Read an Excerpt
It was almost dawn. Brendan O’Connor gripped the reins, struggling to control the nervous mare without slowing her down. Up and down Market Street wagon wheels gritted over the cobblestones. Drivers were hauling produce, laundry, milk, everything the hotels and restaurants would need for the day’s business.
Brendan had worked hard to get this route and he wasn’t going to lose it. His boss had the kind of temper no one wanted to set off. Two things made old man Hansen furious: losing money and late deliveries. Fancy San Francisco hotels like the Baldwin and the Palace would find another bakery if their wealthy guests had to wait for their fresh-baked bread and pastries.
The streetlamps had been turned off a few minutes before and the city was enveloped by a deep blue predawn glow. Brendan shivered. The damp early morning chill seeped through his worn woolen jacket. He looked up at the fading crescent moon. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Maybe it would be warmer today. Still, he needed to find a better blanket for his cot soon.
So far, no one had objected to his sleeping in a corner of the furniture warehouse. Kelly Rourke, the night watchman at the warehouse, was happy enough to look the other way. When Kelly wanted to slip down to MacMurrough’s to buy a whiskey, he’d shake Brendan awake to keep an eye on things until he got back. It seemed to be working out. Brendan hoped so. He didn’t want to have to move for a while.
The mare pranced along even though the wagon was especially heavy today. There were three casks of olive oil Finelli’s Restaurant was paying him two bits to deliver to the Palace Hotel. Old man Hansen would fire him if he knew Brendan was using the wagon to deliver other merchants’ goods, but he needed Finelli’s money. Every cent went into the leather pouch he had hidden behind a loose brick in the wall of Old St. Mary’s Church. The pouch held everything that was dear to Brendan—his mother’s wedding ring, his father’s pocket watch, and the fifteen dollars he had managed to save over the last three years.
Brendan crossed himself and kissed his St. Christopher medal, then let it slide back down beneath his shirt. God would keep his money safe. He had gotten in the habit of hiding it when he was going to the mission school, back when his father was still alive. No one’s pennies had been safe when Liam O’Connor had wanted a drink. Brendan had been on his own since his father had died—and it was better this way.
“May his soul rest in peace,” Brendan whispered fiercely, as he always did to close off thoughts of his father.
The gong of an approaching cable car made the mare twitch her ears. Brendan pulled her closer to the curb and looked back over his shoulder. Dolan, a boy he had known most of his life, was whipping his team up Fourth Street, swinging a wide left turn onto Market. Brendan could hear the tall milk cans clanking against each other in the back of the high-sided dairy wagon.
The blue-uniformed cable car conductor shouted an angry warning. Dolan was already dragging at the reins, forcing his horses against the singletree as the cable car clattered past.
“Morning!” Dolan shouted, still grinning at the conductor’s curses.
Brendan shook his head as Dolan got closer. “Hasn’t Mr. Burke fired you yet?”
“Me?” Dolan retorted, reining in a little. “He couldn’t run that place without me.”
Cracking his whip, Dolan swung toward the center of the street. Brendan watched as the near-side horse struck its hoof against the tracks. It faltered but didn’t stumble. Dolan leaned forward like an engraving of the old stagecoach drivers, snaking his whip over the team’s backs.
Brendan faced front again. Dolan drove like a reckless fool, but you couldn’t help but like him. It was too bad he hadn’t been born fifty years before—he would have made a perfect freighter during the Gold Rush years.
The clatter of the cable car faded as it got farther away. Within an hour the United Railway cars would be coming up the middle of Market Street every few minutes. Brendan wanted to be on First Street by then, south of The Slot. He didn’t trust the mare to stay steady once there were people dodging through the wagon traffic, running to jump onto the cars.
Brendan ignored James Walker’s shout. Walker was a fast-talking dandy who wore cheap suits and was always looking for a free meal. Brendan had made the mistake of giving him bread once and the man had never forgotten it. Just behind Walker, a woman with her coat collar turned up against the chill made her way down the sidewalk. Her starched white hemline marked her as a hotel housekeeper. She did not look up as she passed Walker.
“Nothing extra this morning, Walker. Sorry.” Brendan waved and slapped the reins on the mare’s rump. She startled, lunging forward, and for a moment Brendan was afraid one of the oil casks would crash over, but it didn’t. He dragged the reins back and the mare settled into her dancing walk. Brendan heard Walker’s derisive laugh but refused to turn around.
At the Baldwin Hotel, the gray-haired cook made Brendan open every crate, checking the bread. “The crusts yesterday were like rock. I want them buttered.” He looked up at Brendan. “These seem to be fine. But you tell Hansen if he shorts me on butter again, I’ll be around to see him.”
Brendan nodded. He was used to passing on the complaints—and listening to old man Hansen’s explosive reactions. But Hansen always gave in, and he would this time, too. It was worth losing a few cents in butter to keep his clients happy.
