From the novel Paco's Provision
The following is a key chapter from my novel, Paco's Provision, published two years ago in November. It is set in the early 20th Century, an era I have found both intriguing and dangerous in my mind's eye since I was a child. I love writing about it, which is why I'm working on another project based in the same timeframe.
Paco's Provision is still for sale here or look up Christopher L. Istace or Paco's Provision on your favourite ebook app.
PETRUS AND BARBALA Laszlofi crossed the Saskatchewan border in a boxcar during a wild blizzard on Tuesday, November 22, 1924. They jumped a train in Virden, Manitoba after spending a few days earning money by shoveling snow for local business owners.
After failing to collect enough for a passenger car, Petrus decided to risk train hopping. They were so close to Saskatchewan; the land of opportunity where dreams become goals then reality; and he was impatient about settling into their new life.
The evening light was dirty grey when the wheels below them creaked to a stop near the grain elevator in Woodbine. The town seemed lifeless, but Petrus could make out a light-stand through the curtain of snow outside.
“We’re in a town,” he told Barbala. “It’s too cold to carry on. We’ll stay here.”
Barbala nodded with a frown. She was upset with Petrus, confident that the three of them would freeze to death in that rickety boxcar. Before the train had even left Virden, the wind was whipping through the cracks in the walls and the door was frozen ajar, making any attempt at maintaining warmth futile. Barbala seethed about their predicament as she, Petrus and Janos huddled together in the front corner of the empty car.
Barbala’s anger turned to relief when the three jumped off of the train after a frigid, four-hour ride.
“Huddle close, boy,” Petrus said to his son. “We’re walking toward that light.”
The family braced against the wind and snow, walking with arms to their faces. Petrus led the group, while Barbala and Janos held his coattail so they would not lose him. They stumbled through the blizzard for 10 minutes, finally stepping under a light that glowed over the façade of a brick building.
The Laszlofis walked into the Stoddart Hotel and brushed the snow from their jackets and boots. The lobby was dusty and unkempt, but one could see it held its grandeur at one time. An ornate crown molding and baseboard lined the walls. The ceiling was covered with punched-tin tiles. It was the last portion of the room still untouched by cobwebs and smoke stains. The wallpaper along the stairway in front of them was intact, but like the bannister leading upstairs, was blackened with wear. The carpet held its pattern in places, but was worn gray and thin.
Considering the condition of their surroundings, Petrus felt there must be some work they could do in trade for a room. They could spend the next day in Woodbine, then jump another train heading west later in the week.
Petrus removed his cap and stepped toward a large, oak desk just right of the doorway. A single chair sat empty behind the check-in kiosk.
“Scuse me,” Petrus stuttered when he saw someone heading up the stairs. “Help us?”
“I don’t work here. You’ll have to talk to Mr. Beachy. He’s in there,” the man said shooting a thumb towards the dining room.
“Thank you,” Petrus said, bowing a little.
He walked to the end of the hall and found a pair of closed French doors, their windows streaked with grease and dirt. Sawdust and clumps of dried mud lined the floor below. It crunched under Petrus’s boots as he stepped forward and knocked on the door. Peering through the dirty window, he could see shadows, but little movement. He heard the sound of men talking then a glass slam against a table followed by riotous laughter.
The door flew open revealing a bulbous man with greasy hair and a sweat-stained collar. Behind him, a pair of cowboys and three men in rumpled suits sat at a table playing cards in the center of the dining room.
“Yeah?” the man croaked.
“I look for Mr. Beachy,” Petrus said.
“Yes, yes. I’m Beachy. Waddya want?” Beachy said.
“We are seeking a place to stay for the night,” Petrus said, waving a hand towards his wife and child who remained near the hotel entrance down the hall. “We have little money, but we’re willing to work for our lodging.”
“No, no, no. This ain’t no hostel. Go find a church or somethin’,” Beachy said, swinging the door closed again. It’s window came to a stop an inch from Petrus’s nose. He turned and walked back to his wife and son.
“Stay here. I will take care of this,” he said to them before returning to the dining room doorway and knocking a little louder than he did the first time.
“Ah, fer gawd’s sake,” Beachy said as he turned the doorknob. “Get the hell out a here.”
