The Ballad of Mario Crane, Part 1

The first thing that went through my mind was, “This poor bird clearly should have practiced with balls before he moved up to juggling knives.”

Not really knowing what the heck to do in this kinda situation and wanting to get the door shut to keep the brisk morning out, I ended up opening the New-York Times and wrapping the dead bird up in the middle page to haul it in, knife handle still sticking up. I had to kick off my slipper and grab the milk with my toes, but I’m not a man who takes two trips.

“Mario?” asked my wife, still rubbing the gunk from her eyes. “What’s that you’ve… Oh.” She nodded knowingly when I revealed the package to her. “Oh, that’s a shame. But it’s just what happens when you try to whittle without opposable thumbs.”

Every day reminds me of how lucky I am to be married to this woman.

I dropped our dead-doorstep bird onto the kitchen table rather than let any blood or — I don’t know — bird goop soak through onto my hands and gave it a look over: grey plumage, long black neck and beak, white chinstrap, menacing, beady little eyes. “Well, we’ve got a murdered goose on our hands. On the one hand, it’s obviously a threat on our lives. On the other, I think this goose has tried to roll me for bread crumbs, like, eight times, so there’s a silver lining here.”

“Why a goose, though?” Behind her eyes, I could tell a dozen different scenarios danced wickedly in her head, the leering minions of Boss Tweed destroying our lives with a dozen different methods, none of which would involve a goose.

“Well, I imagine they couldn’t find a crane is why.” Actually, I didn’t even have to speculate about any unknown “they”. I knew exactly who did this. I could see Lieutenant Richards in my mind’s eye, smug and slovenly as ever, telling the rest of them, “No, I got it. See, a crane is a bird, right? We give him a warning. We put a dead crane on his doorstep to say ‘Hey Crane, get out of here!’ ” Then he probably forgot about it for a week, realized he couldn’t find a crane and didn’t know what one looked like, and stopped by Central Park to grab the first winged creature he saw.

I hated that guy.

“Well, in any case,” I continued, “no matter how ineptly it was conveyed, the message is pretty clear. We can’t stay here.” I sighed. We’d planned to leave anyway, as we certainly didn’t WANT to stay here any more. We just weren’t tripping over ourselves to get out the door before we’d set up arrangements. “Your sister still lives in Pennsylvania, doesn’t she? Could you take Frankie and hide out with her for a few weeks?”

Esther sighed, and I could tell she was pained. I was too, to be honest. This wasn’t what any of us would have asked for, forced out of New York just as our lives there started looking up. And I knew her sister didn’t approve of our relationship. “I… I probably could, yeah,” she said after some thought. “But not much longer than a few weeks. Even if I could sweet-talk her into letting us impose on her… she’s not going to have the means to support us all for long.”

“All the more reason for me to get things set up as quickly as possible,” I said, trying to allay her fears. “Believe me, I am not going to leave you with her any longer than I have to. Before we know it, we’ll be out west in the land of plenty, and our only worry will be how we’re going to keep our footing when all the streets are paved with gold.” She looked up at me, patient and sad, eyes ready to accept good, wholesome Christian suffering instead of joy. I couldn’t have that.

I refused to break her gaze until I saw her smile. Of course, as soon as she realized that was what I was doing, she tried to remain stone-faced as possible, to show me how truly serious this all was. And of course, trying to remain stone-faced just made it more awkward and nervous. All I had to do was the trick where I cross my eyes independently, and she broke into laughter.

“Okay, okay!” she said, as if I had been demanding anything other than her levity. “I’m sure it’ll all be fine. I can have Frankie and myself out of here by tomorrow… just don’t make us wait too long, okay?” She pulled me in by my hands to kiss me on the forehead, then attempted, and failed, to take on a stern tone. “Don’t be a hero or anything, all right? We’re in enough trouble from that already!”

* * *

In his second year of office, President Lincoln, God rest his soul, passed the Homestead Act saying anyone who wanted could just take a parcel of land out west for his own. And ever since, there’ve been thousands of men who set out to find their fortunes with stars in their eyes, hope in their hearts, and a mountain of faith in the Lord to provide. Though it’s hard to separate fact from fiction out here in the East — I am pretty sure the streets are not really paved with gold, nor do they run red with the blood of madmen and ravening beasts — I did know only a fool would head out to the frontier and then see what was around to make a life from.

My family and I were going to head out there with a bit more than that.Reserves

I no longer have most of the bonuses of my former employment with the justice system, and its members now threaten me by stabbing geese, but not all is lost. I still have a few friends, one of whom is the county’s auctioneer of seized property. He sometimes does private gigs, and I let him know I’d be looking for cheap property out west. Companies expand too fast, chasing the railroads. New York’s wealth has aided countless dreamers’ projects out west… and should those dreams go sour, to New York that wealth returns.

I wasn’t picky about what I would secure. I just needed something I knew would be valuable out there, so I wouldn’t just be throwing my family’s fate into God’s hands. I am a pious man, but I am certain that the Lord has better things to do with His time than watch out for the three of us. The “Sweetrock Mining Company” had been swept up in the Ghost Rock rush, but it seemed they’d run into a fair share of trouble with bandits and storms, and now they were selling off their Western properties at a loss to try and pay back the loans they’d taken out. That was the closest to divine providence I would get.

Sure, I’d have preferred to get the deed to a hotel in Sacramento, a restaurant near a major thoroughfare — you know, something known to be productive, but not large enough to catch the eye of a major business — but given the circumstances, ? I could be a miner.

