As Samuel Cawker stood gazing through the picture window of his mother's home at 322 Blake Street he suddenly reminded himself, with a shock, that it was already 1880. Yet, the usual stiffness of his blocky frame was giving way to relaxation, as his spirit began to soar with the electricity of new hope and ambition, a state he wanted to retain, urged by spring's sudden and miraculous arrival from what had seemed an endless winter.
He was also inspired by the reborn industry of the world outdoors, the constant clatter and clang of horse-drawn carriages and wagons passing through the clear space and its shadows, before they entered imagination's mysterious dimension through the window's crystal, kaleidoscopic borders, then fragmented brightly into red, white, blue, and yellow shards.
"May," he muttered dreamily as suddenly he recognized the blind coincidence linking his wife with the month, and that, despite his meditative perspective, he'd been standing with his hands clasped behind his back, rocking gently forward and back on his heels and toes, and frowning, in a manner he'd never hoped to display—like a schoolmaster!
"What, dear?" the woman, who was seventeen years his junior—just twenty-one—who stood behind him asked.
He found further inspiration in considering that she would have the energy to push him when he finally became weary with old age, while she retained the beauty of her own youthfulness. "Oh, I was just thinking that you name the month. Such a lovely name."
Moving up to his side, she took his hand and watched with him the orderly chaos unfolding within the frame of the window. Silent presumably with awe for several minutes, she finally announced, "I marvel as I consider our future. This property, and all the rest we own, will be worth a fortune some day. And just look at this hustle and bustle beneath us—so much is happening the world it makes me absolutely dizzy! The Age of Invention indeed!"
He chuckled delightedly at this. "Science is king, so we'd best learn to live scientifically—correct?"
"Yes, dear. I'm so happy you can find so much inspiration out there. That indicated you'll likely succeed in inventing something great. I would like to believe that our love for each other gives you the energy for it, too, which means your success is also my success."
"My dear! Isn't it said that behind every successful man is a caring woman? Could you ever have doubted my love for you?" he asked facetiously incredulous.
"Why do you torment me, already knowing the answer?" grinning, the young woman protested facetiously.
Now Samuel took both of May's hands and pulled her to himself, immediately forcing her to waltz, although the only accompanying music for that activity was the silent rush of life. "A beautiful woman!" he added brightly, swinging her around in a circle. "A brilliant woman!" he added, reversing his spin to counterclockwise. "A devoted woman!" he finished, reversing his spin to clockwise again, waltzing.
The couple continued to waltz silently for several minutes in the warm silence, in wider and wider circles, until, as they brushed a table, Mary blurted, with moderate alarm, pushing the man away, "Sammy! You will make us break one of your mother's figurines!"
This sobering thought brought the man to a halt. Gently, from the nearby mantle, he grabbed a ten-inch-tall woman's green, black and white statue by the waist, holding it out briefly for closer perusal—"Gosh, I forgot!" he declared. "This Venus here is Venetian marble! It's worth fifteen hundred!"
"Oh my!" May declared quietly, staring with newfound wonder as though she was seeing for the first time the figurine of a woman whose nakedness was frozen partially emerging from a thin veil draped over an uplifted arm. Softly, she now declared, "It is flowing cloth—until you touch it," she declared, as she remembered, moving closer to touch the thing as she once had, extending a tentative forefinger slowly until it just barely met the tiny woman's head; but this caused her to quickly remove her hand, declaring, "Yet, it's so cold! "
"All I was saying was that I want us not merely to succeed like so many others, but to exceed—to truly prosper! " Samuel concluded with a determined yet gentle shake of his fist. "Not just for us, but our eventual children and their future!"
Now May was silent.
"What is the matter, dear?" Samuel asked, though smiling as though he knew the answer.
"You know I can tell when you're not pleased. Is it the part about children?"
"Yes," she replied blankly.
"But haven't we spoken of children before?"
"I know it bothers you that childbirth is so painful—is that the matter?"
"Not . . . exactly. I am . . . a stoic, after all."
"Then is it the possibility of losing a child in birth?"
