “What’cha mean?” His lips squeezed together.
“Nothing, my ass. I can see your eyes. What did you smell down there?”
He stared at me. I didn’t want to give in and admit my freaked-out hallucination. But he wouldn’t stop staring.
“Didn’t smell anything,” I ventured, truthfully. “Just - - - “
“Yeah?” he coaxed.
“Tasted something. Tasted like - well, a little spice in it, yeah. A little spice. But mostly, I think, it was chocolate.”
“Chocolate?” He thought about it a lot harder than I believed it warrented. “Really? Chocolate. Hum-m.”
“Hey, J-man!” someone snarled. “You done wit’ yer expedition? ‘Cause yer up for this pool game.”
“Nice meeting you,” I said dropping from the barstool, not sure that I really meant it.
“Likewise,” he shook my hand, his thoughts obviously whirring within. “Listen, I’ll be up next Saturday for more research. See you here?”
“Don’t know about that,” I weaseled. “What time?”
* * *
Computer search showed a couple of dozen cardiologists in Fresno. Five Jerrys or Geralds. But no photos. Jerry Karzanian, Jerry Smith, Gerald Weinstein, Geraldo Carrillo, and Gerald Lee.
The next Saturday I meandered downtown. I sat under the roof overhang of the Gold Coin. Just because it was the best place to be shielded from the April sun. I leaned back, and watched tourists.
Into the random hum of traffic came a distant rumble, reverberating from behind the turn on Highway 49. The rumble slowly grew louder, until it became the distinct steel gargle of a Harley.
“Hop on,” he said. “We’re going to Hornitos.”
“Tell you when we get there.”
He fitted his spare helmet on me and patted the leather seat behind him.
“Hold on tight!” He yelled. Explosions of steel and fire machine-gunned beneath us. “And relax.”
When his bike leaned left, I leaned right, trying to remain upright. When the road curved the other way, I leaned left. He yelled at me to stop it.
Within a mile, I relaxed and began to flow with it. Then, I could feel the ride. The bike’s steel heart and lungs vibrated with life between my legs. Its throat snarled beneath me. The Old Toll Road streaked below us.
A stream ribboned alongside us, mirroring the sun like thousands of diamonds. Green hills undulated south with random splotches of yellow flowers.
He raised his left arm into the day, fist clenched in its glove. The leather tassels on his sleeves slapped wildly, making love to the wind like a horse’s mane. I heard him shout some unintelligible words drenched in euphoria.
He leaned the cycle to the right at a sign that declared ‘Hornitos’, and throttled back. We rolled slowly, engine clanging, into what looked like a ghost town set from Universal Studios. He pulled up in front of a post office, and let the engine snort, then fall silent.
He dismounted. A hitching post in front of us.
“We’ll leave it here,” he said, pulling off his helmet and putting his hand on the hitching post.
Gonna feed it some oats?, I thought.
“Why’d you want to come here?”
“The ghost,” he answered.
“Wrong place,” I shrugged, twisting to pull my head from the helmet without leaving my ears behind.
“Maybe not, thanks to your clue. Leave the helmet on the saddle. No one will touch it.”
“I’ll show you.”
We stood in a small square plaza. Decaying buildings surrounded us.
“Maybe it is a good place for ghosts,” I said aloud.
“During the Gold Rush,” he said as he walked across the plaza, “early 1850’s, this place was teeming. Thousands of people. Some resources say nearly ten thousand, but I’m here for 1853.”
It’s not here, I thought. It disappeared a long time ago.
“Look,” he said, his left arm pointing. “Chocolate.”
All I saw was a decaying building of stone and brick, three-quarters gone and nearly obscured by trees.
“Read the plaque.”
“‘Ghirardelli’” I read. “Some Ghirardelli was here?”
“Not ‘some’. The Ghirardelli.”
“The chocolate guy?”
“Yep. Your clue led me here. I smelled spice; you tasted chocolate. Then I remembered my abuela’s Ibarra chocolate. From Mexico. It’s laced with cinnamon. Your clue led me to Ghirardelli. Ghirardelli led us to Hornitos. He came here during the gold rush from Peru like lots of other Spanish-speaking people.”
He turned and fixed my eyes. “This was, you must remember, Mexico, after all.”
“What was Mexico?”
“California,” he retorted immediately. “From about Marin south. The Mexican state of Alta California, it was. The people living here – the Californios – were the original owners of this land. Until it was taken away by a flood of white miners and the Mexican War.”
I looked at him more closely, and saw the night-black eyes of Spanish blood.
“So,” I said. “Your last name is Carrillo?”
“How did you know?”
“I do my homework.”
“It’s time to see how well you do it. Come on.”
I followed his black boots, raising dust puffs from the decaying sidewalk with each step. “What’s that?” He challenged me. His gloved finger pointed at the ruins of a low building. The roof was so low, there’s no way a person could stand up in it.