I found my seat in the auction house next to a woman wearing a frilly bodice and petticoats, mostly because I KNEW she wasn’t with the police. She looked me over, as if waiting, daring me to challenge her choice of dress, but after a few moments, she seemed to soften and turn back to the stage, where the first item for bidding was being displayed. The collection of art and properties collected from various corporate headquarters as the collapsing company had receded eastward, office by office: paintings, etchings, furniture, and a marble bust of the owner, Horace P. Sweetrock, sporting some unidentifiable, dark stain. I wondered what the story behind that one was.

I leaned over to the woman and whispered, “The mining company was founded by a guy named ‘Sweet Rock’? Did he change his name for it, or did he think he was destined to work with rocks?”

She arched an eyebrow. “Maybe if he’d been named Horace Sweetcatch, he’d have opened a fishery,” she responded. She was clearly uninterested in the current lot, as was everyone else here save for two Bohemian-looking men in the back engaged in a silent, vicious bidding war. “He’d never have expanded out west past his means, never had to employ managers with festering mental sickness, and his company wouldn’t be on the brink of collapse.”

“He may also have wound up eaten by a giant trout. So, you know, it balances out.” I extended my hand, and she shook it firmly. Nice grip, clearly someone who had sealed a lot of deals by handshake before. “Mario Crane,” I offered to her. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Lillian Morgan,” she returned, lifting her shoulders to suggest how a curtsy would look, were she standing up. “Likewise.” She paused while the auctioneer rattled off the details of his next item up for bid, some manner of armed and armored rail car apparatus. “Mario Crane… I think I know that name. You were in the news. Are you that fellow who bought a painting for its frame and found a Rembrandt underneath it?”

I shook my head, and she lifted her numbered paddle to signify placing her bid.

“Ah… Then, you must be… the policeman, right?” I didn’t nod, but she could tell she’d got it. “You found the Red Hook killer. The real one — you got that poor Taylor boy free and back to his family. They say you’re a hero. Certainly made the rest of the force look like buffoons in comparison.”

“I’m not really a hero,” I said almost on instinct. “I just had an opportunity to do good and took it. I think most people would do the same.”

“You don’t need to be modest with me,” she said, and I’m not quite sure why she emphasized “me”. “Last night’s Evening Telegram said that if every man on the police force were like you, the people of this city wouldn’t fear the cops more than they feared the criminals they’re supposed to catch. What is a man of your history doing picking at the bones of a ghost rock mining company?”

“Wellll,” I said, almost wincing, “I don’t think everyone shares the opinion of the New York Evening Telegram. Certainly not the Times. I got to read an editorial yesterday morning about how I was probably responsible for the Red Hook killing myself, just to undermine the justice system and undo all the good Boss Tweed has done for our fair city. And my former colleagues on the force have made it very clear that my presence is no longer necessary… or wanted. That same morning, one of them left a dead bird on my doorstep. It’s time for my family to move on; I just thought I’d pick up something valuable to move on to before we left.”

“So you thought you could be a part-time ghost rock miner.”

“Only until we found something more substantial. Wouldn’t be smart to leave EVERYTHING up to chance.”

She stopped, one hand on her chin in contemplation, the other lifting her paddle again to bid on the train car. “Well, Mister Crane,” she finally said, “I’m sorry to break it to you, but I doubt you’ll be able to carry out your plan. Sweetrock’s mining deeds are out in Gomorra, and not long ago they had some manner of … let’s be simple and call it an earthquake. The whole area’s changed; every survey and assay from more than few months ago isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Buying up any one of these would just be leaving it up to chance. And given the town’s history? Not many businesses are willing to take that chance just yet. I was planning on buying out all of their mines; wasn’t expecting much of a challenge for them.”

She was obviously well-off, judging by her mode of dress and the assistants she no doubt employed to get it on her, and clearly could have outbid me on anything I fancied. I nodded, reflexively reached up to tip the policeman’s cap I keep forgetting I’m not wearing anymore, and said, “Well, Miss Lillian, thanks for the warning. I’ll leave you to your business then –”

She stuck her arm straight out across my chest to block me from standing up. “Don’t leave yet. You may not be able to get what you thought would be valuable, but that doesn’t mean you’re done.” She reached into her purse and produced a business card, embossed, proclaiming her ‘LILLIAN MORGAN — MORGAN CATTLE COMPANY, OWNER AND PROPRIETOR.’ “I spend most of my time out in Gomorra, running the company. I need the land to graze cattle on. I need honest men with an eye for detail to make sure my cattle and my interests are being watched after. I’m certain I can find a place for a man with your moral fiber and investigative skills.”

I didn’t quite know what to say. “That’s rather generous of you, miss. Are you sure that –”

She had already produced a sheet of paper from her purse and was scribbling directions on it. “When you get out to Gomorra, find a man by the name of Maxwell Baine. He’ll be able to negotiate the particulars of your employment. I would love to do it myself, but I have business here in New York that will keep me here a couple more weeks. I’ll wire ahead and let him know you’re coming. Worse comes to worse, if you can’t reach an agreement, I’ll let you have a poke around a couple of those mines. Letting you keep what you dig out would likely be cheaper than assaying them all.” She dashed off her signature at the bottom of a long page of notes and directions for getting me to Gomorra, and I wondered how she kept the words she was writing straight while she was talking at the same time.

I smiled and folded the paper into my pocket. “Well, I don’t know what to say. I expected things out west would be different, but I never expected how generous you people would be!”

At that, she started laughing so hard they had to stop the auction.

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