"That is a worry . . . "
"You see, it is here that science helps a great deal—doctors and midwifes know infinitely more than they did when mother lost . . . I'm sorry, I know you don't want to be reminded, but, you see, diet, and breathing techniques, and even exercise regimens, have all been prescribed for you, so you have much less to worry about than you imagine. Don't you agree? " he nearly pleaded.
"Why . . . yes, dearest," she answered dreamily, before falling silent.
Finally, she asked, "Was Fanny against children, or did she wait until she was . . ."
"Too old? " he interrupted irritably. "At thirty-two? I hardly think so!" Instead of laughing, however, he had to moan and ask, worriedly, "Why do you worry so?"
"It's my nature, I suppose," May agreed cheerfully.
"Just . . . please don't bring Fanny up."
"Yes, dear, if it bothers you. But you have no more feelings for her, do you?"
"She was my wife. Now she's not. That is that! "
"Are you being . . . perfectly honest with me about your relationship with her?"
"What do you mean?" he asked genuinely confused.
"You know perfectly well what I mean!"
"Good—then we can change the subject," he answered peevishly.
"You're a regular devil, do you know that?" May pouted.
"You've lost me."
"You never were married to . . . her."
"Yes, dear. Legally, this is true. What's your point?"
"Still you want a commitment from me! " she scoffed with feigned petulance.
Despite the playful overtones in his repartee with May, Sam felt the weight of adult sadness now on his shoulders. Some underlying, unspoken question needed answering—but what was it? Perhaps women were too deep for him to ever understand their needs. Again, May's reluctance early on to marry him could have been caused by something as pragmatic as her not wanting to appear to be an opportunist. After all, with marriage she could claim a right to the family fortune, which was built on the blood and sweat of others. It was a great responsibility, too, to tend the toll roads, board houses, tend saloons, and manage rental properties! If this was her problem, his task, then, was merely to convince her that she alone would determine the degree of her involvement with the business.
His only true regret regarding business, however, was that Mother Mary had sold the Loomises the granite quarry at Four Mile House—what a go he could have made of that place! For consolation he always reminded himself that time was passing relentlessly, and he had no time to get hung up on matters he couldn't change—fortunes could be made wherever imagination dared—again, invention was the key! Finally, he replied, "Dearest, take all the time you need. I just feel that if you consider all options very carefully, marriage is an ideal state for us. No legal matters such as liens or lawsuits bind me, as I am a free man, and you, my dear, are equally free to partake of managing the family businesses or else retire behind the scenes. It is you I want, not your dutiful employment! "
"I understand," graciously, now, she replied.
"Was there another matter you wished to discuss?"
"I . . . not exactly . . . I've been toying with an idea, but it's not a very scientific notion."
"I'll decide that. What is it? You know you can discuss anything at all with me!" he scolded gently.
"Okay. Do you believe that certain people are, well . . . soul mates? "
"You mean that Fate has decided they're meant for each other?"
"Yes—they'd be predestined spirits."
"Oh, that's starting to sound dangerously religious, " mildly humored Samuel warned.
"I never asked first if you believed in God, did I?" Embarrassed, she giggled nervously.
"Don't forget, though, that I feel that a Prime Mover guides us."
"Do you feel that we never really die—in our spirits, though?"
"This is beginning to sound like ghosts and goblins! You can talk to your heart's content with Ma about that sort of thing! She believes in such things— boogie men and such!" he mocked, laughing. "By the way, she should have been here by now."
"But do you truly believe we're fated to be together, Sammy?" she persisted, seeming to plead.
Now, prefacing his answer, he took both of his wife's hands together in his own, and, staring deeply into her eyes, smiling wanly, answered demurely, "Yes, dear."
"I know you need to think about that, but I don't want you upset when your mother comes," persistently May told him, though with a generous, forgiving smile. With this she seated herself primly stiff on his mother's small, dark horsehair love seat.
Despite the reticence in her body language, her smile was all that he needed in order to rise above his sorrows. "I'm sorry too, if I upset you, dear," he said as he turned and approached her now, then, leaning over her from behind, kissed her on the forehead. The pheasant feather in her hat tickled his nose, and he had to sneeze: turning his head, he caught a glimpse through the window of his mother driving up.
