He had not lost everything, he still had his horse and saddle. Okay, he had more than that if you include the Winchester with its scree-scarred stock and barrel and his blanket-roll strapped to the rear of the saddle. Not forgetting the clothes and boots he stood up in. Or even the fedora clinging to the back of his head and the loose leather jacket, also scree-scarred and now with a split seam under his right arm-pit. All-in-all he was quite well off, considering. Even better, he still had a few coins that failed to escape when he fell.
The one thing he had wanted to lose was his wife. He had left her in New York. As far as he knew she was still there but she still sat in his mind most of the time. Any new settlement he came to he would see her in the distance or dissembled in saloon mirrors.
Drifting westwards, the painted clapboarded houses eventually relented and streets lost their metalling. Towns shrank, buildings shrank and rough weather boards vied with brightly imported planks thrown into a square building leaning on or recessed into its neighbour with their raised platforms. Walkways, running the buildings length until they stop and drop your feet into the mud or dust of the intervening alley or the adjoining road. If it merits the name. And he had drifted, declined as the towns had and now sat at the edge of this nowhere outpost.
Horse and rider were beside the sign post with its black-painted sign, “welcum to Silver City”. Both looked at the chewed mud of a road that led through the centre. Each side was strewn with rumps of numerous horses tied to hitch-rails, waiting with heads down or nudging their neighbour impatiently. Between these pods were wagons and carts in various shape and condition, usually with horses attached whilst owners were off about their business or pleasure. And lining the road, soiled-white against the blackened, horse-soiled rut of a road were the tents. Some quartering tents, old army billeting tents; a couple of canteen tents that offered food and drink and one that was divided by fly sheets into compartments each containing a chair and table with washing bowl and large jug. One or two of these little acloves had high sided galvanised hip-baths in addition. Within this tent was also the boiler for heating water and the men and a few women carrying hot water or cleanish towels to those in the throes of ablutions. Or maybe emptying the basins and baths and picking towels out of the mud. Or just maybe scrubbing the backs or the fronts of the men in need.
The two looked at the scene, calm from a distance. At the white, silvery, spiked tents.
“Forward,” he said quietly and gently tapped his heels into the horse.
He was mostly ignored as he passed the first tents and the others, as they proceeded in a sedate manner along the main street. The horse picking his hooves well out of the mud each time before seemingly placing them tentatively down again. Mud that sometimes allowed a hoof to sink its full depth as his weight piled it down.
The canvas buildings gave way to a half-built plank and pitch structure that already had its “Livery” sign in place over a lintelled opening. The stabling for the horses was still open to the sky, waiting for the beams of a roof to be extended across the space before winter set in. Men were hauling planks and beams off carts to be stacked on the mud of the yard or raised up by pulley to arch over the stabling. Words and calls came and went as they had proceeded past the ‘Canteen’, the ‘bath-house’ and a few more tents with boards hung on flaps saying ‘beds’ or ‘no beds’. Each side a hubbub of activity, a rush to finish, whatever, before the weather set in.
He said “stop”, pulled minutely on the bit and dropped the reins as the horse stopped outside a wooden facade with its canvas covered windows and half-draped canvas sheet allowing entrance through the space for double-doors. The sign above, red painted, said ‘drink and eat’.
The rider dismounted stiffly, easing his leg over and down. He secured his balance before letting go of the pommel and looped the reins to the rail. Bizarrely he felt the need to brush dust off his jacket front and sleeves before shouldering through the drape of the canvas door, catching his hat as it was knocked sideways from his head. Along the back wall was a table, on trestles, that stretched across almost the whole of the bar-room. Scattered round the room were the ubiquitous tables and chairs, most occupied by lounging men in conversation, drink in or close to hand. The space was large, the walls were timbered and posted and the ceiling was fresh-beamed and lintelled. But the roof was canvas, light glinting through two small holes where the ridge folded over the wooden joints. At the makeshift bar he looked back and up at the ceiling.
“The wind blew it off, the roof”. Said the man on a stool behind the bar.
“And the windows and door?” he queried as he put his hat on the bar and felt to see if he still had money.
“Naw, not made yet. Losing the roof cussed that. Shingles just got blown away. Day as calm as mustard but night wind just ripped through and all; gone. Part-finished, see. Shouldna left it part-finished. Beer? All we got today, your lucky to get that. Or coffee. Still got coffee” . He had not moved and seemed disinclined to do so.
Picking through the coins, he asked for a coffee.
“Over there”. The immobile bar tender nodded fractionally to two enamelled pots on a black stove. ” The one on the right is yesterday’s, T’other is today’s”. He sniffed heartily, “Mug and cloth”, and nodded in the opposite direction, to the collection on the high trestle board nearest the stove.
Prudently he used the cloth to protect his hand from the hot handle and poured into a mug on the side. The heat was pushing through the material by the time he replaced the pot on the stove.
“Ten cents!”, the barman called. Noting the hesitation he continued, ” free refill”. He leaned forward and picked up the coin slid towards him. “You comin’ or goin’ ?
“If it’s gold your after it’s up the valley, about two days. It’s silver here but it’s all staked out unless you buy in”.
The coffee was too hot and too bitter, thick. He stopped trying to drink it and just blew across the top of the mug to raise some steam and cooling. The steam hit his skin and soaked in rapidly.
“Any work around?”
” Livery. Ain’t no law, no judge ‘cept circuit, no minister cept circuit, it’s the same man. There’s me and the bath-house and I ain’t busy”.
“Roof?”. He gestured his mug up to the canvas roof.
