You see, it's all clear, we were meant to be here from the beginning. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Striding down K street, Scott recalled the first time he’d set a boot to the wooden walkways of Sacramento. Days of steady drizzle had provided the necessary ingredient to turn dirt streets into the mud holes mischievous boys and wallowing warthogs embraced. The smell of dank river water invading from the west added to the city’s overall lackluster appeal. Unimpressed summed up his initial opinion of California’s state capital. His foul mood at the time of that visit put the icing on the cake of Sacramento’s dismal physical attributes.
Scott’s anticipation for his first cattle drive since arriving from Boston considered the task not as a hot, dust-choking journey, but an important passage in owning the last name Lancer. Hell, he’d even bought a fine leather journal to record his reflections during the drive - a purchase which would’ve inspired scrutiny from his grandfather’s Union Club cronies.
You best get that grandson of yours some psychiatric help, Harlan. The war did something to his noggin.
The night before the scheduled push of livestock up north, the itinerary changed. Summoned to the Great Room, Scott stood in front of his father and received new marching orders: deliver paperwork to the recently established office of the Cattlemen’s Association in Sacramento, wait a day for responding documents and then return home to look after things.
Look after things? Look after what? Teresa’s embroidery needles?
Scott’s perspective viewed the demotion to messenger boy and nursemaid a direct result of Murdoch’s judgment of his oldest son - a Boston dandy who’d only be a burden on the trail. Seeing his protests were falling on the tune caller’s deaf ears, Scott quietly surrendered. The only visible sign of his silent anger was the charred remains of a fine leather journal in the forge near the stables.
Surprisingly, Johnny dealt out a hand on his own perspective a few days after the drive while consuming more than a few beers at Henry’s. Scott listened as words gathered into sentences which expressed the frustration his younger brother felt.
I don’t have the schoolin’ you got but, goddammit, Boston; I could learn how to handle fancy papers and talk decent. Seems to me it’s as plain as a birthmark on a burlesque dancer’s bosom. The old man thinks I’m only smart enough to eat dirt and stare at a steer’s ass.
Scott wasn’t certain where to direct his laughter - at Johnny’s apt placement of a birthmark or his brother’s culinary vision of a cattle drive. Nods. Sips. Smiles. By the end of the evening, two very different perspectives had been shared by two rather intoxicated brothers with a humorous plan.
It was a short wait before another business trip to Sacramento dusted off Scott's travel bag while a stay at a line shack for fence inspections packed Johnny’s. Early the following morning, the brothers traded their mandated roles without their father’s knowledge. Afterwards, Murdoch had insisted on calling his sons by the wrong names for a week to prove a point for their stunt, although the boys’ old switcheroo proved a bigger one.
Sacramento grew along with Scott’s respect for the city. Each visit brought him fresh sights and sounds, products of California’s expanding rail lines. Now being a representative of the Cattlemen's Association, a conversation with the gentleman guiding this expansion was at the top of Scott’s Sacramento agenda.
Well, maybe not at the very top.
Entering the Ebner Hotel lobby compared to seeing the face of an old friend - familiar, friendly, unchanging. But when a friend’s face gains… let’s say… a bushy mustache or maybe a large wart, the difference can be spotted immediately. Such was the case when spying the gentleman manning the front desk. Scott’s questioning raised eyebrow noted the change. Immediately.
Ebner’s familiar, friendly, unchanging clerk had been an elderly man possessing kind eyes and a welcoming smile. His queries upon registering for a room were purposeful but never pried into one’s personal affairs. The clerk made certain comfortable lodging and an air of respect gifted every patron no matter what their station in life might be. The last time Scott conversed with the gentleman, he’d mentioned retiring and moving to San Francisco.
I wish to see my granddaughter more. The sun sets quicker each day at my age, Mr. Lancer.
It appeared the old man had made good on his word.
The current key-rustler of the Ebner Hotel’s accommodating rooms did not possess a large wart. What Scott first noticed as he approached the front desk was the rectangular, gold plated, spit-shined name badge informing guests who they were speaking to in bold engraved lettering.
With a slight smile, Scott set his bag down by his feet. European influence had officially landed in Sacramento.
“May I help you?” The man’s nasally words were strung together tighter than the threads of his tapestry vest.
“I’d like a room.” Scott swung the registry book around and plucked the pen from its inkwell. “Possibly until the end of the week.”
“Do you have a reservation?”
The pen hovered between the completion of an S and the beginning of a c as Scott’s eyes drifted upward to meet the gaze of his interrogator. “Do I need one?”
“Yes.” The concierge adjusted his ivory inlaid cuff links. “Here at the Ebner Hotel we believe there is no room for surprise in hospitality.”
“Agreed. Hospitality has too many letters as it is.” A half-smirk graced Scott’s face while returning the pen back to its proper place. In the past, he’d found people of self-proclaimed importance fair game. He saw no reason to change his way of thinking with this gentleman. “I’d like to reserve a room… that is…” Scott’s stance leaned slightly to the right to clear his line of sight over the clerk’s shoulder to several room keys, each hanging in their own designated pigeon hole. “If one’s available.”
The stiff-necked concierge’s side glance indicated eyes in the back of his head were unnecessary to visualize the scene behind him. “I believe we may have a room vacant until the end of the week, possibly.”
A precise about-face, punctuated with a click of the heels, set into motion the room selection process. The man's hand slowly glided past the upper keys, which offered guests larger rooms and views of K street before fluttering downward to the bottom row. Dusty number 2 jangled from its small brass hook and slid across the polished front desk.