"Ma's hu-hu-hu-here! " he sneezed, loudly this time, with eyes watering, then laughed and shook his head.
"Bless you, Sammy!" the young woman exclaimed with a giggle through the tears she hastily wiped away, not wanting to seem weak in the presence of such a strong woman, and declared, humorously, "I hope your allergic reaction isn't an ominous sign of what's to come!"
Samuel grinned, and with a deferential wave of his hand, went to the window.
There, in the near distance, Mother Cawker, age sixty-eight, reined up her pair of thoroughbreds, aligning her black buggy perpendicularly with a brass hitching post. She hopped down from her seat spryly, too, and, whipping the reins over the beasts' thick, muscular necks, slipped and looped the leather straps deftly through the hitching ring to tie them securely with a single cinch-knot.
Her son could already hear her telling him, as she often did, "Sammy boy, I'll still be driving myself to buy cheroots the day I pass over to the other side!" She would always add, too, "Of course I'll be living in that grand beachfront hotel I'm gonna build— The Evalina—like the good seer says! People'll be comin' to stay there from 'round the world!" She'd always laugh with this revelation, then add, "You know my one regret's I never got that college diploma, so's I could talk ideas with them learned guests like Old Levi Booth does!" Samuel would feel sorry for her whenever she said this, and, though he realized that he couldn't sound convincing, since he felt otherwise, he'd always lie for the sake of her pride, "Mother, you talk just fine! "
Nearly prophetically, now, the front door whipped open, and the grand lady of the manor whisked into the room in her long, full skirts, rustling like a tree in a strong breeze. She flipped up her black, mesh veil and peered into the dark parlor. She pointed at May—" You ain't Fanny!" The peacock feather of her black bonnet quivered electrically.
Samuel quickly stepped between the women, leaned and hugged his mother, then, pushing away from her, answered, "Ma, this is May, my fiancée." He chuckled at the unintentional facile rhyme.
Mary reached and turned up an electric lamp next to the door, then stepped back, remaining silent for a while. She looked the young woman up and down, then suddenly shot out her hand to shake—"Very pleased, indeed!" she announced, continuing to shake the petite hand while May grimaced. "Oh, I beg your pardon!" she said, dropping the poor woman's hand from her grip as though it were an undercooked piece of liver being sent back for more time in the frying pan. "I forgot what a grip I have—I guess I've milked too many a cow!" She laughed ingratiatingly, now. "But I didn't really hurt you, did I?" Without waiting for an answer, she winked at May as she pulled her hat off. Her fiery red hair was magnificently revealed, swept into twin waves that ended in a topknot; her head seemed now to tower like a candle flame. Additionally intimidating was the fact that she still had facial features youthful enough she might have been mistaken for Sam's older sister.
"No, ma'am," May lied, still grimacing.
"You can call me Ma Cawker, if you like . . . "
"Mother Cawker," Samuel interrupted. "It's more . . . respectful."
"Oh, Sam! Always so formal!" his mother said dismissively.
"Mother sounds best to me," May replied both to her fiancée and his mother. "But what if I switch back and forth?" humorously she asked.
Mother Cawker ignored May's reply, and told her with formal mien, "Please sit again," as she gestured at the love seat. "I'll put some tea on—do you like chamomile?"
"Why . . . I don't know. I've never had any," May replied wonderingly.
Samuel took the end opposite May on the horsehair sofa.
"I never sit on that," Mother Cawker told May. "Matthew, Sammy's Pa, left some o' his spirit in it—I think it's possessed. Truly—he'll give ya a good pinch, he will, if ya linger there!" She didn't laugh, and continued, "Sometimes I think 'cause he might o' had too much energy, some of it stayed stuck to his favorite sittin' place. I don't know. All I know's I never saw a man work harder'n him—you could call him a hard-livin' saloonkeeper, though some might object to that moniker. Anyway, the apoplexy did 'im in."
"I'm very sorry," May consoled.
