Noah Smith, Buggy ride to somewhere. (continuation of: ‘Abbott’s Road’ stories)
It was a long journey. Both Martha and Sarah took turns with the reins of the buggy while he soon found it less painful to sit rather than try to lie on the seat behind them. They talked, he sulked and pursed his lips a lot to hold back the painful grunts as they bumped through ruts in the road. They camped and used the few provisions Martha had grabbed from the canteen before they left Silver City.
They travelled slowly to be sure the man’s wounds didn’t split or infect and he and the horses could rest. They called at farms, scattered staging posts and the occasional huddle of buildings hopefully called ‘city’ and the more romantic ‘ville’.
By day three the women had run out of their own conversation and almost abandoned trying to get more than words of acknowledgement from the man. Sarah was clicking the horse along, he sat beside her, Martha sat behind, a hand on each side of the seat to retain her balance.
“Anyway.” Said Sarah, breaking through the noise of the wheels, buggy and horse-farts.
“What’s your name? Apart from grunts and groans you’ve said nothing.” She continued into the silence, “ And if you don’t say, I’ll call you something you really don’t want to be known as!”
Martha was amused at Sarah’s emphatic threat, knew some of the names she could use. Plus the fact that she, Martha, already knew his name via the papers in his bag, or rather, wallet.
“I’ll count to ten, slowly.” Sarah looked across at the man, his beard now shaggy and his clothes covered in the dirt and dust of the road. As were her’s, despite the few changes of clothes she and Martha had brought with them. She counted, slowly, keeping an eye him each time and wondering what name she could get away with, “ Come on, it’s no big deal. I’m looking forward to choosing your new name!”
She only got to “three!”
“Noah.” He grumbled at her.
“That wasn’t so hard. I even bet you’ve got a last name too!”
Martha waited for more but neither spoke. He adjusted his position and Sarah clapped the reins to push the horse a little. She, Martha had looked after this man, argued with him over his wounds and his horse, and his travelling with them but had never asked his name. He hadn’t offered. Nor him hers for that matter. But they had settled into an odd routine of patient and nurse and comfortable companions, accepting each other without much fuss. ‘or even conversation,’ she thought.
“How far is it to Portland?” Sarah asked into the air.
“Weeks” he said despondently. She had no idea how true this was so kept quiet.
Martha agreed, in theory, but hoped the railway had connected in the east-to-west route they had been so loudly trumpeting. She also hoped the buggy would survive the journey to a town with a railway. That would save some time on the road but would cost them more than just their precious money.
The weather mostly held for those days before they hit a working railhead; with a partly built station building. Half the joists were still glowing in the sun when they saw it at the edge of Sandpoint. A single track that straight-lined out of the new station yard then curved into the distance; rust-topped rails that had not had enough wheel-friction to raise their shine. The only sign of activity when the dust covered buggy and passengers drew close was the water dripping out of the canvas piping of the water tower by the one siding with its huge pile of logs.
They approached. The women looked at each other. The man, Noah, took the scene in, shook his head, closed his eyes and just waited. He had resigned himself to being organised and ordered around by the two women. Initially he refused to admit to himself that the rush and rattle of the buggy in that first dash out of Silver City had been anything but annoying. He was almost out of strength to sit up after a couple of hours and finally had asked to stop and rest. As he climbed down he had fallen, fainted and woke with his chest re-bandaged. He was lying in the shade of the buggy. From then he realised he was in the care of two women who were much more capable than he was. So, he did as he was told over the days they travelled and nights they stopped.
Thankfully, by the time they stopped at the rail-head he felt physically much better. His wound no longer seeped but was an itching scab that he daren’t scratch. He always felt hungry, a sure sign of improvement. Lastly, he was well aware that his horse was depressed at having to hitch along with the buggy for endless days and only having cursory attention.
