Horse Trading

Horse trading

Grey was depressed. He was listless and unable to eat. Mostly he just stood looking at the gap in the wall where the blank window opened onto the back yard. Easing from one foot to another as the time moved slowly onwards. He was not aware of time passing at all.  He would raise his head and maybe look round at sounds of people entering the building but not the sounds he wanted to recognise.

A woman’s voice, “How is he today? Eaten anything?”

The boy called out from the neighbouring stall, ” Nope!  Boss says the horse’ll have to go by tomorrow, one way or another.”  He came out and stopped to drop the empty bucket at the edges of the planked wall. The metallic clack of bucket on the compressed dirt floor and the echo of  handle on rim caused Grey to turn his head a little.

“He said there was no hurry!”  She reacted urgently.

“That was weeks ago. There is now. The chestnut is fading away. Costing money and got no value.  Told me to tell you.  He wants his money ’cause the horse ain’t worth it no more.”     His voice raised for the last sentence as he walked out of the livery building.

“Shit!” Said the woman, pushing a clumped ringlet off her face.  She moved over to the edge of the stall and unhooked the rope at the front. Slipped inside, leaned on the wall as she rel-looped onto the hook. Then turned herself to look at the horse’s hindquarters presented to her.

“Oh, Grey.” She said loudly, sadly, “What are we going to do with you?”

The horse looked round, twitched ears in response following with a snort of air through large rubbery nostrils and a briefly rising upper lip.  Into silence again, silent contemplation of the window frame.

The woman stepped carefully over the straw not wanting to get muck on her boots and stood at the horse’s head.  She took the old carrots from her apron pocket. One hand stroking from the velvet  forehead down to the limp nostrils while she proffered the carrots. She whispered encouragingly to the horse imploring it to eat more, eat properly as it had in the first few days.   The carrots were sampled, eaten but not with enthusiasm.

She stroked the long muzzle. The horse slightly raised its head, the woman felt as though the two large eyes were fixed on hers despite the width of the forehead and their sideways bulge. “I have to go,” she finally whispered, “we’ll sort it.”

A final pat on the horses cheek and she stepped carefully out of the stall.  The horse turned away, returning to its apparent meditation.   The woman pushed back her hair again, brushed down the apron, took a deep breath and made herself stride out of the livery stable into the street toward the tented canteen at the other end of the wooden and canvas town.

For the next two hours she dished and  served the regulars and the new arrivals, passing through or hoping to strike it rich. None of that rich would happen, the gold rush had moved away, the rail tracks were pushing forward to the mountains now so the only hope of a living was to join a team of navvies or hook into their suppliers. Either of which was almost a lost cause, sewn up by the company managers, desperate to keep their costs down and schedules on time. Some people could make a fortune but rarely the man shifting iron or laying the trackway.

People were hired, imported and used, hardly able to walk away as much of their pay was in tokens to be cashed at the local stores and saloons, usually at drop-jaw rates.  Tied into staying in the town unless they literally walked away with the clothes they stood in.

As the queue shuffled along and along, with the other women she, Martha, knocked the beans, or rice, off the big spoons and onto the large metal plates. She responded to the men’s nods and grunts towards their choices with a smile and those that had some words of English she replied to  briefly, cheerfully.    The overseers would have separate bench and tables where food was left in the deep metal trays for them to help themselves.  They would get eggs or tomatoes or grits, which and whatever was available for a breakfast.  Bread, new or old.  Coffee pots tested and replaced with filled ones as the meal progressed.

The bell would be rung by a man man walking through the navvies’ tables. Breakfast stopped and the exodus to the wagons would begin.  Still a short journey to the rail-end but many miles to xonstruct before they skirted the mountain ranges and filtered towards the coast and the fast growing towns and prosperous fishing and portage quays. When the rail-laying got more distant the labouring would be tented where the train could reach safely. Be stopped, coaled and watered as a regular workhorse in supplying the men but more importantly keeping speed with delivering rail-bed, track, sleepers and all the other assorted equipment and tools to maintain the fastest levelling and laying possible.  The fastest track to the coast would get the pick of the contracts and this company intended to be first.

