Happy New Year, Mr. Pliskin
By Kevin Gonzalez
When it comes to picking the proper time for having a new year, thought Solomon Pliskin, as he stood in front of his second-hand goods store one September evening, we Jews did it right. What good is a new year that begins in the dead of winter’s darkness and clammy coldness? No, better it should be when the days are warmer, full of light still, and the fields ripe with the fruits of labor, the time that they call Fall. Soon his house would be filled with the smell of fresh challah, the braided bread of the season, and roasting chicken that made up the celebratory meal cooked by his wife, Hannah, and daughter, Rachel, as Rosh Hashanah began.
Standing just five and half feet tall and slight of build, Solomon was neither a boastful nor a vain man. Most of the time, he carried his conviction, like his faith, hidden from sight, much as he wore his pocket watch. A legacy from his father, Moses, the wind-up timepiece lay in his vest pocket, its steel case burnished bright from the countless times it rubbed against the cloth lining whenever he withdrew it to check the time. No gold or even silver for Moses Pliskin, a pragmatic and practical man. Steel was sturdier and more fitting to a working man. It was neither decoration nor adornment – it was a tool that measured a man’s hours of productivity and progress.
The fact that it was cheaper than either gold or silver had not escaped his notice, either.
And although he was not one to call attention to his faith and thought nothing of breaking Shabbat, the Sabbath, to do business, the elder Pliskin had taken the time and trouble to have a small mogen david – the six-pointed Jewish star – embossed into its lid that protected the watch’s crystal. And he took the trouble to have inscribed in Hebrew around the star, the words "My Lord, My Rock, and My Redeemer."
It was Solomon’s habit to murmur that entreaty as he held the watch before opening it, the thumb of his right-hand caressing the star as he did so. It was the closest to worship that he came to in this new land of the Arizona Territory. There were Jews like himself, but not enough to form a minyan, the 10-man group required by Jewish custom for worship. A shul, or temple, for the community to worship and to study the Torah? Not in his lifetime. But maybe by the time his son Jacob came to manhood …
Grocer Nate Baumgartner had another reason for it not happening. "The others in town might not like it. They get scared of what they do not know. And perhaps they find other places and people with whom they are comfortable to spend their money," he once observed.
Recalling the memory, Solomon nodded, and pocketed his watch.
The movement attracted the attention of Panacea deputy sheriff Verdell Hubbard, whose nerves had been honed to a keen edge by the happenings of the week. Patrolling the town to gauge its temper, he had spotted the merchant standing in front of his store, "Just Like New," although pretty much everybody called it Second-Hand Sol’s. Hubbard admired the man for standing up to a bully last year and making him back down and apologize, armed with nothing but his resolve and a gun that turned out to be made out of chocolate. People are always taking the gun that won the West, he thought, but it also takes guts, grit and gumption, all of which he was sure that Pliskin had in his personal inventory of character.
"Good evening, Mr. Pliskin."
"Good evening, Deputy Hubbard. L’Shana Tova, Happy New Year, to you."
"Guess I’ll just stick to American," laughed the deputy as he drew closer. "My tongue won’t get tangled up so much. Happy New Year to you, too, Mr. Pliskin."
Something in the deputy’s tone belied the greeting. "Things are not so happy?"
"No." Verdell frowned. "You’ve probably heard about the ruckus over Noconah. Things are quiet enough now, but I think that it’s a simmering kind of quiet just before things come to a boil. I’m hoping to keep the lid on, if that happens."
Pliskin knew about the Yavapai Indian called Noconah. Old but spry enough to get around on his own, his rough-hewn face a fixture around the town’s bars, the Indian had been found in the vicinity of an alley way robbery. Yancy Clavell, a silver miner, was found beaten and robbed. Noconah was wearing Clavell’s jacket at the time of his arrest by Sheriff Wade Abernathy, but didn’t have any of the money that the miner should have had after selling his claim.
"Didn’t make much sense, but Wade jailed him, more for his own safety than anything else. Noconah kept saying he found the jacket and took it to keep warm at night. Everybody else seems to think he stashed the loot after he stole it from Clavell. Doc Findlay says that Yancy is in a coma, a deep sleep. He may make it and then again, he may not. Nobody can question him until he comes to. In the meantime, there’s lot of talk around the bars of stringing Noconah up. I’m hoping that keeping him off the streets might be the safest thing for that old Indian. He’s just a harmless nuisance."
"If anything, he does the town a service," observed Pliskin.
"He gives certain people, who have the need, the right to feel superior."
A young lad came running down the street, his drumming heels raising dust. "Deputy Hubbard, come quick! A lynch mob is heading for the jail!"
"And me short-handed because the sheriff went to Phoenix to testify at a trial. I’ll see you later, Mr. Pliskin." Verdell ran back toward the jail, one hand on the holstered British Webley revolver at his waist.
The thought of a mob disturbed Pliskin like a panther’s growl spooked horses.
He remembered the pogroms in Russia that had driven his father and family to America many years ago. He remembered his father explaining why he liked this country so much: "Because here they do not hunt us down and kill us."
He turned his back and rested one hand on the knob of his shop’s door. It is none of my affair, he thought. I am no officer of the law. I am new to this town, a stranger in a strange land. There’s nothing I can do. Really.
Solomon sighed. That’s probably what your gentile neighbors told themselves back then, he thought, when the mobs and Cossacks marched. It’s none of our business. Just look the other way. There’s really nothing we can do. So they kept their mouths shut – and their hearts.
He was still arguing with himself as he trudged up the street after the deputy.
Pliskin soon saw that Hubbard had stationed himself between the mob and his office. The deputy held his revolver down by his side.