"He come from Chicago, though he was born in merry old England. He was a gem!" Mother Cawker added.
"You must have been proud—" May began.
"Oh I was, an' still am! " Mother Cawker declared proudly, with a laugh. "Otherwise do you think I'da kept a sofa so homely only a mule could love it?" She laughed, slapping her knee, pleased with her own humor, then continued, "Truth is, I don't have the heart to part with it. Guess I'm just a softhearted, sentimental old—" But now the whistling of the teapot interrupted her, so nobody could be sure whether she'd sworn, though she was known often to do so. She jumped to her feet, and trotted through the arched doorway into the kitchen. Within a minute she shuffled back into the room and set the silver platter and porcelain tea set down on a low, oval, mahogany Victorian coffee table. "There!" she exclaimed cheerfully, taking her own cup and dropping into a chair opposite her guests. "You can hand her hers, can't you, Sam?" she asked.
"Why, yes, Ma—Mother, " he answered correctively, rising to retrieve the two remaining poured cups. "Is there honey already in this?"
"Of course, " Mother Cawker answered cheerfully. "I wrung it outa the beer barrel myself, personally for you! " she joked, laughing. When her son didn't smile, she slapped him on the back and chortled, "Oh don't take it to heart, so!"
May merely stared at her, baffled by her strange sense of humor.
But to quell her possible alarm, Sam told her, "Mother's goin' daft! Don't pay any attention to her!"
Ignoring her son, Mary continued to sip her tea daintily, she extended the little finger of her drinking hand upward. "You see, my Dears," she finally said, "all those years—when was it—my gosh—over thirty years ago when Mister Cawker passed on? Is that possible it's been that long? Well, you see, I told him to cut back on the drinkin' an' card playin', but he was a fun-lovin' son-of-a-buck! I'm dreadful sorry he had to pay the price God seems so determined to ask of us! More sorry than you can know, " she added dreamily, now, staring into the inner distances. "An' that doggery, bust-head stuff he drank coulda kilt a moose! I couldn't stand to touch it! If he'd a just set it out with a price on it, I wouldn'ta cared if he sold an ocean of it, but he thought he had to drink it to convince others it was okay! So 'twas no wonder he never bought a license for it— too much liability, as he finally showed! I know it was the drink that made his heart give out. "Course he drank other spirits, too—I don't mean to say he wasn't normal! But when you know what goes into that stuff, why would you get closer'n ten feet to it?"
"Why, what was in it?" May asked out of politeness.
Mother Mary grinned widely, now, raising an instructive index finger—"Well, wine, when we could get it, but usually grain alcohol, and tanbark, strychnine for a bead, coffee grounds for smoothness, leather strips for a bitter, molasses for a touch o' the sweet, tabasco an' jalapeños for bite, then gunpowder, chewin' tobacco, an' cigar butts for body! See why I drank tea like this here all them years?" she joked, laughing, though quickly her happy, murmuring song sank into a moaning hum, as sorrowfully she shook her head, finally staring into nothingness.
"Oh, Ma— Mother! That's positively a criminal thing for you to do! Are you now antisocial? " Samuel teased facetiously, since he currently sold the very same potion in his taverns.
But Mother Cawker was staring into the distance, and asked dreamily, wistfully, "What do you suppose Mister Cawker'd be doin' right now in Heaven?"
"Probably cutting a brand spanking new deck!" Samuel quipped brightly.
Apparently, Mary hadn't heard him, as, poised with her flowered, porcelain cup suspended in the air, she continued staring into nowhere.
Finally, to show that he'd found a happier subject than any previous, Sam offered, "I'm awfully sorry dear sister Elizabeth couldn't be with us today." He waited a few moments, and, failing to get a response, continued, "She and Calvin are doing very well with the toll-road business, I hear." Again he tried again in a few moments, "Elly Cawker became Libby Loomis, just by marrying—sounds kinda funny, don't it?—too many l' s! " He waited again, hoping to recover his mother's attention. Finally, he proposed, "Ma— Mother, I know what'd cheer you up! Why don't you tell May that story about . . . you know, the wagon train—I don't want to give it away and spoil it, an' you know no one tells it the way you do, anyway! "
"What story?" his mother now asked him, stone-faced.