This day the men would be returning to town but soon they would be living under canvas until they reached the coast. Then the majority would be dropped and left to their own devices in deciding where to go, what to do and most importantly, how, with still so little money.

The women behind the trestles were running out of food just as the last of the workmen drifted in to pass over their tally for the meal.  A couple of stray youngsters dashed over to hustle any leftovers which were plated up for them by one of the sympathetic ladies.  Martha and Sarah moved out to the benches and tables to collect the abandoned mugs and plates, skipping round the legs and occasional arms of the men still there.

“Anywise”, continued Sarah, ” the saloon will still be there and with the traintrack moving on there will always be men goin’ up and down the line. Stoppin’ off here for a bit of fun. ”

“I thought you wanted to get out of it?”

“Customers can be generous at times, I’m savin’ to get out. I will. Herbi will have to do without his percentage when I’ve gone. He says he will replace me soon anyway”

“That’s when he cuffs and curses you!  He likes it too much, that man. Draws blood then gets a hard on.” Martha stifled the next words and stomped back to the small tin bath where they washed the used dishes.  Sarah slowed to collect the last of the enamelled mugs and hugged them close as she joined the silence with Martha.

“Because you’re so aloof, aren’t you!” A retort long in coming and quickly regretted. “No, I meant it because you’re lucky.  You’re not tied, not indebted like me.”  Sarah attempted a smile at Martha’s words and nodded in apparent agreement but said nothing.

The two women, and the others bustled about and eventually closed the lids on the boxed plates, mugs, cutlery and all other small parafinalia that need protecting from the weather, dirt and dust until tomorrow.    The fire under the barrel for hot water was put out. The huge grill was already almost out of glow so all jobs were donewith until the following morning when the whole day was repeated.

“See you tonight?” Asked Sarah, ” it’s a quiet night, there’s no money around.”

“Maybe.”

“I just said!  Look, I’m just mouthy. I say things, I don’t think. Sorry!”  Sarah stroked Martha’s arm in further apology then walked away from the canteen to her room at the saloon.

Martha collected the large tray covered by a clean linen cloth and walked over to the Main Street, crossed carefully across the muddied street and continued to the wooden building opposite the saloon.  It was the one thing she still had in the despairing little town of Silver City, two rented rooms in a building she and her late husband used to own.   It still had the M.D. shingle outside and the word ‘Surgery’ painted on the frosted glass window but on the wooden steps up to the door a plank lay from bottom to top step with the word ‘Undertakers’ painted vertically downwards.

She climbed the ubiquitous outside stairs and at the landing she balanced the tray on one hand and breast to open the door. Reversing the operation inside she heard and accompanying click to that as she pushed the door closed.    Taking a breath to regain her presence she paced the distance across the room to the partially open door of the bedroom. “It’s Martha,” she stated loudly enough and pushed the door wide with the edge of the tray.

The man propped up on her bed sank back into the pillows and lowered the pistol onto the bed covers.  Matter of factly she put the tray on the cleared space on the chest of drawers, turned and lifted the gun off the covers and carefully lowered the hammer down to rest and placed it beside the tray.

“Well at least you are beginning to take notice rather than sleep all day.  Some food.”  After putting the gun in the top drawer she passed a spoon to the man and carried the dish to him, “Stew and gravy and bread.  And if you can hold a gun on me you can feed yourself.”   She stuffed a pillow behind him to raise him up. He still yelped a little when she moved him,”You can stop that, too.”

She continued holding the dish steady on the eiderdown as he poked at and ate some of the meat.”.  Are you thinking straight today?  Do you know how long you have been here? Do you know where here is?”

“As good as.  Days, several, I guess. And here is here. Yours?  It sure has no hotel benefits.”

He ate carefully.

“Two weeks. You should be dead. I got them to bring you here. If you hadn’t lived the Undertakers is just downstairs.”

“Give the doc my thanks.”

“He’s dead.”