“Something for animals, maybe?” I ventured.
“Nope. It’s a Fandango Hall.”
“Your clue led me to Hornitos. Hornitos leads us to this. Imagine this town swarming with people – thousands of them.”
I glanced around. A stray chicken meandered the street with its palsy-like stagger, pecking at the dust.
“If I did imagine that, what would I see?”
“People all frenzied to pull as much gold from the streams as possible. All speaking Spanish and – “
“They were Mexican?,” I interrupted.
“ Mexican, Chilean, Peruvian, Spanish. The Gringos didn’t care where they came from. They called anyone who spoke Spanish ‘Mexican.’ So imagine,” he continued to command my perception, “these people finish their back-breaking work on their claims for the day – one more day that the Gringos didn’t come to take it all away. Again. And they want some fun. The Gringos, when they finish their work in the gold fields, they go to bars to buy booze and women. The People of Hornitos go their Fandango Halls.”
And he signals me to follow, over to the small door. Its thickly rusted hinges squeal, and we step down into an underground den. As he explains the origins of the Fandango – its Arab music and Gypsy dance traditions – I begin to see it. The earth floor of the sunken room has been covered in tiles. Candles flicker, illuminating the scene with quivering light that dances with rippling shadows. The light and shadows shift abruptly. Someone had just walked past.
In a corner, a bearded man with a guitar strums passionately. Next to him a fat man plays castanets with both hands. The room is steaming hot from twenty or more bodies. But only two dance. A man and a woman. He wears silver buttons on his vest, embroidered pants, boots with silver spurs. Candlelight flashes from his clothes. He looks like a matador in his Suit of Lights.
The dark skinned Señorita flounces her skirts as she dances, choreographing them to the music and the sway of her hips. She and her Caballero circle about the floor, never touching. You hear the swish of her dress, punctuated by the stomp of his boots. The onlookers line the walls and clap in time to the strumming guitar and clacking castanets.
The two dancers both sing, alternating. He growls and trills his R’s. Then she sopranos throaty ululations back at him. Like smoke from a Gypsy’s campfire, the music oozes intoxication.
The music stops abruptly. The dancers freeze in position, still penetrating each other with their eyes.
The onlookers breathe heavily, swallow what they’re drinking, and wait…
Suddenly the music starts, and the dancers continue their ritualistic foreplay. The Caballero dances well and his boots click with the music. The dancing candlelight flashes periodically from the pistol he wears.
All the men lining the walls, elaborately dressed in the fashion of Spain, wear guns.
We work our way along the walls. No one pays any attention to us.
“They can’t see us. Come on.”
There is another girl dressed for the Fandango, leaning against the far wall. Her skin is so pale it glistens with the candlelight.
“What are we doing here?”
“Looking for my ghost.”
“How will we know it?”
“I will smell; you will taste.”
The music stops again. The dancers freeze. The guitarist gets up and walks across the room toward the door we’d entered.
“A donde va?” someone beneath a large sombrero shouts at him. “Where you going?”
“A beer – to drink. And pee.” The guitarist pushes on the door. Candlelight flickers from its shiny new hinges. It is black night outside.
The sombrero ventures away from the wall a couple of steps, and draws his pistol. He sights it directly at the guitarist’s head. He cocks the hammer. Click.
“Apúrate,” he says. Hurry up.
The dancers remain frozen. Someone strikes a match to light another cigar. Another man echoes, “Apúrate.”
The guitarist takes a quick swallow and decides to wait on peeing. The music and dancing resume. The air is thick in my nose with the odors of cigar smoke, candle wax, and sweat.
There is a dark hole at the opposite side of the room, near the pale Fandango girl.
“How many Fandango Halls are there?” I ask.
“Four. All connected by passageways. Different girls in each Hall.”
“And different Caballeros,” I add.
Slowly my guide turns his head toward me and smiles. “These men do not come to watch the Caballeros.”
The music falters. It causes the dancers to adjust, visibly.
All heads along the wall turn to look at the doorway through which we’d entered.
A young man, his curly black hair glistening in the candlelight, emerges from the night, and straightens up. He wears a black serape which covers his shirt, but not his guns. One on each hip. With all eyes on him, he smiles a greeting. His teeth glisten like snow. His neatly trimmed mustache moves with his smile. His eyes appear to be blue. He radiates a powerful dignity, even in the dingy light.
My guide shrugs. “Some guy.”
The young man looks around slowly, then begins to walk in our direction. The music and singing continue.
In the smoky light of the Fandango Hall, I follow his movements by the glistening silver buttons that stud the side of his pant legs from his belt to his boots.