“Now,” he thought as the buggy stopped and the horse in front snuffled. Grey came to a doleful stop at the rear. “I can grab a room, wash, eat and get away! “. And then “Portland!” Shaking his head again.
Nobody appeared from inside the station. All was as silent as the dust that settled around them.
“There must be people in the town. Let’s go look.” Martha gee’d the horse into action and they followed the track to the buildings a hundred yards away.
The short street was almost deserted, the chill in the air keeping the boardwalks empty except for those running errands. The few buildings were mostly new with bright shingles proclaiming ‘hardware (rooms)’ or ‘dentist/undertaker’ tucked between the obligatory saloon that also added ‘rooms’ to its boast. In between were two other streets where earlier buildings sidled into the new town. These were the original buildings, now working as sheds, stores and living quarters for those people drafted or drifted in to service the new town buildings springing up; and the railhead.
This had been the end of the line so the tents and followers had been decamped to the next promise of work and money. Unfortunately leaving the station unfinished due to lack of materials and a sudden lack of Company money but a promise to return ‘in-short time’.
They neared the end of the street and heard the gasping tones of a pump-organ working the intro. to a hymn followed by rousing singing. The last building might have been the Livery Stable but the road curved tightly round it and revealed a pristine-white church from where the singing erupted again, hiding the organ notes this time.
“Well, must be more than one in there,” commented Sarah as Martha turned the buggy to face back into the town. The three sat looking at the buildings ahead.
“Saloon or stables?” Martha wasn’t enthusiastic for either, she had banked on getting some sort of ticket from someone at the station. All three had spent the recent days, weeks almost, camping or in friendly homesteaders barns and none felt easy at having to re-enter the real world, as it were. Her fantasy had been to get an immediate ride on the train, to anywhere out of the emptiness of the country.
“The church.” Sarah stated. “The minister, or wife if he has one. We can wait til they finish.”
As they sat a stillness surrounded them, each in their own thoughts and they failed to hear the thumping organ overtaken by the final last words sung in a cross match of choral and hoarse voices as a final ‘Amen’. Nor could they have heard the words of the minister ending the service but they did react a few seconds later to the doors pushed open and the few children bursting out with their exasperated mothers following, each of them followed by the ‘tutting’ of some elders or the unseen smiles of the forgiving.
The three in the buggy turned heads as the children’s movement and shouting broke their brief reverie. For what it was worth, both women smoothed their skirted laps in hope of removing some of the impossible amount of dust and grime they had accumulated over the days. Noah looked at the open doored church and watched as the minister appeared and cheerfully ‘goodbyed’ his miscellaneous flock. When the minister was left with the few who might have been his family or enthusiastic sheep, Noah suggested they go over and talk.
Martha gently walked the horse back towards the edge of the path leading to the little church. Grey, Noah’s horse, was tweaked from his own reverie by the rein tied to the buggy and disdainfully followed on and to stop, having moved the few yards in a three quarter circle. He snorted at the pointlessness of such small movements and prepared to wait yet again as the two women climbed down. Noah waited too, he was too stiff to move easily and too proud to show it to the dispersing congregation.
Both man and horse watched as Martha and Sarah stopped before the minister and his wife. Noah could see the various movements of the group. Their hands meeting in greeting, the slight shuffles and nods of heads and half-turns towards Noah in the buggy and what seemed a desolate wave by Sarah towards the freshly built station building. They were too far away for any sound to carry his way but Noah could see the minister’s eyes contemplating him and imagined the thoughts if not the actual words of the man. Noah had been sitting erect initially but his chest was still painful. The wound was healing on the surface but beneath the roughly sewn lower level, was still knitting, and tearing if he moved too much. And the itching was almost unbearable despite his stoicism. The bandage was still there, mostly to protect from the dust of their travels but also to stop his scratching. Infection would kill him, both women had warned, shouted, at times. His shoulders sagged a little. He wanted to rest but limited it to gripping the support of the front seat with arms straight and locking his elbows to support the weight of his torso. It may have looked a little odd to any watchers but he felt it better than collapsing altogether. “Come on! “ he urged quietly, urgently.