“Oh.”  His memory jogged somewhere that she was a doctor’s wife. Was. Was. “He’s dead”

“That’s what I said.” She continued. She had a lot to say while he was still weak and awake.  ” I still have his bag and tools; instruments.   I got quite handy watching and helping, as his nurse.  Had to pull the bullet out from the other side so you have holes front and back. Sorry.   But you are alive.”

“And still leaking like a sieve.”  He looked down at the bandage round his chest with its red line drifting through it.

“You just did that yourself, getting the gun. As I said, you are alive.”

He pushed the plate to the edge of the bed. Martha’s hand reacting to his attempt to move it.  As she moved her hold he grabbed at her wrist and held it tightly, he thought, ” Why bother?”

She removed his hand and took the plate away.  “Do you want some coffee?  I brought it over, it will still be warm, not hot.” He turned his head to the window, closed his eyes.  She ignored him and  got the coffee.

“You should be mobile in a few days. I am wondering what you will do?”

“Report back and start again.”

“Where’s that?”

“New York”.

She held her voice steady and changed the subject, “the livery want paying for your horse. Today, tonight.”

She paused, he said nothing but turned and reached for the mug she was holding and took a swallow.

“Still warm.” He handed it back and leaned back on the pillow.

“They mean today. They kept the horse fed and watered but it is over two weeks and they want their money or the horse is sold, tomorrow. Grey, your horse.” She emphasised the last three words.   “Have you got the money?” She knew the answer having had ample time to ferret through his saddle bag,  bed-roll and clothes.

“Nope.”  Pause. Wry grin.  “I will if they give me my job back, in New York!”

Martha felt herself pull back at the words. Not what she expected to hear but spoke,

” Pinkerton, your wallet says..”

“Those were the days.”  He shook his head slowly. “Gave up, sold up, drank up.  ‘Til I got news of those two. Followed their tracks right out here, town after scrubby town to this dirt-hole of a place. Still, made my peace with them.”

“You killed them!”

“Yep!” He looked out of the window stained by the dusty rains. “With a bit of help.”

“The horse, Grey?”

“Yea, a lucky trick. Useful but not what I trained him for.”

“So, you are not a Pinkerton. No money, no work.  No prospects from the sight of you lying there. You’re getting blood on the the sheets, again.”

He shifted to sit himself up further to look at the blood now dribbling below the bandage.   Martha put the coffee on the chest of drawers  and  set about finding clean dressings and bandages.

“What about the horse?”  She called from the other room.

“I will steal him tonight and just drift away.”

“You’ll be dead in a few days. From the wound or the posse. Herbi  won’t let it go.  You need a quiet few weeks before you can ride distances let alone live rough now.”

“I’ll steal him early in the morning then, after a rest”. He lay back and Martha abandoned the idea of changing the dressings for a while.

She looked at him. Stubble thick on his face hiding the paleness of his skin under the weathered tan.  He was nothing like her dead husband but had an attraction that caught her when she first saw him.  Stray men were always riding into town, loitering around her or the other women, either at the canteen or in the saloon she had taken to visiting, for the company.  Sarah was the most friendly, the woman who helped her when her husband, the doctor, was killed.

Martha had seen this stranger at the canteen. They had locked eyes, she never did that, but he was looking at her in a relaxed, comfortable and direct gaze which felt right in responding to.  Why she took him food in the saloon she had no idea. Helping a stray, she put it down to. Young boys, maybe so but never the likes of him. Dirty, rag-tag man who looked too useful in a fight; and carried a gun.  She stopped looking at him on the bed and turned to pick up the tray.  The gun lay heavily, dangerous, in the open drawer. She pushed the drawer shut, too carefully, she realised as she spoke.

“I can pay for the horse.  As payment you can ride with me.  I want to leave in three days. If you can sit in a buckboard by then.  Grey, your horse can tag on the back.”

“Leave?”

“I sold up. Rent is done to the weekend so I am leaving.  With or without you.”  She picked up the tray.   “I’ll be back in a couple of hours, four o’clock.  Grey will be sold at six tonight.   I will expect an answer. “She looked back at the grimace as he moved to say something and saw the blood oozing down through the hair on his chest.  “I will sort that out and bring your clothes back. At four.” And walked out of the bedroom leaving the door open, put the tray on a table and marched outside, down the stairs without stopping or looking back.