At the head of the mob, some of who held barrel staves and torches, stood Cyrus Lofton, an accusing arm pointed. "Cut him loose or we’ll go through you and get him ourselves." A small rancher, whom luck had never favored, Lofton was an imposing sight, all fang and fury.
"The only thing I’ll cut loose with is this Webley," warned Verdell. "If a jury finds Noconah guilty, he’ll be punished as the law dictates. Leave him be."
"Let’s save the town the cost of some rope and hang him ourselves!" roared Lofton, looking back the crowd for approval.
"A piece of rope costs almost nothing, but a man’s life is precious."
"Who said that?" Lofton scanned the crowd.
"Just me, a man most of you call Second Hand Sol." Pliskin stepped forward as he spoke.
"You taking his side?" Lofton jerked a thumb back at the deputy.
"I am taking the side of the law, a law given to my people by God thousands of years ago." Pliskin kept walking until he and Hubbard were both facing the mob.
"There’s a rifle in the office," muttered Verdell.
Pliskin shook his head. "A rifle for Rosh Hashanah? No, not during our high holy days. Not even if it was made only of chocolate. You are the expert with guns. Let my weapons be my words."
Pliskin raised his voice, speaking in a tone he had reserved for juries back in his own country. "Maybe it is because I feel kinship with Noconah that I stand here. His tribe wanders the desert, nomads. My people, often called tribes, they too wandered the desert. The Indians hunt for food to sustain them. My people searched for freedom and truth. A home for the Indians is never something they can take for granted, ever since the white man claims everything for his own. And my own people have been persecuted in so many countries. So for this, maybe, I feel kinship."
"You mean you’re both heathens, don’t you?" jeered Lofton.
"Heathens? Yes, if you mean we both believe in a God different from yours. But my God commands me that to be a good Jew, I cannot claim to be free from oppression if any man or woman is not free. Right now, my world is Panacea and right now, that man who is threatened, who is oppressed, is Noconah.
"In Russia, where I come from, nobody stood up for me when the mobs came for my family and other Jews. They too carried sticks and torches. And now I cannot stand by and let this happen. Let this be my mitzvot, my good deed for this time of year."
Pliskin pointed to the crowd. "Mr. Lofton, I know you only by sight. But you, Emil Jahnson, I know you because you come to my store looking for a bargain on a cook stove so your wife does not have to work so hard. And you, Hank Matthews, you bought a repaired saddle for your son, Tommy, so he can ride that pony you buy for his birthday. Clarence Mickelson, Ben Caruthers, Matt Franks, you know me because you can make your dollars go farther because of the prices in my store. You buy my wares. Now take my advice: Go home. Tonight begins my people’s new year. Share the joy that I feel with your own families. Don’t start a new year with old hatreds. I ask this as a favor from men, just men, who know better."
One by one, he called them by name, appealing to them. And one by one, they left, eyes downcast in shame. Torches and staves littered the street in front of the jail.
Lofton looked at a mob that was leaking men, then turned toward Pliskin. "You think you won? Not as long as I draw breath." Lofton hoisted a long-barreled Colt and moved forward.
"Drop it, Cyrus," snapped Hubbard, cocking his revolver.
"OK, just don’t ---" Lofton knelt to place the gun on the ground, then snatched a derringer out of his coat pocket with his left hand and fired at the deputy.
Pliskin, who saw the look in Lofton’s eyes, tried to push Hubbard out of the way. As the stingy gun fired, he felt a mule kick in the side and then he felt nothing…
When he regained consciousness, the first thing Solomon saw was Dr. Francis Xavier Findlay, who was holding his father’s watch. "Don’t go moving sudden-like," cautioned the physician. "A derringer bullet may not have much oomph, but it can hurt like the dickens. Your watch may have stopped it from penetrating, but you have a bruise the size of a dinner plate over your ribs."
He handed the watch to Pliskin, who lay propped up in a bed in the doctor’s office. Automatically, his right thumb caressed the now-cratered and dented steel casing that had stopped Lofton’s bullet.
"What about Mr. Lofton?"
"I shot him," answered Hubbard, who had been lounging by the office door. "He wasn’t lucky enough to have a watch in his vest pocket." He shrugged.
"Found this on him, too." A rawhide pouch, bearing the initials Y.C., jingled in the deputy’s hand. "Looks like the swag from robbing Yancy. He’d been having a hard time with the ranch and I guess seeing all that money in Yancy’s hands was too much for him. I figure Lofton thought he could lay the blame on Noconah and then once he was hung, everybody would just assume that the missing money would never be found."
"I want to thank you for taking that bullet," said Hubbard. Then his tone hardened. "But don’t make a habit of it. You were lucky this time. I get paid to get into harm’s way. You don’t."
"Luck had nothing to do with it," answered Pliskin, gazing at the watch. "It was faith."
"You’re braver than me. I put my faith in lead and powder," said Hubbard, patting his revolver.
Groaning, Pliskin sat up. "If you could give me a hand, I fear I am late for Rosh Hashanah supper. My family awaits me. Please do me the honor of being my guest."
"Be glad to." Hubbard helped him up and allowed Pliskin to lean against him. He took him downstairs to where Doc had prepared his wagon to take Solomon home.
The deputy cleared his throat. "Uh, let me see, I’ve been practicing this for the last 10 minutes." As if reciting a poem, he said, " La. Shan. A. Toe. Va. That’s it," he smiled. "Happy New Year, Mr. Pliskin."
As the deputy drove him home, Pliskin thought to himself, if Mr. Hubbard keeps learning Hebrew like this, we may have a minyan sooner than anyone expected …