“Need some help?” one of the cowboys at the table said when he noticed Petrus had returned.
“Naw. I’ll handle them,” Beachy said as he nudged Petrus away from the door and further down the hallway.
“Well, hurry up with it. You gotta earn back the 200 bucks you owe me,” another man yelled. The others around the table chuckled while another interjected.
“And the 700 ya owe your wife,” he said. With that, the laughter erupted.
Beachy waved a hand at the card players then closed the door behind him.
“Okay. Whaddya want?” he said, chewing anxiously on a cigar.
“I am Petrus. That is my wife Barbala and my son Janos,” Petrus said. “We come in on a train and would like a place to warm up and sleep. We’ll stay anywhere you put us and we’ll do work as payment for your hospitality.”
“This is your wife?” Beachy said, ogling Barbala as they walked down the hall. A dirty grin crawled across his face as he appreciated the woman’s dark eyes and soft features. Bet she’s got some big ole’ titties hidin’ underneath that jacket too, he thought.
“I think we can work out a deal,” he said after a moment. “Take your jackets off and hang them in the broom closet over there.”
The Laszlofis did as they were told and returned to Beachy, who lifted his eyebrows as he took in Barbala’s curvy, European figure.
“Can you keep your traps shut?” Beachy said.
“Pardon?” Petrus replied.
“Can you keep secrets? Like, can you shut up about whatever you may see in here tonight?” Beachy said.
Petrus nodded, nudging Barbala to do the same.
“Okay. You’re gonna serve the whiskey the rest of the night. If anyone asks about cards or poker or gaming going on in the Stoddart – whether you stay in Woodbine for long or not – you don’t say a gawddammed word. Get it?”
“Yes, yes,” Petrus said. “What about my son? Is there anything you would like him to do? He is small, but very helpful.”
“We’ll find him somethin’ to do. He can be a gofer, maybe. Someone says they need somethin’, he gets it,” said Beachy, who then turned to Barbala. “As for you; you’ll be staying by my side. An ornament of sorts.”
The hotel owner was about to reach for Barbala’s breast, but stopped himself. Petrus’s furrowed his brow but held the anger inside. If he did anything to defend his wife’s honor now, there was a good chance they would spend the night in a snowdrift.
Barbala crossed her arms when she realized what Beachy had intended to do.
“Get in there and grab an apron from behind the counter,” Beachy said as he opened the door to the dining room. He pointed at the bar before taking his seat at the table with the other men.
The Stoddart’s dining area was much like the lobby. Although messy and unpolished, ornamental oil lanterns hung from the ceiling. The bar and furniture was made of varnished hardwood, and large paintings of French royalty lined the walls beside others portraying fox and quail hunts.
The room needed attention, but Petrus guessed it was once a jewel that sat out of place in this tiny, Prairie town.
“What the hell’s all this?” one of the men said, eyeing the three transients suspiciously.
“They’re slaves, boys,” Beachy said. “You need anything. They’ll get it.”
He waved Barbala over to his side.
“Except for her. She’s mine,” he added.
“If you want to put her down as a bet, I’d say she’s worth fifty,” said one of the cowboys, grabbing his crotch and licking his long moustache as he looked up at Barbala. Tears welled in her eyes as she turned away in fear. She did not like this place.
Petrus was strapping on a dirty, white apron behind the bar and missed the incident.
“She’s mine, Rawlins. Keep you’re eyes and your paws away from her,” Beachy said, before turning to Petrus. “I don’t want to see an empty glass the rest of the night.”
Petrus approached the table with an open bottle of whiskey he found on the bar counter. There were six men playing cards. All but Beachy were drinking their booze from short, glass tumblers, which Petrus topped up.
The poker game continued while Barbala stood in uncomfortable silence behind Beachy. Petrus kept a close eye on her, a balloon of angst growing in his chest as the night wore on. He did not like the way the cowboy stared at his wife, but intended stay docile until any of them attempted anything physical to her or his son.
Janos, meanwhile, sat quietly on a stool near the dining room entrance. He was asked to run upstairs on three occasions; twice for a guy in a ruffled, brown suit who chain-smoked cigarettes and required another pack. The third trip was for a thin man who needed a silk cloth to clean the lenses of his small, round glasses.
