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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
tags: Abbott’s Road, Grey Riding