Returned, the women took turns in explaining. “ the store should have a room for you, the minister’s wife insisted the women stayed with them”. He listened.
People moved past, looking at the strangers in the buggy. Not that strangers were unusual, just the transport with its once trim fringe now falling in great loops and the once bright panelling covered in chipped paint and the dust and dirt of the long distance. And the two filthy carpet bags tied down on the back. A buggy was for tripping to church and back, or picnic by the river, not the rough-track driving this had received over the last week or so. Only the chestnut horse standing nonchalantly by the rear wheel looked in good condition, apart from the all-encompassing dust it was covered in.
“And a train is here in two days and leaves the following day. We can sell the buggy and horses at the stables. That will pay your room and all the tickets. And leave some for us. And a donation to the church. And the minister. Same thing. It stops at Sandpoint and Spokane. Didn’t they say Walla Walla? And Pendleton? I know it goes all the way to Portland now. Eventually, that is.”
Noah could feel himself wilting under the strain of sitting as well as the two women’s excitement.
“The minister’s house is that one, next to the church, of course.” Sarah hoisted herself up to the front seat and the springs creaked and see-sawed as she climbed and shifted across to allow Martha to do the same. “We’d better get you that room first. Then take up the minister’s offer. We can see to this old thing and the horses tomorrow.”
She shook the reins. “Hey-up” and they jolted away to the store and room the minister had suggested. Noah shuddered and gripped tighter, shoulders hunching a little more with the jolt through his scabs.
They left him collapsed on a bed above the hardware shop. They had pulled his boots off, dropped his saddlebags by the door with a thud. Next was to drive the few yards to the Livery where they left Grey with instructions for a clean-up, rub-down, food and stabling for two days. With this agreed, Martha arranged to sell the horses and buggy when the train arrived. That way she reckoned on having the money for their tickets to Portland. After this planning episode both women climbed excitedly back onto the buggy and trotted back to the minister’s house and his wife who had promised them a real hot tub to bathe in as soon as they could heat up the water.
Next morning, late, with the sun finally burning the frost away in shimmering steam, Martha and Sarah finished helping with the extra chores they had created. They were in high spirits as they finished rinsing their previously neglected underclothes and squeezed most water out with the heavy wooden rollers of their hosts’ mangle.
“This is what I’m getting as soon as I am settled!” Sarah enthused as she turned the cogged wheel and watched the water oozing out as the clothes moved through the tight rollers. “ I needed one of these back at the saloon. We had to take anything up to the camp laundry for washing if we wanted it mangled. Never did; no stranger getting his hands on my camisoles.” She hesitated, “Well, not unless they…..”. She stopped, realising the minister’s wife might hear and be offended.
With clothes finally pegged and flapping in the sunshine they breezed back into the kitchen for promised coffee and flapjacks with the lady of the house.
They didn’t see Noah walking slowly to the Livery Stable, saddle bags over one shoulder. Or have a slightly aggressive talk and then write a promisery note in the name of Pinkerton for the owner. After which he struggled to saddle Grey, was helped by the stable boy. He rested a few minutes and spoke with the boy. Gave him his last coin as a tip and another token to give to Martha when she came to sell the buggy.
Finally heaving himself aboard Grey and settling more or less upright, “Okay, thanks” as he held out his left hand and was given the reins of Martha’s horse. All three then left the dust of the building for the crisp sunshine. Outside he briefly considered his options, “Damned if I’m going to Portland.” Spokane was the nearest town with a telegraph. He could wire Pinkertons to honour his note. The rail tracks were the shortest route according to the stable boy so he prodded his heels into Grey and they walked towards the railhead tracks. And Spokane.
Sandpoint, Spokane, Walla Walla and Pendleton with a final train ride to Portland.