Janos was nodding off when the cowboy named Rawlins noticed him on his stool leaning his head against the wall.
“Come over here, kid,” he growled. Janos jolted awake, but hesitated before crossing the room to the cowboy’s side. The man’s thick moustache was framed by a grizzle of facial hair. His teeth were brown and crooked. Janos felt a chill run up his spine when the cowboy grinned at him.
Behind the bar, Petrus stopped cleaning a glass and watched closely as his son approached the stranger.
“Come closer. I ain’t gonna hurt ya,” Rawlins said. Janos sidled a little closer, keeping his right shoulder ahead of him incase he needed to pivot and run.
When the boy got about a foot away, the cowboy whipped out his left arm from under the table revealing a shiny hook where his hand should have been. Its metal glimmered under the light of the lamp above the table.
Janos stumbled backwards, landing hard on his buttocks. The men around the table laughed.
The boy scrambled to his feet and raced to his father’s side. Petrus was already heading toward his son after seeing Janos hit the floor. The boy buried his face in his father’s hip and sobbed. Petrus glared at the one-handed cowboy.
“Aw, geez kid. I was jus’ playin’,” Rawlins said.
Barbala started to join her husband and son, but Beachy reached back and caught her by the hand.
“Now, now. He’ll be alright,” Beachy said. “You just stay here like you been told.”
Janos stayed away from the table after that, quietly walking around the room to get a closer look at the paintings.
By 1 a.m., half of the men had bowed out of the poker match, including Beachy. The owner of the Stoddart Hotel lost $500 then borrowed and lost $350 more from a couple of men around the table. He marched into the scream of a late-November blizzard to find his Buick. In his mind, he prepared for the scolding he would get from his wife for staying out so late. He, sure as hell, wasn’t going to say anything about the poor night at the poker table and required a good lie about what he was up to.
Back in the dining room, Barbala escaped behind the bar to help her husband. She was told to stay near the table, but only Rawlins noticed as she silently slipped away during a particularly high-stakes round of poker. The cowboy only smiled at her, adjusted his hat and puckered his lips in her direction. Barbala winced as she picked up the pace of her escape.
Rawlins had weaseled his way into the community of Woodbine by taking a position on a ranch south of town. He was at the Stoddart that night with Charlie, a fellow ranch-hand.
In Oklahoma, Sam Rawlins was a well-known cattle rustler who was secretly scouting the Woodbine area to steal cattle from Saskatchewan and drive them south. After he and four others bagged a few hundred head in the Estevan area, Rawlins was sent further north to find more poorly secured herds of cows and horses.
“Hey, you,” Rawlins yelled at Petrus. “Go in the kitchen there and cook us up somethin’. Find me a steak.”
Petrus looked towards the double-doors Rawlins pointed at, set down his dishcloth and walked toward the poker table.
“It’s okay with Mr. Beachy?” he asked.
“That bastard owes me a hundred bucks. I’ll make it okay with Beachy,” the cowboy said, snapping his hat onto the table with the tip of his hook. “Jus’ get in there and find something for me to eat.”
Petrus hesitated then sauntered through the kitchen doors.
Rawlins turned to see that Petrus was gone, then stood and strutted toward Barbala at the bar. His spurs clinked with every step and his dirty chaps flapped loosely on his legs, their straps untied at the end of the previous day.
Janos watched Rawlins carefully. His heart skipped when he saw the butt of the holstered pistol on the cowboy’s right hip.
“Sam. Get back here and sit down. Don’t go messing with those people,” the other cowboy said.
Rawlins just turned and smirked back at the men playing poker, then focused his attention on Barbala.
“Hey, darlin’,” he said, leaning close and catching a whiff of her. His breath reeked of whiskey and tobacco, making Barbala turn her face away from his intrusion. Rawlins chuckled as he stepped back and rubbed his stubbly chin while drinking in the woman’s curves. Barbala tried to move toward her son, but the cowboy shot his right hand out to block her way.
“Where you goin’?” he said. “Was thinking you and I could head on up to my room and I’ll officially welcome ya to Canada.”