He watched her skirts sway through the doors, dismissed by the closing of the outer door.  Hanging  on the high bedpost was his grimy hat, below it the now empty belt and holster.  A brief look round the room confirmed he had no clothes and he sighed back onto the pillow.  No contest.

……………….

She returned promptly at four with a mug of coffee and clean clothes.

“You can have my husband’s last two shirts. Your pants are okay but holes and blood ruined your shirt.”

He looked at the clean white linen in dismay.  Martha dropped them on the bed, gave him the coffee and left the room.  Sitting up he realised the ooze had stopped and congealed. He tried the coffee, cool enough to drink but almost tasteless.

Martha returned with clean bandages and a wash bowl. ” Don’t complain about the coffee, it’s all you get.”    She set about unwinding the dressings on his chest and washing  the wounds with diluted iodine.   He could just get his eyes to focus on the welted, burnt hole by his collarbone but his “Aghhh” and jerk reaction told him the departure point of the bullet was bigger and much more ragged than the entry.  The woman carefully rebound the wounds, pulling the lint tight around his chest, relaxing slightly as he winced and finally looping, tucking and knotting the ends.  He lay back, seemingly exhausted.  She did not mention the horse, nor did he, just closed his eyes to shut out the ache.

Silently she left the room, closed the door, tidied her things in the other room and hauled out a couple of carpet bags from under the small drop-leaf table in the corner.  From inside one she took a pouch, undid the cord and counted out the dollars, quietly.    She abandoned the bags on the floor and left with one hand deep in her pinafore pocket, clenched round the pouch with its remaining contents.  She closed the outer door, quietly locked it. Paused, took a decisive breath  and proceeded down the wooden staircase, across the still muddied Main Street and towards the Livery Stable.

A short, failed bargaining later and she left the stable with no dollars, not even the pouch, but leading and pulling a recalcitrant horse, Grey.  They made their way to the back of her old building, now the Undertakers and into its yard where she could safely stable this sad horse with her old one. She hoped the two horses would get on better than she and the man seemed to.  Then she returned to the Livery and shortly retraced back to her stabling, carrying the saddle with stirrups crossed over the seat.  The rifle swinging awkwardly for her as she slipped through the mud.   At the enclosing stable gate in the small barn she swung the saddle onto the top rail, dragging her arm out from under the leather.  By the time Martha lifted the kit bag from around her neck and unfolded the saddle blankets off it, she was hot and flustered.  She hung the bag from the pommel and laid the blankets along the remaining space on the gate.  At which point she was angry at herself for buying a man’s horse, for making decisions he wasn’t aware of. Determined to carry it through despite the fluttering worry of it being wrong, too wrong and looking disaster in the face!

Martha stood, wiped her hands over her screwed-up eyes and down her face and sank them into the now empty pocket, except for her key. She pushed air noisily out of her mouth and opened her eyes. Two horses responded with heavy, noisy,  sweet breaths and vibrating lips, teeth pushed forward and eyes that looked balefully towards her before turning their heads away.

“Yeah, sure! Me too!”  And she walked away, ” ‘Night, you two!”

…………………………………

The street was deadly quiet, all black and moonless with just enough starlight to see buildings as hulked shadows of broken skylines.   The rapid knocking on the door disturbed Martha, woke her.  She lay on the settle while her senses cleared and the knocking grew louder and she heard the voice calling her name. Sarah’s voice.

“Jeeze, what now?”  She got up, fumbled for a coat and had it over her shoulders to open the door a little.  Sarah pushed her head through the gap, pushed harder and into the room.

“We’ve gotta go!  He’s gotta go! You too if your sensible. I can go with you. Now!”

Sarah was holding Martha’s shoulders urging action with every hoarse whisper. “Now, before dawn or it will be too late!”

