“Why are you here?”
“I need to make some money, even work if I have to.”
“I can tell that by looking at you. Why are you here you’re no panhandler or miner?”
“I shot the sheriff. In Bomberg. Obviously need to disappear for a while”.
“That’s a long way from here but suppose I just turn you in?”
“Eddy Bruce.” He replied quietly.
“Eddy Bruce”. The cigar butt was ceremoniously dropped into the near-empty glass and they listened to the sizzle as it died, ash breaking and floating, garbage in the glass.
“He’s alive then?”
“Was, four months ago. No guarantee now”. He mentally re-ran the meeting with Eddy. The brief conversation in the livery-stall. Handy place for a conversation if you keep your voice down. The fight, the quiet knife and more blood on his hands.
The saloon owner waved a hand and the bar-tender came over, refilled the whiskey glasses and removed the ashen glass with the cigar-part floating like a buoy in the far off ocean. Silently watching the bartender, considering the stranger’s words, the owner then took out another cigar from his case and spoke, ” You do some business, get paid and leave”, cut the end with a small blade then laid them parallel on the bar and looked intently at the man.
“Fine. How much?”
“Plenty. One job and you can have a lot of free time, just like Eddy.”
“He said you paid well.”
“I do, no worry. Down payment tomorrow and the rest after completion.” He raised his glass, the stranger tipped his glass too and they drank to seal the deal. “Come back in the morning, he’ll give you instructions”. He nodded backwards in the bartenders direction, ” We open at ten, you will have twelve hours, back here, get paid and go.”
Nonchalantly putting his glass down he looked directly at the bar owner, eyes meeting, he spoke one word, “Ten”. Pushing himself up from the table, a quick nod at the man in the faded felt jacket and walked to the door of the saloon, stopped, turned and took a step back toward the table.
The bartender slid his hands below the top of the bar and watched intently.
“I’ll be at the Livery overnight, my horse, the Grey, needs tending. Meet me there, yourself, as you said. Tomorrow, at ten. And dollars, in coin, no gold dust!”
The felted sleeve raised and with a quick nod of acknowledgement the glass was emptied and waved in request for more. The bartender relaxed away from the shotgun and moved to fill the empty glass.
Outside he stepped down from the sidewalk and slipped through the mud and wet of the road and across to the store. He unhooked the spur from his belt and walked to the counter, or rather the boards on trestles with wooden crates lined underneath. At one end was the solid wooden cash box with its draw half out. The bell had tingled on his opening the door and before it repeated itself on closure the woman behind the counter had turned towards him and pushed the drawer shut in one seamless swish of her skirts and hand.
“Hi”, she said.
“Was that for me?” He looked down to the cash box and back to her face.
“And the revolver?”
“Ditto…… That means…”
“That means you know how to use it?”
“Try me.” she flashed back.
“No need. I come in peace, have no gun. Am unarmed”. He raised his jacket conspicuously and swivelled a full circle delicately for her to verify. And for her amusement.
“But that spur could give a nasty prick!”
He placed it on the boards. “I need some horse-oil. I can pay tomorrow and collect the spur.”
“It’s precious is it then?”
“The one, and it’s broken?”. She tried to be scornful.
“Silver is worth cents here, what you need is…”
“Gold. I know, that’s what I will have tomorrow.”
“For the horse, not for you.” She pushed the corked bottle across the boards.
“He’ll be grateful.”
“And keep your fancy spur. Come back tomorrow and you can pay for the coffee too.”
“Yes, thanks for the invitation. Tomorrow, when you come back”. She stared, straight-faced, daring him to respond.
He picked up the bottle of liniment, “Yes ma’m, Tomorrow”, and walked out.
“Jeeze”, she said quietly in an outrush of breath, “Why’d I say that?”
The sun quickly dropped behind the blocks of mountains and the final long shadows filtered by the Livery windows merged into grey twilight then hazed darkness. The moon risen, full and hovering.
He finished grooming the horse and then rubbed liniment onto the muscles, shoulders and haunches. The strong smell causing the horse to peer round and snuffle as each limb was rubbed and finally brushed.
There was enough liniment left in the bottle for him to strip off his shirt and massage some oil into each bicep and the final excess into triceps. Replacing his shirt; buttons buttoned, he started to feel the oil warming his skin and the smell increasing as it warmed.
“I think I had better stay with you tonight, Grey”. The horse did not seem concerned either way as it grabbed a mouth of hay from the bag then slobbered briefly in the water supplied in a small tin bath under the window. The man threw his roll in the opposite corner to where the horse stood, just beside the lowest of the horizontal rails of the stall and lay his saddle as a pillow. He made sure there was plenty of straw under the full length of the blanket, a comfy humped bed in the deepest shadow.
“Don’t you shit on it!” He ordered the horse, picked his rifle out of its sheath and slipped across the passage into the opposite stall to sit, crooked-up in its darkest corner and sleep as best he could with rifle resting over his thighs.