Barbala tried to squeeze by him, but Rawlins remained solidly in place. The thin man with round glasses noticed what was happening behind him.
“Mr. Rawlins, sir. If you would please return to your seat. You have a hand in play and we are waiting on your move,” he said.
“Shut up, Fineberg,” Rawlins yelped without looking back at the table. “I’m foldin’. Lucky for you, too. I was holdin’ three queens.”
Fineburg stood and scraped what remained of his cash off the table.
“I will not be party to what I believe your plans are for that woman. I shall bid you all a good night,” he said, marching out of the dining room.
“What are you? Russian?” Rawlins said softly into Barbala’s ear.
The other cowboy shook his head and grabbed his money.
“I’m gone, too,” he said exasperated. “You best come with me.”
“Go on ahead, Charlie,” Rawlins said to his fellow ranch hand. “I’ll be up in a while.”
Charlie sighed then walked out the exit past Janos, who sat frozen on his stool while his mind raced about what he should do for his mother. He jumped from his perch and ran toward the kitchen.
“Si’down,” Rawlins screamed. He unbuckled a snap on his holster, drew his pistol and pointed it at the boy. Janos ignored the command and flew through the two-way doors into the kitchen.
“Papa come,” he yelled. “Papa come.”
Petrus tossed a spatula across the kitchen counter and followed Janos back into the dining room. Rawlins was working his nose into Barbala’s neck when they came in. Petrus began to run toward the cowboy, his fists clenched and his chest heaving.
Rawlins calmly lifted his pistol and pointed it at Petrus, the arm with no hand wrapped around the small of Barbala’s back.
“Come any closer and you’re goin’ down,” he said. “We’re jus’ going to have a little fun for a few minutes. You’ll get her back.”
Petrus stopped running and froze in place about 15 feet away.
“Let her go,” he grunted.
“Naw. We’re going to go upstairs and get to know each other. You and the boy keep cleaning. This place is a sty,” Rawlins said, nudging Barbala to walk in front of him towards the dining room exit. He kept the gun trained on Petrus as they moved.
Petrus knew he couldn’t let them leave the room. He ran to the doorway to block their escape.
“Get the hell outta the way,” Rawlins growled.
“Let… her… go,” Petrus said. Janos ran to his father’s side and clung to his arm. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he stared at his mother, who was also crying.
Petrus pushed Janos behind the bar counter that ended just to the right of the doorway. The boy fought to remain by his father at first, but relented and tucked himself underneath a sink.
Petrus took a quick peek to see that his son was safe behind the bar then retrained his focus on Rawlins. They stood about five feet apart, quiet but for Barbala’s sobs and Petrus’s deep, stressed breathing.
Rawlins remained calm, keeping his six-shooter aimed at Petrus’s forehead.
A moment later, Petrus bolted forward, grabbed Barbala by the arm and pulled her toward him. Rawlins pulled the trigger, but his pistol just clicked. He tried to pull the woman back towards him with his hook. Barbala screamed in pain as the sharp metal appendage dug into the flesh on the under-side of her upper arm. While Rawlins dug his hook deep to keep a hold on the woman, he lifted his pistol and fired again.
The gun only clicked.
Frustrated, Rawlins let go of Barbala and spun the cylinder of his gun against his left forearm. Barbala fell against her husband.
“Rotten, fuckin’ Canadian ammo,” Rawlins said, banging the gun against his steel hook then aiming it at the immigrant couple. He pointed his hook to his left towards the north wall of the dining room.
“Move over there,” he yelled.
Remembering that Janos was still behind the bar, Petrus stepped in front of his wife and held her behind him as they sauntered away from the door. He never took his eyes off of the gun. In his head, he conjured through a plan to knock the cowboy down and get to his boy.
Janos peaked above the counter. He saw his mother and father against the far wall, Petrus standing tall trying to make himself look bigger than he was. His face held an expression Janos had never seen on his father. Despite Petrus’s attempt to remain strong for his family, his son recognized the terror in his papa’s eyes.
Rawlins had his back to Janos, so the boy crawled along the floor to get around the counter. Petrus shook his head when he saw his son, and motioned with his hand to return to his hiding place.
