A Two Piano Town
by River Hollins
With the new railroad had come painted whores and a fancy piano, and Brother Jed was not going to waste his opportunities.
So far, the town of Canaan had not been the land of promise he’d hoped for when he left Gettysburg with nothing but a carpetbag and his Bible. The town was little more than a single street, and even that trailed to brush at one end. The new station at the intersection of two railroads, the cattle yards, the saloon, the general store, the marshall’s office and the church. A few houses. Not much to go on, but soon, there would be more, with attendant souls to save.
Jed reminded himself, daily, that the harvest was plentiful, and the workers were few, and fewer still now Preacher Jack — God rest his soul — was gone. As soon as they’d planted the old man in God’s forlorn acre next to the half-finished chapel, he had moved in on his predecessor’s flock. Having spent a few months in the town, and Brother Jed had decided that the Rev. Jack Thurston had been soft on the flock.
The new preacher came from a different theological school of thought. A harder one. Jed didn’t intend to be gentle, not when mortal souls were in peril. It was business, therefore, not pleasure, which saw Brother Jed sitting somewhat uncomfortably in Jezebel’s parlor at ten o’clock in the morning.
This was his first opportunity to evangelize a harlot, and he opened his negotiations with quotes from the book of Hosea. His stern admonishment for being a purveyor of sin had not brought the response he’d quite expected. Madame DuPont neither wept for forgiveness nor raged in anger. She sat in rapt, polite attention, sipping her tea. She looked nothing like he’d expected either. Oh, she had braided hair and costly apparel, no doubt, her crow-black intricate ringlets piled high. Her clothing reflected the height of modest fashion. If he were not sitting in her private parlour at the Saloon, he would never have guessed her profession. She seemed a lady of means like any other. The woman weren’t painted, but only the finest of lines showed around her lips and the corners of her dark eyes. A treacherous little thought — a whisper of Satan, surely — muttered in his left-hand ear that she looked remarkably fresh for a woman who hardly slept none. Or so he heard.
“You’re one of my flock, Mrs. DuPont, and therefore, it is my duty to chastise you and lead you back to the —”
“Please call me Chantal. We need not be so formal in private, Father.”
“Mrs. DuPont —”
“I’m so glad you are here, and we shall be good friends as I was with poor Father Jaques, who is now gone to the Holy Virgin. Tell me, when do you hear confessions?”
“That is a popish custom, ma’am. I’m a good Wesleyan.” It was true Jed had never been to seminary as his predecessor had, but he could read better than most, and the Good Book had been his only reading matter since he was thirteen. Jed had heard, though, that confession was one of those godless Roman rites.
“Forgive me, Father, I was always so ignorant, on the matters of religion. I have so few opportunities to converse on intellectual subjects here in Canaan. The company is so, shall we say, rustic?”
“Ma’am I —”
“Theological discussion is always fascinating, I think. But I sense, Father (forgive me if I am wrong,) that this is more than a mere social call.”
The preacher swallowed. “I hear you got a new piano. I was wondering if you had a mind to tithe the old one to the Lord.”
He caught a spark in her eye, which he hoped was divine inspiration. He sent a silent prayer that the Holy Ghost might be at work in her soul, and move her to part with it for nothing.
“It met with an unfortunate accident, perhaps one year before I bought the salon.” She didn’t say the word right, but Brother Jed considered it wouldn’t be Christian to correct her English. Weren’t the poor harlot’s fault she didn’t know better, coming as she did from a heathen land.
“A cowboy was offended by the music, apparently, and shot at the piano player. Or perhaps it was over a woman. Who can say? The piano player dived behind the instrument — you understand that this is a second-hand account, I could be wrong on the details — and returned the cowboy’s musical criticism. The piano was caught in the crossfire, and a bullet went right through the wood into the musician’s shoulder. He lost his arm, and with it, his profession. And of course the piano was ruined. So tragic, non?”
It was. But the ruined piano could be washed in the blood of the Lamb.
“Like our Lord and Saviour, I’m the son of a carpenter. If you let me have it, I can redeem the piano, as I would your soul.”
“Ah, but surely it is God, Father, who will redeem this piano, and your hands —” her fine, dark gaze trailed in a slow meander to where he twisted his hat in his lap — “shall be merely the means by which the Lord shall heal.”
“I can’t fault your reasoning,” responded the preacher, mollified that at least some of his earlier witnessing had gotten through.
“Bien. I shall sell it to you for a modest sum. All the keys are more or less intact. Do you play?”
He hadn’t thought of that.
“No ma’am, I confess I don’t.”
Another genteel sip. “Ah. Perhaps your lovely wife plays? She must be such a comfort and a helpmeet to you in your missionary work in these wild lands.”
“The — the Lord has not seen fit to bless me in the institution of marriage.” He wished now he’d waited a little longer in Pensylvania for that particular blessing before responding to the Call. There weren’t a lot of women who’d make suitable missionary’s wives out here. There weren’t a lot of women out here at all.
“Alors, what a pity. A musical instrument, Father, is like a woman. She needs to be to be played, to be touched, to be loved, to retain her sweetness of tone.” Her voice had dropped to almost a murmur. Brother Jed pulled at his collar. Outside, the sun was climbing.
” I — I —”
“Now. I have a pianist. My Keziah. And she also knows the proper care of such instruments, the tuning, the pulling of the little hammers and how to keep strings in the correct tension. She’s very skilled. I’ll send her to you —”
The lady waved her hand dismissively. “Non, non. Think nothing of it. No need to thank me. She can play in your little church on Sunday, as well. It is her day off after all, it is a kindness that will cost me nothing.”
“Ma’am, I really must pro —”
There was a discrete knock on the door. A sleepy-looking Mexican girl, not wearing much over her night corset, entered and murmured low in the madam’s ear. Jed averted his eyes. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. At that moment, the gospel’s righteous sentence seemed a trifle harsh.
“I’m afraid I must bid you adieu, Father Jed. Another appointment. My little dove, she will show you out. I’ll send my man around with the instrument. The side door, Maria.” This last, confusing comment was directed at the young lady, who smiled and nodded.
With that dismissal, Brother Jed was led down the hall to a different door to the one he’d used to enter the building. He ran right into Gideon Holbrooke, looking almost relaxed chatting to another of Mrs. DuPont’s charges, his shotgun angled down and away from his companion. “I apologize for callin’ so early, can you let Madame DuPont know I’m here? I just need a few minutes of her time — oh hey, Brother Jed.”
There was something off about that marshall, and the vicious scar down one side of his face spoke of a violent past. Another soul to save, as like as not, though they said he was a praying man. Nevertheless, Holbrooke looked very much at home in this pit of iniquity. The marshall’s gaze ran to the young woman by Brother Jed’s side. A sudden thought struck Jed that a midmorning call for a good Christian might be an unreasonably early hour for those who laboured all night. Heat rose to the missionary’s face as realization dawned on how the situation looked.
“Marshall, I can expl —”
Holbrooke held up his free hand in a placating gesture.
“I see you’re settlin’ into Canaan good, Brother,” he said. The lawman’s face split into a grin wider than the River Jordan. “You’ll find it to be a land flowin’ with milk and honey.”
* * * * The End * * * *
Copyright River Hollins 2017