Brendan climbed back onto the driver’s bench. The sky was lightening. The first rays of sun struck the top story of the Call Building. At eighteen floors it towered above Newspaper Row—the Chronicle and Examiner buildings were big, but not as tall. Brendan liked delivering there. The newspapermen were always excited, walking the corridors, talking about Chicago, Paris, New York.
Brendan let the mare rise into a spanking trot. He sat up straighter, his chin high. He liked this part of Market Street. The buildings were smooth stone, their cornices elaborately carved. There were elegant triple-globed gas lamps. A few people were on the sidewalks now. The men wore suits of good, dark cloth, their felt bowlers tipped at jaunty angles on their heads. Some of them carried gold-handled canes. Most of them had heavy chains looped beneath their watch pockets.
The mare was still jumpy, but she stood well enough as Brendan hitched her to the iron post in front of the Call Building. Banjo, the old black gelding Brendan had driven when he first started, had never even needed to be tied. Brendan missed him, but old man Hansen insisted he use the mare now. She was finer-bred and made the freshly painted wagon a more impressive turnout.
Brendan opened the rear gate and leaned to slide the crates of mixed rolls toward himself. He stacked them three-high, then lifted them out, whistling to himself as he worked. The service entrance door stood open and Brendan went through.
The usual crowd of errand boys was waiting. They stood back to let him open the first crate, then swarmed forward. Brendan watched as they filled their boxes with rolls. When the first crate was empty, he moved it aside and opened the second. Clemmons, a tall, arrogant boy who annoyed Brendan, raised his usual fuss about the cinnamon buns.
Brendan nodded absently. “I’ll tell Hansen you want more frosting.”
“I’ve asked you to tell him that a dozen times.”
Brendan didn’t bother to answer. Clemmons took his share of the rolls and turned away, his air of self-importance dissolving when he nearly ran into Mr. Malloy.
Malloy was one of the best-known newspapermen in the city. He dodged around Clemmons, ignoring him, then smiled at Brendan. His handlebar mustache lifted to bare white, even teeth.
“Good morning, lad.” Malloy half turned and addressed the crowd of employees. “Never known this boy to be late as long as he has been delivering here. He’s a lesson to us all.” People laughed and shot back good-natured gibes.
Brendan grinned. “Good morning, sir.” He lifted the lid of the third crate just far enough to pick out the best cinnamon bun for Mr. Malloy.
“Ah, that’s a beauty, all right.” Malloy reached into his vest pocket for a nickel. “This is for your trouble.”
“Thank you, sir.” Brendan put the nickel in his pocket. “What news is there today, sir?”
Malloy shook his head, frowning. “Mine disaster in Calais, France. The report said over a hundred were killed. Terrible thing.”
“Hey, Brendan, can you hurry it up? I’ve got to get back to the tenth floor or my boss will kill me.” Cal Richmond stood anxiously next to the half-open crate. His blond hair looked nearly white under the electric lights.
Mr. Malloy smiled and turned back up the hallway, his polished boots clicking on the floor. Brendan watched him walk away, then turned to Cal.
“How many you need today?”
“A dozen ought to do it.”
Cal was only a few years older than Brendan, but he was already a copyboy at the paper. Brendan liked him. Some mornings, they had time to talk a little. Cal wanted to become a reporter like Mr. Malloy. Brendan envied him. Being a reporter would be a lot more exciting than driving a bakery delivery wagon.
“See you tomorrow, Brendan?”
Brendan laughed. “Unless Mary McDermitt is right.”
Cal smiled. “Mary McDermitt of the Flying Rollers—”
“—of the House of David,” they said in unison.
When they stopped laughing, Brendan shook his head. “My father used to say there was always someone predicting the end of the world.”
“He was right.” Cal gathered up his boxes. He waved and started down the hallway.
Brendan counted what was left in the third box. He pulled his list from his jacket pocket and wrote how many rolls he had handed out so that Mr. Hansen could bill the newspaper at the end of the month. Old man Hansen would know if Brendan was off by even one.
Brendan scooped up the empty crates and hurried back out onto the sidewalk. The mare had shied at something and now stood kitty-corner in the traces. Brendan glanced upward. The sun was angling down the brick and stone buildings, working its way toward the street.
Brendan backed the mare around slowly. There was a little more traffic now. Up the street on the other side of the block, he could see a few men on their way into the Chronicle building. After hours, every whiskey bar within a half mile was full of newsmen arguing about politics and the state of the world.
A dark uniform caught Brendan’s attention. He nodded at Officer Kerrigan, then looked quickly away. He didn’t want to answer questions about where he was living or how he was making out. Officer Kerrigan had known his father. Every policeman in San Francisco had known his father.
Brendan shook the reins over the mare’s back. He had no time for daydreaming or dallying. His next stop was the Palace Hotel—the biggest and most important account on this route. Brendan loved the massive building, with its indoor courtyards and gardens. He had talked to several people who worked on the Palace grounds. They had told him about the fireplaces and toilets in every room.
Brendan looked up at the shining windows. Someday, he would stay at the Palace, a gentleman traveler with the taste and money to appreciate the fine wines and the hours-long banquets that included ten or fifteen elaborate courses. Someday.