Rawlins noticed and turned to see whom Petrus was communicating with. Petrus rushed the cowboy with a shoulder block, sending Rawlins flying onto a table and to the floor. The cowboy rolled onto his back and fired up at the shadow standing over him.
Petrus stumbled backwards. His sweater turned crimson in the center of his chest. He fell to his knees once he reached Barbala against the wall. His wife tried to hold him up, but he keeled over on his side. Barbala and Janos let out a horrific scream from opposite sides of the dining room.
“Gawddammit,” Rawlins said as he stood and moved toward Barbala. He tucked his hook under her chin and forced her off of her dead husband’s body. She struggled free and fell back on top of Petrus, wailing in terror and sorrow.
Fineberg ran into the room wearing pinstriped pajamas. He saw Rawlins reaching for Barbala a second time when the cowboy pointed the pistol in his direction.
“Get the hell outta here,” Rawlins screamed.
Fineberg backed out and closed the door.
Rawlins tossed Barbala against the wall and pinned her there with his left forearm. The side of the metal hook was cold and smooth against her nose.
“Run, Janos. Run,” Barbala gasped in Hungarian. The boy got up off his belly, his legs barely able to sustain him. He sobbed violently as he ran to the door, pausing to take a last look at his mother.
Rawlins looked back at the boy and spat on the carpet. Janos turned the doorknob and sprinted into the lobby.
“If you’d have just given in to me,” Rawlins said, turning back to Barbala with a snarl. He kept her pinned against the wall with his left arm while his armed, right hand swung loosely by his leg. He hung his head as he tried to decide what his next move would be.
“Please… please… please,” Barbala whispered through deep breaths.
“Guess I’m not having any foreign tail tonight,” he said, putting the barrel of the gun to her forehead and pulling the trigger. Rawlins stepped away and let Barbala’s body fall on top of her husband’s corpse. The blood on the wall from Barbala’s wound dripped to the floor and mixed with the growing pool of blood draining from Petrus.
In the lobby, Janos met Fineberg running back down the stairs from his room. A man and a woman followed carrying recklessly packed suitcases. The young couple raced for the door and escaped into the wind-blown night. Snow poured through the entrance after them until the door lurched closed again.
“Here,” Fineberg said to Janos, handing him a pistol. “Go through the café and the kitchen and quietly go into the dining room. I’ll enter through the front.”
Janos took off in the opposite direction of Fineberg, who headed back to the dining room’s main entrance. The gun felt like an anchor in the boy’s right hand, but he ran as fast as he could on his eight-year-old legs. He pushed through another set of two-way doors into the kitchen. The crack of Rawlins’s gun went off just as he entered the dining room. Fineberg laid in a clump about five feet from where he walked in.
Rawlins looked up and saw Janos pointing the pistol at him. Sweat poured from the cowboy’s forehead. His face was speckled with Barbala’s blood. The collar of his shirt was soaked with perspiration.
“Come on, boy. Just put that thing down and we’ll figure this thing out,” he hissed. With the two duds in his gun, he wasn’t entirely sure if he had any shots left.
Janos shook with terror. He could see, behind Rawlins, his mother lying motionless on her stomach over his father, whose death stare bore a hole into his son’s psyche.
Despite his fear, Janos took short, stuttering steps towards the cowboy, who was now digging in his belt for more bullets. The boy lifted Fineberg’s heavy gun in both hands and pointed it at Rawlins’s chest as he got closer.
Rawlins had one bullet reloaded in the cylinder of his firearm when Janos pulled the trigger.
“He got away,” Paco said, his voice wavering as he tried to maintain his composure. “I jus’ graze him enough that he drop his gun. I drop mine and ran as fast as I could out of the hotel. I almost stop and went back, though. I wanted to kill that man. I wanted to kill him so bad.”
Paco broke down and cried into the microphone. After a minute, the tape clicked and Paco’s voice returned with his composure regained.
“I hid in a church for three nights,” he continued. “After that, I snuck back into the hotel to get my coat and jumped the first box car I could catch. I went all the way to Vancouver and stayed there for a couple years, livin’ on the streets, workin’ on the docks. I was in B.C. for 15 years, then started for Alberta until I foun’ the courage to come back to Woodbine. That’s when I met the Wilsons. I still felt the spirits of my mama and my papa there when I arrived. The hotel look different, but they were still there.”