The pony he had chosen to share with was restless with this stranger but the man had been there some time tending his horse and the smell of horse-liniment and the other horses and straw mingled enough to allow both to settle. The man dozing heavily to wake briefly at the snort and snuffle of horses or the cruel pain of sciatica that insisted he stand and quietly rub at the buttock to ease it. The night passed in dribs and drabs. The moon followed its line over the roof of the Livery Stable to hang, like the last of the sun over the silhouette of the mountains. Long shadows, tentative this time, casting over the floors of the stalls.
More shadows, stealing into the stable, sliding round the edge of the doorway. The pony stepped backward at the movement causing the man sitting in the corner of the stall to tense and put a hand to his Winchester. The cigar smell saturating the clothes of the second man reached him and he carefully picked up the rifle, any noise he made covered by the movement of the pony’s feet in the straw and also the snorting of his horse, Grey.
The shadows bulked into people and he watched as one intruder signalled to the other and then entered the stall next to the one where his bedroll lay stretched out.
“Wake up! I want you to see it coming.” and a foot kicked into the bedroll.
“No kidding?”. Both men turned, startled at the voice opposite them. “Falling for a stupid trick like that? At least you are not stupid on your own.” He looked at the saloon owner and spoke again, his eyes focused and his arms tensed for reacting. “Okay Henry?”
The other man stepped forward, out of the box but still only in half-view to the rifle. His arm and hand hidden behind a supporting pole. He leant into the pole, firming his grip on the colt he held. “Eddy’s dead”, he stated flatly.
“He said he was alive” the owner looked over to Henry and back to the stranger with the rifle. “This calls for a smoke. I need a cigar to calm me nerves”. He raised his hands to show they were empty and carefully put a hand to his top pocket, a finger and thumb tweaking out the cigar. He bit the end off, looked at the raw edge of the cigar as he spat out the waste. Jamming the cigar between his teeth and speaking with his mouth full.
“A match, in ma pocket, okay, it’s slow.” Cautiously moved his left hand to his jacket pocket, eyes on the man’s rifle.
Henry lost patience at his companions casualness and impatience got the better of his voice and his anger. “You killed him. Butchered him”. He stiffened away from the pole he was leaning on and reacted to his anger by raising his revolver. Intent on revenge for his brother’s death he had no thought for himself and fired twice.
Each shot flailed into the roof as he was knocked backwards into the wall of the stall. The rifle bullet hitting and gouging the wall just before he did. The shock of the punch in the sternum and its propelling him six feet hid the pain of the hole in his chest and its exit.
Sound filled the stable as each of the three men suddenly moved, twisting and falling. The rifle shot had finally scared the pony which had tried to turn and run, knocking the man and rifle off balance. Nowhere to run made the pony shout and buck. As all this happened the saloon owner, cigar firmly clenched, kept his hand in his jacket pocket and fired.
The horse Grey had watched. Shuffling, agitated, as the three men stood, spoken and then the sudden crash of noises. One man flying backwards, the pony shrilling and thrashing. Acrid smoke filling the air and more movement and noise, close to his head, his rider falling over and a thud into the woodwork close to his rear. “Grey, up!” He heard the command even in the chaos he felt around him and instinctively followed, reared and waved his hooves at whoever was in front of him. Designed or not, one hoof pushed the man with his hand still in his pocket. He unbalanced because of the snagged hand and as he leaned away saving his head from hitting the dividing pole it was caught by the heavy black shoe on the foot of the chestnut horse.
The man hit the ground and the fore-weight of the dropping horse, both hooves, crushed chest, neck and spine. Hand still trapped in pocket, the man lay silent.
All three men were still. The pony slowed its skittering and poked its head over the rail to assess the horse opposite. Grey, stepped back, eyes taking in the whole dark scene. The moon still throwing a little light into the high window cast the stallion’s head as a shadow over his rider. Grey went back to the hay bale and dragged at a clump and ate.
The pony stood watching as the smoke cleared and the silence let in the sound of people shouting outside.
“You’re not dead then?”. The voice was quietly angry.
“You should be”.
“We know who you are.”
“It’s a long story. Why do you turn up everywhere?”
“I like to keep busy. Lucky I’m the nearest to a doctor you can get here.”
“A doctor’s wife, I used to help him, as a nurse I suppose, but no proper training”.
“You owe me. And the horse.”
“Used to help?”
“He’s dead. Like your other two. He got in the way of someone. You’re probably lucky if you make it. Give me the short story”.
“They left a message and killed my wife. In New York.”
“A Pinkerton”. She had read the wallet and warrants in his saddle bag.
“More or less. Revenge mostly.”
“Well, for your information it was the horse did for him”.
“That’s it then”. He lay back on the pillow.
“But why call a chestnut Grey?”
“My wife’s name.” He closed his eyes and drifted into a peace-giving sleep.
Related: Abbott’s Road/ Grey Riding/ Silver Spur