“What?”  As a doctor’s wife she was used to patients and call-outs but Sarah made no sense. Sarah added a few more words and brought in the hold-all she had dropped outside at the door.

Martha raised her hands to quiet Sarah and find herself time to absorb Sarah’s story.  They both heard the creaking of the springs behind the closed bedroom door.

The door opened and they automatically turned to look.   He saw the two women standing stock still as he pushed the door wide.  One with saloon-bar satin dress, low-cut with lace frilled up to the black velvet band round her throat, the other in a checked linen nightshirt of her late husband and his long grey raincoat over that.  Seeing the two women as they turned towards him he too stopped.

Silence while all three took in the scene.

“It’s Sarah. Put your gun away and go and put some clothes on.  We have to leave.” Sarah’s tone left no room for refusal from a still-drowsy and injured man. He turned back into the room and closed the door quietly.

Another pause. The two women leaned on each other’s shoulder and stifled their laughter at the retreat of the big naked man with a revolver.   But the humour soon turned to urgency, speed, as Martha collected the few things she just had to pack. Two carpet bags and a horse and buggy, all she had left to show for her thirty years.

Martha dressed quickly while Sarah repeated her news that some men were coming for ‘the Pinkerton’ and that Martha would get hurt if in the way and she, Sarah, would ‘get it’ if they found out she had informed.  “So you said I should go with you. Now I think I have to, or we’re all dead!”.

Hurriedly packed, a look round the room and Martha went into her old bedroom to see if he had dressed as she told him. She was afraid he wouldn’t manage, if so he might struggle on the buckboard. There was no alternative.  The town had no law, the bosses in the saloon held sway over the town, almost all its folk and especially the women working in the saloon and the navvies tied to the railroad.   He was sitting on the bed. Dressed but looking at his boots, somewhat forlornly, unable to pull them on.  Kneeling down she helped him struggle into them, instructed him to push as she pulled, encouraging him to be quick. She blushed quietly as she felt herself moving away from nursing mode to something more than mothering.

She rose and helped him up.

“Get yourself a coffee.” She told him. “Sarah, come help with the buckboard.”  They both slid out of the door, down the stairs and round to the stable at the back.

There, they quickly reversed the mare into the shafts, hooked up collars, bridles, traces.  Hoisted the three bags that now contained all they were able to take onto the rack at the back and strapped the tarpaulin cover over them.  Martha then had to rush back and undo the buckles in order to lug the saddle into the space followed by the bedroll and blankets and refix the tarp and buckles.  The Winchester and saddlebags she pushed under the small backseat.

“Hitch the chestnut to the back and I will get himself down here,” she said hurriedly to Sarah and was scuttling up the stairs before the last word.

Dressed and on his feet he may have been. Walking he was able but lurching down the stairs was too much and he was leaning heavily on Martha as they rounded into the Undertakers small yard and stable.

“Back seat! She ordered.  Tried to heave him in but they stalled.  She called Sarah and the two women managed to shove him over the rim of the buggy and high enough to twist and sink onto the second row of wooden bench.  He sat in the middle, each hand gripping each arm bracket of the seat.  He said nothing but swore heavily to himself as he stabilised his head and body over the pain that ticked rapidly in the beat of his pulse.

Sarah climbed into the front seat and the buckboard sank at the movement and then to the opposite corner as Martha climbed up then creaked ots springs and settled.  The man breathed with relief, carefully.

“Let’s go!” Martha picked the rains, gave them a shake and a “Move on!” and with another encouragement the mare took the strain and jerked the now weighty cart and its motley passengers into life.  Wheels turned and they trundled out into the street and with a heavier flick they gained a little speed down the Main Street. Hooves and wheels quietened a little by the mud.

Grey, hitched to the rear of the vehicle was not amused and dragged at the initial pull.  As they turned out of the yard he tuned his steps to that of the mare in harness and accepted the situation.  The horse could smell his usual rider and see the huddle at the back of the cart, smelling different to normal but near enough.

“You got my horse.”  Said the man.

“You mean my horse.”Said Martha, “I hope he’s worth it, his keep took all my money.”

“Yours?”

