NaNoWriMo 2020: Installment 3

Deacon Hunt closed the lid of the steamer trunk and clasped shut the iron lock. The porter of the Tipton Hotel, an emancipated black man in a red jacket and black wool trousers, hefted the trunk onto a rolling cart.

“Will that be all, sir?” the porter asked. He was middle-aged, with his scalp shaved bare.

The room featured oak plank floors, burgundy curtains on the window overlooking town, a single bed with an arched headboard and brown duvet, a simple wooden writing desk, and a bathroom with toilet and tub.

The tub hadn’t proved terribly useful, given the lack of hot water. The basement boiler went out the day before Hunt’s arrival, according to the clerk.

Hunt checked the time on his silver pocket watch. “Sun’s coming up soon, Percy. See that the trunk is delivered to the Western Horizon terminal.”

The porter nodded. “Yes, sir. Right away, sir.” He opened the door from the hotel room into the second-floor hallway. Thick brown-and-red patterned carpet covered the hallway floor. Percy started to push the luggage cart forward, but the man in the black suit called after him.

“Oh, Percy?”

“Yes, sir?” He stopped with the cart poking slightly over the threshold.

“Can I see your license?” Hunt asked this in an offhand manner as he slid the watch back into his pocket.

The porter frowned. “My license, sir?”

Hunt nodded, returning his attention to Percy. Another ghostly smile. “Your freedom license, yes. Certainly, you applied for one as required by the state of Missouri?”

The law, enacted in 1835, required free people of color to carry a license to prove they’d been emancipated. Jail awaited those caught without the proper identification. Then came a trial before the Board of County Commissioners, who decided the scofflaw’s fate.

Exile from Missouri might be the best Percy could hope for.

“I…” Percy shook his head. He looked at the floor and then his meaty hands. “No, sir. Only free six months. I haven’t had the time to…”

Deacon Hunt offered a grim smile to the porter and took a few steps toward the doorway. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Make the time. I’m on my way to take my place as constable in Franklin. You come through my town without a license, you’re liable to find yourself at the end of the rope. Wouldn’t want that to happen, now would you?” He was at least six inches shorter than Percy, but carried himself as if he downright loomed over the other man.

“No, sir, I surely would not,” Percy agreed. His eyes had widened and beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. Hunt noted the big man’s fingers flexing. Was he considering violence? That wouldn’t end well for either of them.

“There’s a good man,” Hunt said, his tone reassuring. The porter’s posture didn’t ease, exactly, but Percy allowed himself to exhale. “Now, tell the coachman that I’ll be along directly. First, I want one last decent meal downstairs. Trail fare is appalling.”

“Yes, sir,” the porter said, and then pushed the brass cart down the hall toward the hand-operated elevator. The right front wheel of the cart squeaked and wobbled along the way.

General H.C. Spellman had offered Deacon Hunt the post as constable in Franklin County, just over the Rio Grande from Old El Paso del Norte, two months after the war’s end. He had worked as a constable in Boston before the South seceded, but then accepted a position in the United States Army’s Quartermaster Corps.

“Town’s growing,” Spellman had said, sitting at his desk in the Army office in St. Louis at Jefferson Barracks. He was missing the lower half of his left arm, which he lost to cannon fire during the Siege of Vicksburg. “Captain Mills drew up plans, wants to call it El Paso.”

Hunt had chuckled. “Not to be confused with El Paso right across the river in Mexico?”

The general had waved a dismissive right hand. “Details. Not my problem. Not yours, either, really. Franklin. El Paso. Whatever the sign says, it might as well be Huntville or Deacontown. I want you to keep a firm grip on that town. We need a steady hand. You’ve got Mexicans and savages all around. Free slaves. Foreign refugees. Rebels still looking for a fight. Sodbusters. Prospectors. Play this right, you’re shepherding a boomtown. Play it wrong…” He shrugged, leaning back in his chair, below a portrait of the man who inherited the presidency from poor Abe Lincoln: Andrew Johnson.

The constable had nodded. “I get it.”

“The job’s horrifying, but we make up for it with meager pay,” Spellman had said with a grin.

Hunt had a feeling that, if everything went well, he’d find plenty of opportunities to supplement his modest income as constable of a burgeoning frontier town.

“I won’t let you down, General.”

They had shaken hands before Hunt departed St. Louis for Tipton to catch the westbound coach.