Other men - all the other men - step aside to let him pass as he slowly weaves among the crowd. They also stand more erect after he passes. He walks right past us. The flavor of chocolate sweeps my tongue.
“Did you - “ I blurt to my guide.
He nods. “Yes. I smelled it.”
At the young Caballero’s approach, the pale skinned Fandango girl pushes herself away from the wall, a slight smile on her lips.
The Fandango rhythm grows faster. The guitarist slaps the box and strums more quickly. The castanets snap, the men clap their hands and ululate with vibrating tongues. The dancing girl yanks at her skirt in near frenzy with the overheating music. Her voice, responding to her partner’s, comes in breathy heavings.
My guide turns to follow the young man. “Come on,” he yells at me above the music. The young man and the pale Fandango girl are already speaking.
“- - - our Honor,” he says in Spanish, his arm gesticulating with passion, “it is trampled by these Gringos - - - these - - - barbarians.”
“They do not understand Honor,” the girl agrees in a calm voice. “They only understand gold.”
“In their greed,” his eyes flash, “they steal our country and our right to take a living from it.” Rage boils in his throat. “They hang my brother-in-law, who was innocent.” His fists clench. “And they defile my Rosa,” he spews.
“She is safe,” the girl says with softness meant to sooth him. “She is safe with me. But she will not be safe if she is seen with you.”
“Tomorrow I ride to Mariposa,” he seethes thru his teeth.
“No, no,” the girl begs. “Take Rosa and leave California now.”
“Tomorrow that thief, Fremont, he sells some gold to San Francisco people in his office.”
“Fremont did not kill Reyes,” the Fandango girl continues in her attempts to quench his fury. “Fremont did not violate your Rosa.”
He leans into her face.
“Fremont,” he enunciates each syllable like gunshots, “invaded Alta California and raised the flag of the Bear. He started the Mexican War. He took a Spanish land grant. He takes all the best mining places. He hires his own army. No, he did not, with his own hands, tie the rope around the neck of Rosa’s brother or pull his feet from the ground. Nor did he tie me to that tree and horsewhip me until my blood flooded over my back and I could barely move for three weeks. Nor did he force my Rosa - ”
He chokes. He swallows. Before he can finish his struggle to regain his voice, the girl interjects, “do not speak of this again, Joaquin. you cause me too much pain. Here.”
She holds both her hands over her heart.
My guide gasps, his mouth drops open, and he nearly falls backward. “Joaquin,” he whispers.
I open my palms in front of me, asking for an explanation.
“My ghost,” he shakes his head, “is Joaquin Murietta.”
“Yes, he exhales, nearly dumbstruck, “the bandit.”
“Please do not speak of these painful things,” the girl repeats.
Murietta turns his face from her, composes himself, then turns back. “You worry that I will kill Fremont and bring down his army upon the gente of Hornitos? I won’t kill him. But I will take the gold that he hides in his cellar. And then he will have to answer to the San Francisco men.”
“Leave now,” the girl urges. “Take Rosa and return to Mexico. They are already after you. And, although you have given gold to many of us, surely you have enough gold for yourself.”
“Yes,” Murietta agrees. “I have enough gold now for Rosa and me. Like the others, I mine it,” he grins. “But I do not mine it from the land. I mine it from the gringos. Now I will mine it from Fremont. This gold he so cleverly brings underground into his cellar from his mine across the town. I need to do this.”
“Why?” she shakes her head, an anxious expression in her eyes. “Why do you need to?”
Murietta looks slowly around the room at his fellow Californios.
“To dis-honor him,” he says slowly but precisely. “And, in so doing, to restore some of our dignity which the English-speaking miners have taken. The Gringos may not, as you say, understand Honor. But they will understand dis-honor.”
“Your mind is made up. Then, just be careful, Joaquin. Soon, they will form a posse to hunt you down. The smart man disappears before that.”
“And which Joaquin will they hunt, eh, Martinez? he challenges her, his fist on his waist. “They understand so little that they speak of five Joaquins. So Pedro Garcia who rides with his family in the north, him they call Joaquin. And Ernesto Guevara who stays in the great valley, hunting horses, him they also call Joaquin.”
“Maybe that’s the only Spanish word they know,” the girl shrugs.
He laughs. “You’re right. They believe themselves superior because they don’t speak Spanish. But yet, already they speak more Spanish than they realize.”
The music is suddenly eclipsed by loud banging on the door. Five men burst in. The Fandango stops.
“Where’s Murietta?” one of them growls in English. “Where’s that Mess-kin dog?”
“Take care of Rosa for me,” I hear him whisper to the girl. Within the smoky dimness, he bows his head, slumps his shoulders, and walks into the shadowy wall where they stand. His black serape and pants disappear, like a ghost.