“MIne.  You can keep his name, Grey.  I’m calling him Brownie.” She said with a hint of challenge

“I’ll buy him back when we get to a bank and telegraph office.”  He spoke.    Silence.

They hit the end of town and turned onto the empty but well used wagon trail.

“Wrong way already.” He called out painfully.  “West is the other way. You can get trains to New York two days away, west.”

“You’re with us now.” Martha called back cheerfully. “We are going to Portland.”

“Do you know how far that is?”  He was startled, no strength to argue, yet.

“Yup!”  She swallowed hard and said cheerfully, “Back in town they will follow us to the trains. If they bother.  We left some clues for them to follow you; all the way to New York if they are really after you.  We two are just lost baggage to them. If they find you in New York you’ll have to look out for yourself.  If you live through to Portland, that is.”

“Portland!”  He grimaced and clung on.

grey-imageGrey heard the voices, recognised the man’s swearing and settled into the rhythm of this strange journey.  He was feeling better already, except for the word Brownie!

 

 

 

 

 

tags: Abbot’s Road, Grey Riding

Last Order

“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.
“Everyone”.
“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?”

“To me”

“The one, and it’s broken?”.  She tried to be scornful.

“But silver.”

“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.”

“Coffee?”

“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.
“Maybe.”
“You should be”.
“True”.
“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.”
“Which is?”
“A doctor’s wife, I used to help him, as a nurse I suppose, but no proper training”.
“The liniment.”
“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

Silver Spur

Silver Spur

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.

photo by WordparcHorse 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’ ?

“Maybe”.

“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.

“Why?”

“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

Abbott’s Road

Abbott’s Road

His arms were heavy as he raised them slowly from his side towards the level of his eye.  His left eye closed while his right seized the spot at the rifle’s end and focused it on the man about to die.  Below, the fatal man stood lonely in the street, ankles deep in the gutter, hands resting on his hips, tongue touching arid lips.
The quarry stood firm, he knew the sun was rising and the dust would soon be whispering into the air to hang spot-swaying above the trampled road.  He flicked an empty can, it rose and glistened then rattled on stone and nestled beside a mud-stained box.

A noise, weighing the air, the man raised his head as a fox that smells the dead and stepped back to the wooden stage, his eyes fixed on the distant gap, the horizon of the road, the edge of town.  Sweat trickled on the inside of his leg, coldly running down.  The empty space on that edge of town clouded over; the dust beckoning the sound and as raising a corpse the cloud swirled and breathed life into four horsed men.
The sky was bright as the figures bobbed and stopped beside the wooden church.

photo by Wordparc

photo by Wordparc

They let their horses stand and rest, reins down, to paw the grass and nibble the white ringed birch above the stones.  The rifle moved a little, gaining on the newest man, resting on his breast.

The single figure stood in the shade.  His eyes roamed across the street to fix the group.  One man, Sheriff Abbott, walked ahead, the rest spread out, a line across the road, chessmen on a mated field.  Five men stood in the morning sun while flecks of cloud raced on.  Alone, with hands loosely hung, the man stood breathing the morning air, clearing his head of the mechanics of the gun.  Above, unknown, the bead moved on and trigger squeezed.
The hammer clicked and as below the nervous man reacted to the sound, a report came loud and metal smashed his chest, span him round.  His hand felt firm as he lifted out his gun.  Before he fell the group was less by one.  Then shadows echoed with seven more shots and bullets smashed the wood and seared the skin and blood spat all around.
Time was brief but the air was full of acrid smoke before the shaken sand was settled on five bodies sprawled out flat.  By the church, near the stones, a man tried to scream while blood gushed from the hole in his throat and he drowned with bubbling groans.  Sheriff Abbott was dead, the sand where his back was lain all patterned in red.  On the street four more lay still, sniffed at by a red-nosed dog.

The morning sun grew warm and heavy and settled on the scene.  People opened their doors and looked about.  The doctor and undertaker ventured out to complete the necessary chores.
Above, his heart was heavy from necessary wars.

12/12/69

 

related: Grey Riding, Silver Spur