"You know which one!" He scoffed, chuckling charmingly.
With a snap of her head, her green eyes glittering, Mother Mary Cawker now faced her son, grinning. "That was no story, if you mean when I scared off them red devils and saved us'n that wagon train from a good scalpin' or worse! "
Samuel moaned in protest, "But Ma, you're givin' it away! "
"That's all right, Mother Cawker," May said politely. "Sam's already told me how it was for you to be the first woman to drive a team, let alone a team of six, in Colorado!"
"Yes ma'am! I was! " the older woman answered heartily. "I run supplies from Four Mile House to Kansas City once every coupla months! I also run some wagon trains. An' I was also one o' the first women to keep a boarding house in this fine city all by myself. Still, you see, some thought doin' all that was undignified for a woman—but you always get that sort in history. Some even thought it was worse than that—but I'll tell you straight, I warn't no madam! " Here, quickly, she corrected herself—"I was more of a mademoiselle! Meanin' spoiled! " Now she laughed, apparently please with her own wit.
"Don't we know it!" Samuel teased affectionately.
"Well, you don't know just how lucky we all were in those days!" Mother Cawker informed her son. "You included, if you want me to tell about the near-massacre, since otherwise you might never've lived to your first birthday! An' I won't even repeat what they did to little ones!"
"Then you'll tell it?" hopeful, grinning broadly, Sam asked his mother.
"Well, sure. To start with, them so-called men on the train with me was just a bunch o' yellow bellies, I'll tell you!" she continued fiercely righteous. "Hidin' under the wagons! I guess they thought 'cause sin' they served as our fort they was safe just bein' behind 'em! One of 'em even up an' hollered, "Here come the red devils!" like he was brave, but he didn't even raise up a rifle, duckin' down again, of all the nerve!" Now she laughed.
"So, tell what you did," Samuel coaxed anxiously, slapping his knee involuntarily with anticipated delight.
"I'm getting there as pleases me," his mother answered. Now she turned to his fiancée—"All his life, May, he's been a seeker of pleasure, just like his Pa! Mind you, both are excellent saloon keepers, but neither has had a lick o' business sense! Always happiest out a-cuttin' a deck with the boys. Doesn't it seem strange? Yet it's as true as south-runnin' rivers! Oh I'm glad the dear had his fun, but he needed to remind himself how much he needed me for the books, else he'd o' had no place to play in, a-tall! "
"It can be a dangerous business, Ma," Samuel instructed her soberly, now. "You gotta cut the tension somehow, or it ca'n drive you nuts! You think I want to hear about every blubberin' fool's troubles?"
"But weren't you givin' that lout a good, sympathetic listen about his wife runnin' off with someone else when he just went and stabbed you in the gut?" Mother Cawker asked somberly, now.
"Yeah," he answered, laughing involuntarily—"I made the mistake of callin' her . . . let's just say, a bad name, since you ladies are present," he tole her, as he glanced back and forth between her and May.
"That does put a twist on the whole story, I admit, but you did survive! I never said you an' your Pa warn't tough, did I? I never worried too much on that score—I knew you could handle most o' them drunks, anyway, who just had to make a point o' gettin' outa hand to prove their manhood!"
"Well, I can't say I ain't lived real good," Sam replied. "But you remember I was laid up a whole month with the hole in my gut?"
"Yeah! Maybe you were used to havin' too much fun! But you were always full o' life, Dear," his mother replied sadly. "Yes, you always did manage to live—boy howdy you've proved yourself a live one!" She laughed and leaned to slap him on the shoulder a second time.
Sam was frowning, though, apparently not liking to be talked about. "Please go on with the story, Ma," he coaxed impatiently, now.