“Tell us, or you’ll all end up in the hoos-gow,” the Gringo yells, sweeping the room with his drawn pistol. He utters his words thru an untrimmed tangle of black beard. His shirt is dark with sweat stains at the armpits, and his pants are filthy. His skin, however, is white.
As is the skin of the other four. Their boots are caked with dust and horse manure.
No one answers. The Californios who line the walls are as frozen as the music-less dancers, although their pistols are within reach, and their fingers are twitching. I glance at Murietta’s Fandango girl, but she is obscured by three Californios who are somehow where Murietta had been just seconds before.
The Gringos scour the Fandango hall, guns drawn. They peer into each Spanish, Peruvian, Chilean, and Mexican face.
“You sons of - - - ” the black beard growls a partial sentence.
“Come on, Hombre, ” another says, “you’re wasting your palaver on these animals.”
“Aw-w, yer right. Let’s vamoose.”
When the Gringos disappear into the night, the people of the Fandango hall glance at each other, smirk, then return to the music and dancing.
“Where’d he go?” I ask my guide.
“Let’s find out,” he walks over to the wall where Murietta had disappeared, and kneels down. “See, a tunnel,” he points to a nearly obscured opening at the bottom of the wall. “Goes under the street, to the Fandango girl’s house. Rosie Martinez’ place. Just for such occasions.”
“Clever as a fox,” I muse aloud.
“Yes. As you say, clever as a Zorro.”
“We don’t have to follow him, do we?” I stare at the black hole.
“No. We can use the door.”
When he pushes the door open, the rusted hinges moan, and bright sun pains my eyes.
The Springtime sun bore down on the dusty ghost town as we walked back toward the Harley, waiting patiently at the hitching post.
“So now you know who your ghost is. What do you do?
“I will ask my grandmother, who led me here,” he said mounting the saddle.
“But she’s dead. How can you do that?”
The machine blasted to life. It went into gear with a “chunk.” I straddled the rear seat.
He turned to look back. “I don’t know yet. But I will. Without her, I am nothing.” He released the clutch, and the road began to flow beneath us.
When he pulled up in front of the Gold Coin, he left the motor idling.
“You coming in?” I asked.
“Nope. Gotta be on my way.”
“But - - - I’ve got more questions.”
“So have I,” he said, pulling away.
* * *
Lucy looked down from the wall, bored with our conversation.
“The J-man?” the snaggle-toothed biker responded to my inquiry. “He’s not riding with us no more. He’s gone Lone Wolf. I’m thirsty again.”
His teeth, the same color as the beer I’d bought him, showed thru his lips more than I wanted to watch. But I needed the information.
“Did he ever talk about his grandmother?” I asked as José delivered the fourth beer.
He held up a finger, signaling for my patience while he swallowed.
“Yep,” he answered, licking his lips. “She’s dead.”
“What else about her?”
“She’s the one who raised him. His parents disappeared somehow - he never said nothin’ about how come - and she got him out of some street gang and into fighting.”
“Yeah. Instead of fighting on the streets, she tol’ him to take up boxing. ‘Fight with honor’ is how he says she put it to him. I seen him once go at it with some guy who was beating up his girlfriend. The J-man, don’t mess with him, I tell ya.”
“So he was a boxer.”
“For a while. Then grandma, she gets him some scholarship for being Hispanic, and he goes to school. He done good there. He’s a doctor. You know that? So the J-man, he’s been livin’ the good life, you know? Golf. Money. Driving a Mercedes.”
“How’d he end up riding with you guys?”
“Looks to me like the boxer in him come out again, and he needed the rush. All them fancy doctor and lawyers down there, they may have money, but they don’t know how to have fun. I’m thirsty.”
I signalled for another beer, and plopped the last of my money on the bar. “So now he doesn’t ride anymore?”
“He rides. Just not with us. Told me he was gonna ‘spread the wealth around.’ So now, on weekends, he’s busy at some po-dunk clinic.”
“Some place called Cantua Creek. Near Coalinga. He said something weird about the place. That way back in time, some fella lost his head at Cantua to cover for some dude named Walkin’ or some such.”
“That’s it. Apparently, this other guy, they thought was the Joaquin dude, and they killed him. That let Joaquin escape. Long time ago.”
“1853. July twenty fifth.”
His eyes opened and his index finger soared in agreement. “That sounds right! Exactly. Good for you. But you know what?”
“What?” I ventured. I was out of money.
“J-man, he said he owed that decapitated guy a lot, ‘cause that let Joaquin get away. So he felt he owed the people who lived there, too. Which explains the free clinic bit.”
“You ever hear from him?”
“Last time I seen him, was in the tattoo parlor on First. Getting a tat.”
“Where was it?”
“On his knuckles. Like a fighter.”
“What’d it say?”
He slurped the last of the fifth beer. “ ‘Honor.’ That’s all. Just ‘honor’ .”
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