Monday, April 20, 2015

Lola Dances excerpt by Victor J Banis

Lola Dances excerpt from the bestselling author of 'Longhorns' Victor J. Banis. Sometimes funny, sometimes tragic and often bawdy, Lola Dances ranges from the 1850 slums of the Bowery to the mining camps of California and Montana, to the Barbary Coast of San Francisco. Little Terry Murphy, pretty and effeminate, dreams of becoming a dancer. Raped by a drunken profligate and threatened with prison, Terry flees the Bowery and finds himself in the rugged settlement of Alder Gulch, where he stands out like a sore thumb among the camp's macho inhabitants--until the day he puts on a dress and dances for the unsuspecting miners as beautiful Lola Valdez--and wins fame, fortune and, ultimately, love

Terry comes to Alder Gulch

Terry felt like he had been lifted up into the air, as if in a tornado, and set down in another world altogether.
It had taken them most of a year to get here—by train and by riverboat, and traveling for a time with a wagon train of Mormons. They’d gone first to California, but the mine fields there were already overrun with thousands of others who’d heard the same stories Brian had heard, of gold for the picking up of it—stories they had quickly learned had been greatly exaggerated. There was gold, to be sure, but coaxing it out of the ground and the creeks took work, hard work, and lots of it.

In any case, all of the likely spots there had already been claimed, and the claims closely guarded by suspicious, quick to shoot miners who kept an especially close eye on any newcomers. Gunfire was not an uncommon sound, and new graves were not an unusual sight.

They had no sooner arrived there, though, than news had come of a rich strike here, at Alder Gulch, and Brian had spent most of the money he had left to buy them a bullock cart and a horse,  and they had lit out the same night they got the news.

Terry had turned eighteen on the long journey, somewhere close to Salt Lake City, but he felt as if he had aged decades. Already his life in the Bowery seemed as if it had happened to someone else, or in another lifetime.
Brian had quickly built them a rough log cabin, with a hard packed dirt floor, a whisky barrel for its chimney and flour sacks for windows. The roof of woven willow saplings leaked endlessly, so that in a heavy rain, the dirt floor turned to mud. It was as good as most of the miners had, better than the lean-tos and wickiups many of them lived in, but the cabin was tiny—a single room, most of that taken up with stove and table, and one bed along the other wall, a straw-stuffed pallet that they slept in together. There was hardly enough room in the rest of the
cabin for the two of them to move around in it when they were both there, let alone space to do a jeté.
By the time they had arrived at Alder Gulch, the best claims here had been taken as well, but Brian had quickly found a job working for the Simmons brothers, who had better than a half a dozen claims of their own staked and were generally regarded as the richest men in the camp. They paid Brian a hundred dollars a week. Back in the Bowery, that would have been a fortune, but here a man could spend that much to rent a cabin if he hadn’t the mind or the time to build his own.

Brian got a tenth of whatever dust he found for them as well, and he got to stand right there and watch as they weighed it, so there was no cheating in the payment of it. Already, he had a nice little pouch of dust buried in the dirt under their bed.

“When I’ve got enough, we’ll set out on our own,” he said. “I didn’t come all this way to work for someone else, even if the Simmons brothers are good men to work for. They’re fair, at least, which is more than could be said for some in this town. But it’s still just kissing ass, ain’t it?”

To Terry’s undying shame and regret, though, Brian seemed to have accepted in his own mind that what had happened back in New York had been Terry’s fault and not something odious that had been done to him by a drunken profligate. Once or twice, Terry had tried to talk to him about it, to make Brian understand his innocence, but Brian had made it clear he wasn’t interested in hearing Terry’s version of things.

“It’s not gonna change anything anyway,” was his final word on the subject. “Van Arndst is lower than a snake’s belly, that’s true enough, but you were his woman, weren’t you? That’s how anybody would see it, if they knew. How you went about getting his pecker up your ass don’t make much difference. It was there, is all that matters. You’re as much to blame as he was, the way I look at it.”

Which was how it was left between them. The best Terry could do was to try to make himself at home in Alder Gulch— but, he had doubts that he would ever really be able to feel that way about this foreign setting in which he now found himself. He wondered, was this where his omen and portents had been leading him all this time?
At first, when they had set out, he had felt a genuine sense of excitement. Maybe this journey was the one for which he had waited and watched, the one that would carry him safely and cleanly to the future he had imagined. Maybe at last he would arrive at that walled city of his dream.

But, surely, this Alder Gulch was not that future. He could see, when he strolled about the town, that the setting must have once been beautiful. Surely, not long before, there had been a carpet of pine needles beneath the towering fir trees and the abundant alders. The creek that came down from the mountains was tawny and sparkled in the sunlight, like jewels where it cascaded over the rocks, and the mountains themselves, still snow-capped in the middle of summer, loomed majestically against a sky almost obscenely blue after the soot-filled air of the Bowery.

All of it had been ravaged though, by the coming of these eager, greedy men. The creek was an ugly patchwork of sluices and chutes, entire fields of trees reduced to stumps and the carpet of pine needles was now a sea of mud that ran between rows of cobbled-together buildings. Only the sky remained pure, and the mountains that seemed to look down upon it all with a lofty and infinite scorn.