"The true story, if you gotta call it that! But okay. Here I go. I got me a contract to lead a train down to here from Fremont's Orchard up Nebraska way. Well, we pulled two wagons up with two teams of ox. They was, let's see . . . twelve o' them brutes eatin' us out of house and home into ruination—I never saw an animal that could eat that much! Anyway, on the trip we came up over this ridge, really to get a good looksee over the far territory, and found us a nice stretch o' beach along the Platte, fifteen miles north of Denver City. All we wanted to do was water the animals an' get freshened up, when we pulled up to a nice draw outa the sand, in sage prairie, an' set the wagons side-by-side about ten feet apart, like usual, mainly to keep any wolves'n coyotes away. We always put a good-sized bonfire at each end. So, anyway, I set out at first cookin' breakfast. But, wouldn't you know it, all of a sudden some dern renegades— called themselves Arapahos, but I know by the dress some Pawnees and Utes was thrown into that ragtag outfit probably got kicked outa their tribes—came outa the brush, with their bows drawn, aimin' them long buffalo-huntin' arrows at us, for an extra insult to boot! I tell you I had to think quick, too, sin' the men followed Colonel Londoner duckin' down like rats under the wagons to save their own sorry hides!
"I'm simply . . . well . . . shocked! " May exclaimed complacently. "About the whole situation!"
But Sam was helpless in the throes of laughter, pointing red-faced at his mother—"This is the part I absolutely love! " now he thundered.
"Oh, I do say!" Mother Cawker exclaimed indignantly still. "All I did was the only natural, sensible thing I could think of!"
"What did you do?" excitedly May asked, caught up in the action of it, now.
"I just grabbed up the hot, black iron skillet I was frying biscuits in, and, with my hair all frazzled with the wind already—plus you don't see too many redheads around these parts in the West anyway. Well, I right away I got up on my own wagon and did a dance, swinging that pan up high, a-stickin' my chest out an' scratched with my feet on the wagon bed like a chicken doin' its dance, even kickin' up some dust clouds. An', well, the next part's a little embarrassing for a lady, but it has to be told to finish the story—I have false teeth, you see . . . " (She grinned to show them). "They were wooden back then, though they're porcelain now. Anyway, while I was prancin' about, I pushed 'em out forward with my tongue, so's to make 'em stick out, then clattered 'em together wild-like, sometimes a-lettin' out with a cluck-cluck high in the throat like a chicken. Then I'd also make a whinin' noise I made up—sort of a hummin' buzz like a ghost would make, with a few Whoop-whoops here an' there. I guess I musta actually looked most like a rooster doin' a matin' dance—that' what Sam's always said, anyway!"
"Oh, he does have a good imagination!" laughing, May scoffed.
Mary fell silent, now, to drink her tea, hastily commenting between sips, "Don't want it to get cold. You two go ahead—you don't have to stop drinkin' yours either just for me to gab! I'm just not much of a hostess, you see! I was brought up rough, an' rough I'll stay!" proudly she declared, laughing self-indulgently. "Sometimes I know I'm hard to follow. Martha Maxwell sittin' next to me in the wagon durin' the attack wondered if I'd lost my mind!" she chortled.
May sat staring silently at Mother Cawker now.
"Oh, what a sight that had to have been!" Samuel laughed, slapping his knee several times, as tears of mirth rolled down his flushed cheeks. "But tell May how they acted then," he chirped breathlessly.
Mary continued, "Why, their eyes grew like saucers—big as the ones under our cups—like a dang buncha cows! Then they all of a sudden stood up like they was possessed, an' one-by-one dropped their bows'n arrows. But the strange thing was they walked toward us, an' all but one of 'em stopped about five feet from the wagons, while he walked straight up to me an' reached out his hand toward me, like he'd touch my hair, of all things! I musta frowned somethin' fierce, 'cause he jumped back a step, though I knew what he wanted. So, I just bent my head forward an' let him he touch it, though at the same time I barked, "Devil!" at him good an' rude. Well, then he spit on the ground, an' trotted away, an' the other ones run right after him like nobody wanted to be the last one to escape the witch, all a-snatchin' up their bows'n arrows real quick before they rode away so fast you'd think they just got cursed by the Devil himself, I tell you! So, after that we went on our merry way without another bother, unless you want to include the tongue-lashin' I gave Mister Londoner and them other lizards! Why, there's no excuse for that kind of thing, not when children's lives're at stake, leavin' the likes o' Martha Maxwell and me to fend off the savages!"