“I’m in luck! Very good.” Retrieving the pen, Scott picked up where he left off by completing the c, followed by o-t-t-L-a-n-c-e-
“That’s right.” An r joined the e and the quill pen returned home. “Scott Lancer.”
With the skill of a back alley magician, the concierge's fingers snatched up cobwebby number 2 and made it vanish from the desk. A slight sway of the metal fob as it returned to the hook was the only evidence that it’d left the pigeonhole. Completing the magic trick, a hand took flight, delicately palmed room number 11 and -
- a new key materialized. “Our finest room, Mr. Lancer, awaits to provide outstanding comfort during your stay in our fair city.”
Scott’s scrutinizing eyes determined the only item missing from the clerk’s presentation was a silver platter.
Embarrassment birthed a watered down apology as the man tugged at his tightened collar. “Inadvertent errors are rare but, alas, unavoidable.” A throat cleared for a final confession. “I thought you’d be older.”
“So I’ve been told.”
Redirection commenced. “Ah! And let’s not forget” - The concierge’s finger tapped a temple bringing attention to his impeccable memory - “An impressive correspondence arrived for you early this morning.”
The envelope, which also occupied the 11th wooden compartment, traveled to the desk and reunited with its Ebner Hotel key. Relieved to see it wasn’t a telegram describing Kinsey’s latest shenanigan in ten words or less, Scott examined the envelope to determine what made it impressive - certainly not its plain brown color or the cursive lettering of his name on the front. Flipping the envelope over revealed the answer - an ornate S solidified in deep red wax.
S for Stanford.
Similar to the appearance of room key 11, an ornate letter opener magically lent its services via the open palm of the concierge. Evidently, S was well known at the Ebner Hotel. Slicing the upper edge of the envelope, Scott removed the single delicate piece of paper and read.
My dear Mr. Lancer,
Will you favour us with your company at dinner tomorrow eve at half-past seven? Leland and I should not consider it complete without your presence. I will take no denial.
8th & North Street, October 19th
Scott had hoped this venture with Stanford would be strictly a business meeting held in a boardroom. No special treatment. No favors granted. No favors expected in return. However, less than thirty minutes upon arrival in Sacramento, formal had evolved to informal with a dinner invitation.
I will take no denial.
One positive note: no mention of a billiards rematch. Scott’s quick glance up revealed Jane Stanford’s note attracted the curious.
Spying eyes quickly averted. “Would you desire to pen a response, Mr. Lancer?”
“I would if privacy is an amenity offered here at the Ebner.”
With hotel stationary sheepishly handed over, Scott elected to balance a casual reply with one of proper respect.
Dear Mrs. Stanford,
I shall have much pleasure in dining with you and Mr. Stanford tomorrow at half-past seven.
Until then, yours truly,
“Shall I inform our maître d' what time you wish to dine with us this evening?”
Scott smiled. Next to an inflated ego, forgone conclusions were the man’s worst enemy. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll be enjoying a meal at the Arcade Hotel tonight.”
Imaginary strings tugged at the corners of the concierge’s mouth to form a straight line, while an invisible pulley from above raised one heavy eyebrow. “The Arcade?” The spoken words suggested a name used by the livery boy for the outhouse behind the stables. “Sir, are you aware the Ebner Hotel serves only the finest prime rib, complemented with wine from the El Pinal vineyards?”
“I am.” A folded response to Mrs. Stanford was tucked into the envelope proudly displaying the hotel’s monogram in the upper right-hand corner. “I’m also aware a fine double-stacked roast beef sandwich smothered in horseradish and a glass of Westcott red is not.” Scissoring the note between his index and middle finger, Scott held it inches from the clerk’s nose. “Would it be possible to have this delivered to the Stanford mansion in a timely fashion?”
Watching the concierge pinch the corner of the note and remove it from its bearer, Scott remembered a nine-year-old-boy plucking stewed eels floating in his soup with the same finesse.
“We wish a room for the evening.” An elderly couple, weariness drawing lines on their faces, stepped up to Scott’s right.
“Do you have a reservation?” The clerk’s tone already judged the man and woman sub-par to the hotel standards of preferred patrons.
Scott rolled his eyes while retrieving a small leather pouch from the inside pocket of his coat. Counting out enough bills to pay for the week, he laid the currency on the desk as old number two landed in front of the tired travelers.
“Please, Mr. Lancer. Your money's no good here.” The concierge’s oily, satisfied smile smeared across his face. “Your lodging is courtesy of Mr. Leland Stanford.”
“I see.” Afternoons spent at the Union Club listening to his grandfather and associates speak of good business deals taught Scott good deals usually come with attached strings. Stanford financing a week’s stay in Ebner’s finest room wasn’t a string. It was a rope.
Folding the bills neatly in half, Scott rounded the end of the counter to perform his own magic trick. Stuffing the money in the upper pocket of a fine tapestry vest made an oily, satisfied smile vanish into thin air. Then, in the style of Shay McLoughlin’s Three-Card Monte, Scott snagged room key 9 from its hook and slid it into his pocket. Turning and with a quick shuffle of his hands across the polished desk -
-number 2 changed to a number 11, beautifully engraved on a metal fob.
Scott’s grin accompanied his bow and click of the heels while addressing the older couple. “Sir. Ma’am. Your room key. Compliments of the Transcontinental Railroad.”