As he strolled, Terry looked around him with a combination of puzzlement and dismay. It was all so squalid, so dismal. Had he misread the signs, or only fooled himself all this time? What kind of future could Alder Gulch possibly hold for him? Even if Brian did get rich, and that began to seem more and more like a fantasy, no more real than Terry’s dream of being a dancer, what could that mean for him? They’d still be here, in this horrible place. And Brian would still look at him with barely disguised disgust. At least, in the past, back in the Bowery, he had sensed an abiding if rough affection on the part of his brother, but Van Arndst seemed to have killed that as surely as he had destroyed Terry’s innocence.

The men who passed by as he walked—there were few women, and those were obviously prostitutes—were all of a kind, lean, tough looking individuals with hard eyes, unwashed hair and shaggy beards. They wore black trousers and black hats and red or blue flannel shirts, and they looked curiously at the slim, willowy stranger in their midst, with his white cotton shirt and the cleanly washed gray trousers that clung tightly to his round little dancer’s bottom.

A lone woman clattered by in a shiny black buggy, snapping her whip at a dappled roan. She was a big woman, ample rather than fat. Her dyed yellow hair was piled atop her head in careless ringlets, and her gown was as red as the buggy’s wheels and too dressy for daytime. Terry stared as she drove by.

“Do not lust after the whore of Babylon,” a voice said from behind him.

He knew who she was, then. Even he had heard of Belle Blessings, madam of the local whorehouse. She gave him a quick glance as she drove by—a new male in town was certainly of interest to her—and looked quickly, dismissively away, her practiced eye telling her in a glance that this was an unlikely customer.

“I wasn’t lusting, Reverend,” Terry said, turning to the speaker. “Just curious, is all.”

“Let your mind seek in the Lord’s way,” the Reverend Davidson said. “For that is the path of salvation.”

The Reverend was almost the first person Brian and Terry had met on their arrival here. Brian had scarcely claimed a space for their cabin and begun to build it with the wood from the bullock cart—the lone ox had been sold off for supplies—before the Reverend had shown up to welcome them to Alder Gulch.

He was a tall man, six foot six or more, gaunt and sere, as if the juices had been dried out of him, with long skinny legs like a grasshopper’s, you wondered that they could support him, and neither his hair nor his beard gave any hint of ever having known soap and water, let alone a comb or a brush. He gave an odd impression of being too large for his skin, and you couldn’t help thinking he might be a bit less puckish if it fitted him more loosely, but he radiated a kind of energy that made him seem anything but frail despite his leanness. His wide dark eyes flashed with an almost alarming intensity when he spoke, and the voice that emanated from that sunken chest was astonishingly deep and booming, even in everyday conversation. He wore the same flannel shirt and dark, dirty trousers as the others in town and apart from his shagginess, and most of the men who had been here any time at all were similarly shaggy, there was little to distinguish him from them save for the little gold crucifix that he wore on a chain at his throat and fingered ceaselessly when he talked.

He had invited Brian and Terry to attend services at his “church”—really, nothing more than a lean-to attached to his own cabin. Terry had visited him there once. It was as primitive as the rudest shacks of the miners, its only decoration a roughly hewn wooden cross before which wildflowers were sometimes scattered incongruously on the dirt floor. Occasionally on a Sunday morning one or two of the miners could be seen there, kneeling while the Reverend exhorted them to piety and led them in a hymn or two in a voice that made up in loudness what it lacked in tune.

“He catches them staggering home from the saloon,” Brian said of the Reverend’s parishioners, and Terry was inclined to think he was probably right. Curious, he had hidden among the trees his first Sunday in Alder Gulch, watching the Reverend’s “service,” and it had been evident that at least one of the miners was on his knees because he had difficulty standing.

Terry wondered what had brought Davidson to Alder Gulch. It did not seem that, like the others, he had come to seek his fortune, and if he had come expecting to “gather the lost sheep back to the fold,” as Davidson himself put it, Terry could not but think his journey a wasted one. The sheep showed little inclination for being gathered.
“I’ll keep that in mind, Reverend,” Terry said now, “though it doesn’t seem to me that there is much choice of direction here in the Gulch.”

“Every breath is a choice,” the Reverend said, “you walk toward the Lord or away from him,” but Terry had already nodded and gone in his own direction, away from the Reverend. The preacher made him uncomfortable. Those hard, dark eyes looked at him as if they wanted to penetrate his inmost thoughts, and Davidson’s scowl seemed to him altogether disapproving.

He was grateful that the Reverend did not follow him, at least, though he had the feeling that his eyes did.

Terry paused to look in the open doorway of the town saloon, The Lucky Dollar. The air inside was filled with stale cigar smoke and the scent of unwashed bodies. Men clustered at the bar or around the gaming tables, scuffing their feet in the sawdust on the floor and talking in overloud voices. Someone beat out a discordant tune on an upright piano and as Terry watched, a tall wiry man grabbed a woman from a chair, slapped her and shoved her reeling onto the dance floor. A disheveled miner grabbed her with a loud whoop and began to spin her around spiritedly, taking not the slightest heed of her sobs.

Fascinated and frightened at the same time by the aura of vice rampant, Terry turned away and continued his meandering. Two men standing outside the saloon glanced after him as he passed and one of them gave the other a knowing smirk and pursed his lips, but Terry did not notice them.

Print version from Rocky Ridge Books, will be available Fall, 2015


Mick Mykola Dementiuk said...

What a great book, I've read it 3 or 4 times and now, with the new edition coming out, another reading will definitely be in order. Thanks Victor, you're the best ;)

AlanChinWriter said...

Beautiful writing, Victor. No surprise. I've read most of your novels, but this one has escaped me. l'm moving it to the top of my TBR stack. Looking forward to an interesting read.