May finally smiled, and asked, "Could you have just paid the red men something to go away?"
"My dear," Mother Cawker answered testily, "they had no right to our money, even if they'd a had a use for it. An' our goods, like knives and muskets, we needed—to the item—else we wouldn't have bothered adding the weight to our burden! As it was, I hung onto our ledger for dear life, especially bein' the only one who knew the slightest thing about keepin' books. There was absolutely no room for waste! Just to get by, I had to charge my party for meals an' ammunition, so everything had to be kept accurate to the penny, an' I'll tell you true, after you've been pinchin' 'em you don't give anything away without a fight!"
"But weren't you almost frightened to death? " May asked, having turned pale.
"Why do you think I did that crazy dance? " Mother Cawker asked her.
"But I think I would have been frozen stiff! " the younger woman announced.
"Dear, I lost three of my five children, some during childbirth, some shortly thereafter, so I wasn't about to let Sammy and Libby get kidnapped by some heathen scoundrels, especially after all the trouble I went through going back to Sauk county, Wisconsin to retrieve 'em after their father kidnapped 'em!"
"Oh, of course," May answered timorously, apparently not sure what she was talking about, but not wanting to seem rude.
Always one to end a discussion on a positive note, though, Mary asked her son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law at once, "Well, are you two gonna give me grand children before I'm a hundred? Or will I have to live even longer than that, tormentin' you 'til you do?"
May crossed her hands in her lap, blushed and bowed her head, while keeping her back as erect as a board.
Samuel answered, "Only fate can tell, Ma."
"Fate! " Mother Cawker scoffed. "You're smarter than fate! Haven't you at least made any money on that patent for your . . . what did you call it? "
"Fluid Measuring Tank," Samuel answered proudly. "Yes. I even have a new invention, Ma, made special for you and your seances," he teased now with a mischievous grin.
"Another of your pranks, I suppose!" Mother Cawker answered, chuckling. She turned to speak toward May—"He and his friend started on the darn thing I knew they'd waste whole years! What was his name, that lawyer fella . . . "
"Gaines, Ma. Allen Gaines."
Mother Cawker remained smiling beneficently toward May, before informing her, "They even wasted time on pranks, one time smearn' phosphorous from matches over some sheets, then put 'em over their heads, and came into our seance last November. About scared us outa our skins! " She laughed and shook her head.
"Oh, Ma! You sat there like a rock! Didn't even crack a smile! " Samuel retorted.
May giggled at the news.
But Mary wasn't going to let it go—"After that they called my Central Park lodge 'Spook House!' " she announced. "I don't know, though, but I'm pretty sure the epithet has had time to wear thin. Hopefully we haven't lost too many customers!"
"Well, you won't have to earn another nickel, if Gaines' and my application for another patent goes through," Samuel advised happily.
"Then this is a new one?" Mother Cawker asked tentatively, as though hoping to get a straight answer. "What's it called?"
"The Electric Attachment for Rocking Chairs." It is simply designed for your spirit summonings, Ma— Mother. It'll revolutionize the whole process. You see—"
Interrupting her son, Mother Cawker grinned and winked at May. "I knew it was some crazy contraption! Now we have to hear how it works! " she added, feigning sarcasm.
"Now, Ma, don't prejudge it, 'cause it's got a true scientific purpose. You see, it's an electric generator wired to all the chairs around your seance table. When you wiggle around in your chair, it connects a circuit, and a low-voltage zap flies around the circle through all the seats, so all may fancy themselves pleased by the touch of a traveler reachin' back from the spirit world—it will thrill believers and skeptics alike!"
"Oh, you devil! " Mother Cawker and May announced unintentionally simultaneous. With the shock of their mingled voices, the two gaped at each other, then burst into laughter, soon tears of which were rolling down their cheeks.
"Ma, I made it to make sure you can make money chargin' for your spirit meetings!" Sam protested now. "You remember how many of 'em were duds, an' everyone demanded their money refunded!" He looked serious.