“I said; no shingles. The boards are due tomorrow, shingles whenever. Livery, ask there. Ask Daniel”.
At last the bartender stood up to fill some glasses brought by one from a group at the table. He moved the two paces away and twisted the wooden taps to fill both glasses at once. He was tall, very tall and his long thin faced matched his gaunt limbs and slight frame. ” Wonder he’s got the strength to move”, ran through the man’s mind as he managed to drink the now cooler coffee.
“I’ll come back for the refill.” he called to the barman’s back. A shrug in reply.
The thud of his feet on the floor caused slight bounce in the boards balanced across piers to keep away from the topsoil, the damp of winter. Outside he loosened the horse and walked it through the mud toward the Livery stable to find it some fodder and hopefully stabling. The first for some time.
Of course there was room, always room for another payment. The horse was put in the large stall with several other horses, feed and water and a promise for brushing down. Almost the last of the shiny coins scattered away.
Down to choices again. Food, wash, sleep. He looked at his pocket watch and clipped the cover shut while he decided. Wash, then food, maybe, if the coins held out. Crossed the street, idling his way round a wagon and a couple of riders and stepping over a scarily deep mud-hole to the bath-house. He looked over to the canteen as he followed his man leading him to a designated wash-basin, a towel thrown like a bandolier over his shoulder.
He saw the men in their chequered wool shirts and jackets and some women in their long brown skirts and assorted knitted jackets or cardigans over white or grey blouses. All of them busied with food, making or serving or clearing tables and sorting the clutter into manageable lots. One or two just standing talking. One of them, arm raised high and twisting round a tent pole raised her head in laughter at another’s comment. Chin up she turned her head to deflect her laughter away from the others. As she looked over they snatched glances. She stopped, lowered her head and turned back to her companion, raised arm dropping down to rest on the tie-line of the apron on her hip. He ignored the image of his wife, continued to his canvas cell and a brief, hot wash.
Cleaner and unwilling to ignore food longer he nevertheless bypassed the canteen next door and returned to the coffee at the bar.
“I’m back for my refill”, received a shrugged sign of recognition so filled a mug from the other coffee pot this time. The taste was as bitter, as hot but in itself not quite so thick.
“Do you have food?”
“Soon”. Another reply thrown backwards as beer was decanted from barrels.
He now felt hungry enough to share his horse’s haybag but was too weary to move elsewhere so he wandered to a chair and collapsed into it. Mug slopped a little as it hit the table; tough. Someone was going round swapping oil lamps, old ones for new. Or rather empty ones for filled and he watched them idly.
“Okay gents and ladies, leftovers have arrived.” A woman’s voice projected through the room. The woman, two women, three women pushed through the door and hurried to the bar at the back. Each carried a tray covered in a white cloth, each one wafting a meaty, beefy smell. “it’s meat stew, beans, potatoes or nothing.”
The three women thumped their trays on the wood and the man at the rear crashed the final tray of metal plates and forks down.
From around the room men were standing and forming a queue, surprisingly orderly despite the raised tones of their voices. It would seem he wasn’t the only one hungry. Now seated, spreadeagled in the chair he had lost all desire, energy, to rise and even the need to eat was somewhat overtaken by lethargy. And anyway he had as good as no money.
He watched the line dwindle. Each man in turn throwing coins into the tray, sometimes getting change, sometimes a smile or comment from one of the women and always a plate of food. The man had just poured himself another coffee and sagged down onto his chair when a plate rattled onto the table. A hand pushed the stew and beans closer to him, the fork tucked into the stew clunked off, onto the table. His eyes followed the line of the arm to the shoulder and the frill of material to her neckline and face. She stepped back as he looked up.
“This one is on the house.”
He looked and saw the untidy hair whisped at all angles round her face and her cheeks glowing in the heat of the crowded room.
“You look hungry”, she held his eyes, daring him to respond, hoping she did not look too red from her blushing.
He recognised her as the woman he had noticed earlier, “Thanks”.
She brushed her hands down the front of her pinafore and fiddled briefly at the waistband, “Okay, welcome”. Pushed hopelessly at hair that sprang away from prodding fingers and returned to her two companions. She stood with her back to him.
The coffee was cooler and he sipped it, thoughtlessly, then set his attention to the food.
Back in the livery stable he has checking the hooves and shoes on his horse, Grey, and making conversation. “Well, they seem good”, as he released the last hoof.
The horse’s head turned to look back at him then nonchalantly returned to the hay bale. Grey shuffled his hind and pushed at the man. “I wish you wouldn’t do that”, he slapped the broad rump and it pushed back again. The man grinned briefly and moved to the block where his saddle and kit were sitting.
Quickly loosing the buckle and opening the flap he looked in and picked out the spur. Not for the first time he looked at it. Bent, strapless but still with its seven-spiked wheel, slightly angled on bent spindle. It was a memento he did not need. He knew its owner. He looked at it as a reminder, a stoker, a kindler, a token of revenge. Looking at it had no effect. Knocking the silver star with a finger it moved briefly before catching and stopping on the frame. He shook the spur slightly and the star wobbled and dropped to its centre of gravity, one broken point vertical. Eyes still intent on the star but mind empty. Strangely empty. The past just vacant, emotionless.
“Maybe it’s time to put it away”. A snuffle from the horse seemed agreement so he pushed the spur back into the saddlebag and hooked the two buckles. Leaning over, he released the case his rifle was in, hoisted it and the saddlebags in his other hand and limped slightly as he walked across the street to the tent grandly named ‘Hotel’ where he was bunking down.
see tags: Abbott’s Road; Grey Riding