A note to the reader: Only the most improbable parts of this story are true. Yes, for nine days in 1848, between the discovery of gold on the south fork of the American River and the signing in Mexico City of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico was the richest country in the world and didn’t know it. Yes, gold was discovered twice in California, once in the Sierra Nevada in 1848, but once six years before that in Placerita Canyon, near Santa Clarita. And yes, in the 1850s, the best journalist in Los Angeles was a teenager named Francisco P. Ramirez, in whose ink-blackened hands I leave you now…
…we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
— Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Los Angeles, late January, 1848
If I hadn’t burned a second candle to work on my newspaper that night, California might still belong to Mexico.
Under its glow, on the quadrille sheets that M. Vignes had vouchsafed me for the purpose, I traced out the titles of “ P-U-B-L-I-S-H-E-R,” “E-D-I-T-O-R-S” AND “S-T-A-F-F.” Across the page, modestly, I printed “F-R-A-N-C-I-S-C-O P-. R-A-M-I-R-E-Z” but once.
Months into my journalistic career, I still hadn’t decided for good whether to publish my newspaper in Spanish, as I’d been doing; in English, as I could do just as easily; in French, as M. Vignes might have liked; or all three, which would certainly fill up each number in a hurry. Ornate as I could make it, in my best freehand approximation of blackletter script, I had sketched in the most versatile placeholder I could think of: The Américas.
Now came the hard part. El Pueblo de los Angeles in those days didn’t have much news, except for all the murders. Hardly a week-end went by without a white man shot. If nobody was shooting any white men this week, someone was surely getting lynched for shooting one last week. Where was the news in that?
If they couldn’t find a white man’s killer to hang, even a Californian’s murderer would do. Next thing you know, there’d be necktie parties just for shooting an Indian. Pretty soon, it’d be news if a week went by without somebody kilt or strung up for it.
And that’s how I got the idea. Carefully, with one large capital letter centered in each quartet of squares, I roughed out a headline: “NOBODY DIES IN BLOODY AFFRAY THIS WEEK.” A little long, but I could fix that later. I wasn’t altogether sure what an “AFFRAY” was, but I liked how it went with “BLOODY.”
It wasn’t literally true. Mr. Temple had challenged Sr. Sepulveda to an affair of honor just the day before. At the hour of truth, however, Temple repented his choice to shoot such a good customer, and so contented himself with killing Sepulveda’s second instead. Sepulveda insisted on satisfaction, but Temple’s own second ran away before it could be obtained.
So my best headline yet, “NOBODY DIES IN BLOODY AFFRAY THIS WEEK,” was also my first published lie. M. Vignes says every writer needs an editor to keep him honest, but I couldn’t afford one on my allowance. The question now was what to do next. That first lie opened up so many possibilities.
My candle hissed and flickered. Outside, the river whispered through the alders. The rio and the pueblo, the Sierra Madres to the north,— except for the snoring of a thousand souls and the occasional gunshot, all was quiet. With the moon gone, the night sky shone bright enough to read by.
Behind me, plump and fussy, each of M. Vignes’s famous pigeons dozed or burbled in their ranked cages, pecking greedily after some last leftover grains from dinner.
And then, outside the window, I heard it: a scraping sound, like an animal rooting among the grapevines. This had happened before. Last year a burro had escaped the corral and ripped out six of Father’s rows before we finally got him untangled. I knew I should go investigate, but I had few enough choreless hours for my newspaper without having to police vineyards for runaway livestock. It was probably just a covey of quail, come down to the river to drink.
My pen was thirsty too. I applied myself to my page.
No sooner had I re-dipped the quill than I heard it again, closer now. It was definitely a burro, probably the same one. My father should long since have sold the brute to M. Vignes, whose farmhands knew how to tie a knot that would hold, but Father could give a burro lessons in stubbornness.
I stepped outside and felt the cool breeze off the river. The burro was nowhere to be seen. In the distance, a lonesome coyote howled. A fish jumped, and I did too.
Neck prickling, I decided to make one quick circuit of the pigeon shed and return to my labors. I walked halfway round the shed to the small window in the back wall, opposite the door. Framed right there, I saw him, already inside—tall as a giant, wet black hair dripping down between desperate eyes, candleshadows from the taper on the table dancing wildly at his back. Then I watched dumbly as, with the same key I had idly left in the keyhole, he locked me out.
I wanted to run, to wake M. Vignes or even my father, but there was too much of value in the shed to turn my back on. Not only the next issue of The Américas, scarcely begun, but my first seven issues as well, still sitting unprinted under the desk, awaiting typesetting as soon as M. Vignes’s old Ramage press returned from its statewide rounds. Even more important were his prized racing homer pigeons, fluttering in consternation as, even now, the drenched figure drew himself up as if to loose them. From the pocket of his long duster, he withdrew a scrap of cigarette paper.
The pigeoncote took up most of a wall, four cages high and four across. Each bore the name of a different destination: the small, overworked birds for San Pedro, San Gabriel and San Fernando; the larger ones for settlements south as far as Loreto; one muy fuerte for Albuquerque; and, for La Ciudad de Mexico, proudest of all, La Jefa.
Most pigeons are even more moronic when they’re scared, but La Jefa now looked as intelligent as I’d ever seen her. She shrank from the man’s approach as he reached straight for her padlock and yanked.
The hasp held. Implacable, the man replaced the scrap of paper in his pocket and drew a revolver from his sideholster, ready to hammer the lock free. Squawking, audible even from this side of the window, La Jefa squeezed herself against the mesh at the back of her cage.
As if remorseful for contemplating violence against such a defenseless creature, the man paused. Then, slowly as an automaton in a belltower clock, he turned his weapon toward me.
Our eyes met. The man indicated the padlock and gestured meaningfully at me with the revolver.
Not knowing how else to pantomime it, I tapped my forehead.
I could see in his staring eyes that my import was clear: He had the key to the shed, but only I knew where to find the key to the cage. It was a standoff.
Maybe here I might mention that I hate standoffs. Playing at pistolero, I’ve always found them silly. If you could shoot me and I could shoot you, we should shoot each other instanter, not hesitate like two Frenchmen approaching the same threshold.
My adversary in the pigeon shed must have hated standoffs, too. He lowered his weapon, unlocked the door and motioned for me to come around. Then, he fainted.
Artwork by Jacquelyn Campaña.
David Kipen is the founder of the nonprofit Libros Schmibros Lending Library in Boyle Heights, a lecturer on the UCLA faculty, and a Critic-at-Large of the LA Times. His Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters will be published Fall 2018 by Modern Library. The Américas will be his first novel, and he welcomes your kibitzing at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright: © 2017 David Kipen. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/