Soon Mother Cawker had to console her son by telling May, "I always felt Sammy would some day contend with the great Mr. Edison himself!" Then she turned to gaze lovingly at Sam's profile, adding, "With his phonograph a coupla years ago, then that in-can-descent lightbulb! "
"Ma, I didn't invent a lightbulb! " he deferred.
"But I thought you at least wrote to him and get some helpful hints!" the older woman protested. "That doesn't mean he did it all by himself!"
This time Samuel looked embarrassed: he hung his head, his smile falling into a worried frown. Finally, quietly, sadly, he remarked, "I don't have half the talent Tom has! I just got lucky a few times!"
When the silence had again fallen in the parlor, Mother Cawker told her son, "Sammy, I meant no harm. No one on earth can deny you have a mind that won't quit— just like your old Ma's! " Oddly, she didn't laugh. After a few more minutes, she said, "Oh, Sam— and May—you just wait! We're all gonna make a fortune more! You'll see it by the time I finally get to Summerland and build Evalin! You'll be seein' me at ninety-five drive my rig up to fetch cheroots at that—what's its name— Goux Drugstore in Santa Barb! Right down the beach I'll fly, in my buggy chariot! See, not just one, but three of my most reliable mediums have already predicted it in a vision, believe it or not! When others make judgments on us we'll see who gets the last laugh! It isn't the stick-in-the-muds, after all, that make the money!" She chuckled.
* * *
Once again Samuel Cawker found himself gazing from his neat Capitol Hill bungalow, watching the world pass, but this time he did so wearily, having temporarily awakened from his daydream at age sixty-eight—the same age as his mother during their last meeting. He couldn't lie to himself, either, that he now felt old—tired and slow of mind—a feeling exacerbated in that he was living already ten years within a new century. A special sadness settled like a cat on his chest when he remembered how beautiful his fourth wife, Grace, had been—mother of his only child, Samuel Roland Junior. Though Alberta, Canada, was her birthplace, she'd returned to her beloved Santa Barbara, just like his mother had, having found her ideal place in which to live out her last days in paradisal warmth. He also missed her terribly.
He recalled, with a little shock, how the "For Sale" sign in front of the old home on Blake Street had startled and disturbed him. Yet it heartened him to remember that Mary had turned it into a genuine theater, as she'd always wanted to—rather than into another saloon. She'd succeeded at everything she'd undertaken. What could have been more natural than that she'd moved across town to Central Park where she could more closely oversee her Sand Creek and Cherry Creek Valley Wagon Toll Road companies.
He could finally see the horse-drawn parade of humanity without illusion—as a slogging impediment to progress—as he envisioned the advance of innovation that would, within half a decade, replace buggies with motorized automobiles, boxy and running on four stiff, secure wheels. All industry had to do would be to come and drive up the value of all her real estate, for Mary's fortune still to be realized! She had picked good, solid businesses that complimented industry—he'd always been proud that his mother had never fallen for that fool's dream, gold! She'd kept her passions to herself, by God! He had to laugh to himself, wondering if his own son would actually believe her stories, all of which were true, but still sounded too good to have been.
In the finally analysis, his mother was simply a fine human who'd always been true to her dreams and their promise! As proof of that quality, out of love for her own children, hadn't she signed over her considerable holdings to them while she was still alive, rather than leaving a single scrap of inheritance intestate? And, free of guilt, having earned her day in the sun, hadn't she finally driven her little, comfy phaeton down the beach—up to her ninety- eighth year on earth! All in pursuit of her simple pleasure, her precious, little cigars? So, she had had the "last laugh" but not meanly for what she'd gotten away with, but for the joy she found in life that was available to everyone! Oh, she was a rarity, and he loved her all the more for her character. Suddenly Samuel was aware that he was standing with his hands clasped behind his back, rocking gently forward and back on his heels and toes, frowning—just like a schoolmaster—an occupation he'd once romantically fancied—again, yet more profoundly happy, somehow, despite his aching bones, than he'd ever been!