In the lobby of the Tipton Hotel, Deacon Hunt settled his account with the clerk – a larcenous six dollars for two nights without hot water.

“Really, I shouldn’t pay any more than three dollars,” Hunt argued.

The clerk, a mousy-haired man with bifocals perched on a slender nose, huffed a sigh before saying: “The boiler’s broken for everyone, sir. All guests pay the same rate.”

“I’m not like all your other guests,” the constable said.

“No?” The clerk asked in a tone that suggested he didn’t really care to hear why.

That hardly mattered to Deacon Hunt.

“You’re looking at the new constable of Franklin County, appointed by President Andrew Johnson himself.” An exaggeration, of course. Johnson signed off on military appointments at a certain remove. Deacon Hunt had never met Andrew Johnson.

“Oh,” the clerk chuckled.

“What’s funny about that?” Hunt’s tone turned icy. He didn’t care to be the target of this underling’s mockery.

“I’m just surprised to hear they finally filled the post,” the clerk said. “Everyone kept turning it down.”

The constable clenched his jaw. He pulled a billfold from his jacket pocket. “Four dollars,” he said.

“Not negotiable,” the clerk countered.

Hunt scowled. He felt riled, but wasn’t entirely certain why he had allowed himself to become so frayed by this interaction. The haggling was a pointless distraction, especially given the fact that Spellman would compensate him for all expenses related to lodging.

But he loathed an uppity man of any stripe, particularly a man who dared to claim moral superiority over him – even if only by implication.

It seemed he might not win this war of wills with the clerk. So, instead, he decided to settle for inconveniencing the man as much as possible.

“Fine,” he said, placing six dollars on the wooden counter. “Take your money. That includes breakfast, yes?”

“Of course, sir.” The clerk marked the lodging manifest to indicate that Deacon Hunt had paid the Tipton Hotel the requested fee of six dollars for two nights on the second floor. Balance left unpaid: 0. “Thank you, sir. I hope you enjoyed your stay.”

Hunt returned the billfold to his pocket. “Oh, I shall tell all my friends.” A taut smile. He turned to walk toward the dining room, but then came back to the counter. “One more thing. Are you aware that your porter’s loose in this town without a freedom license?”

“What?” the clerk asked. His already pallid face drained further.

“Don’t you check for that sort of thing when you hire people in this town?”

“Well…it’s just…”

Hunt smiled, placing his palms on the wooden counter. He felt the tide turning in his favor. “Hard to find reliable help. Understood. But, well, I am a constable, federally appointed, and it would be uncouth of me to let such oversights pass without comment. Could you direct me to the office of County Commissioners?”

The clerk frowned. “Is that entirely necessary?”

“Do you envision a different arrangement that might obviate the need for government intervention?”

The clerk coughed. He pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose. The dollar bills remained next to the ledger, spread like a poker hand. He nudged the money back in the constable’s direction. “Allow me to compensate you for the entire cost of your stay at the Tipton Hotel.”

Hunt’s eyebrows twitched upward. “Are you offering me a bribe, sir?”

The clerk stammered and his eyes started rolling over white. Hunt thought he might tumble over like a down cow.

“Or is this because my hotel room lacked hot water?”

Some color seemed to return as the clerk experienced a measure of relief at this suggestion. “Surely,” he said. “Only fair, given your inconvenience.”

“That is incredibly charitable of you,” Hunt replied. He retrieved the billfold from his pocket and scooped up his money. Theatrically, he counted the bills and then put them back into the billfold, which subsequently slid back into his jacket.

“Think nothing of it,” the clerk said.

The constable’s smile turned predatory. He’d sunk the dagger. Now to twist the blade. “Of course, you will grant equal treatment to your other guests, yes?”

The clerk blinked. “All ten of them?”

“Did all ten suffer the lack of hot water that I did these past two nights?”

“They…they did,” the clerk admitted. “But two have been here for a week, and they had hot water for the first few days.”

Hunt shook his head. “I wouldn’t want anyone to accuse you of showing preferential treatment.” He reached into his jacket, letting fingertips touch the billfold. “Let me return the funds and I will just seek out the commissioners on my own.”

The clerk shook his head and waved his hands frantically. “No, please, that isn’t necessary! As you suggest, I will forgive the lodging costs for all guests.”

“Astounding generosity,” Hunt observed with a wry smile. “Are the eggs good this morning?”

“Farm fresh,” the broken man muttered from the other side of the counter.

“Splendid,” the constable said, and walked away.

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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