Paco went silent for a moment. Mike stared at the spinning wheels of the cassette tape. The old man recorded on it sniffled then blew his nose loudly into the microphone.
“I tell you this because you so curious about me. I could tell, Mickey,” he said. “You the only person I ever told. I was going to tell the Wilsons, but they gone away. You become like them. You become my family. You and the others at The Boony.”
Mike dropped his chin to his chest and cried. Tears fell in drops onto the tape machine in his lap.
“That’s my story, Mickey,” the old man said followed by a loud cough and snort as Paco blew his nose again. The sound startled Mike. He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and set the tape recorder on the bed as it continued to run.
After two minutes of muffled sobs, Paco’s voice returned, wavering with emotion.
“Good bye, my friend. Wish I could’a got to know you better.”
There was a click, then the steady hiss that an unrecorded cassette makes when it plays. But Paco wasn’t finished.
“Do what you want with my stuff. Everything is yours. Everything; right down to the mattress. Always be willing to go the mattress,” he said with a chuckle.
The hissing sound resumed. Mike stopped the tape then slumped onto the bed. He wailed into Paco’s pillow, finally letting loose the sorrow pent up inside of him.
Twenty minutes later, he walked back to his apartment and cleaned himself up. There was little he could do about the dark patches under his eyes or the depressing wrinkles of skin on his face that seemed to appear overnight.
He was not in the mood for Chinese food or the company of the three friends waiting for him in the restaurant down the street. Instead, Mike made his way down to The Boony’s barroom in a stupor. He grabbed a knife from a drawer beneath the bar and stumbled to the table where Paco performed his final memorial ritual for his parents.
The pool of blood on the floor was difficult to miss. Mike wondered if the congealed and drying stain was similar to the one produced by the shooting of Petrus and Barbala Laszlofi about eight decades before that moment. Mike’s chest continued to ache at the loss of his friend, but the pain was exaggerated when he imagined what Paco’s boyhood terror must have been like.
How was Paco – an immigrant orphan with absolutely no one to rely on but himself since the age of nine or 10 – live with such vim, courage and strength? How did he contain his secret for so long, even in the community where the murder of his parents took place?
And how did he manage living with the memory? Every day for the previous 30-odd years, Paco walked into the room where he witnessed the awful event that drastically changed the course of his life.
As an adult, Paco must have had relentless nightmares after he returned. Mike wondered if they waned as the hotel and the people who came in and out of it changed through the years.
Mike’s respect for the old man grew substantially. In that instant, he held Paco in higher regard than his own father.
Mike turned to the wall above Paco’s ceremonial table. There was a faint, greasy stain on the spot where Paco had rubbed his hand on an annual basis for the past three decades. Without thinking about it, Mike jabbed the knife into the old plaster, cutting a one-foot circle around the stain. He carefully pulled off the drywall disc. Dust and chips of plaster fell to the table below him. Slats of wood were visible in the hole he created, which he bashed and hacked until they broke away and revealed a stud.
It was still there, after decades of cleaning, renovations and barroom fight destruction.
Mike used the point of the knife to pry the mangled piece of lead from the wood in the wall. It used to be a bullet. He was sure of it when it fell into his hand and he investigated the blob of metal closely.
It was a bullet that ended the life of one of his parents. Or was it the bullet that was meant to end the life of their killer; Paco’s failed attempt at imposing righteous justice?
Mike sat in the chair Paco occupied just hours before. He placed the shard of lead on the table and stared at it numbly.
“Mike?” Sally said from the entrance to the bar.
He didn’t move.
“Mike? Are you okay?” she said, walking to a spot beside him.
“He was a hero,” Mike whispered. “Paco was a hero long before he came here and no one ever noticed how amazing he was. No one took a second glance at the man.”
Mike leaned his head into Sally’s abdomen and cried. She wrapped her arms around his head and cried with him.
Mike leaned his head into Sally’s abdomen and cried. She wrapped her arms around his head and cried with him.