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

Grey Riding

He squinted into the distance.  Even from the added height of being on horseback the flat line of the plain merged, featureless, with the mauve blur, like a distant ribbon that seeped upwards into the giant creases of the Rockies.  Their peaks were like teeth on a broken saw poking into puffed clouds.

No mark or track to follow, just the line to Bear Ridge at the base of The Witches’ Hats, as the three close peaks were called.  There was still no sign of the township he was heading toward.  His horse stood quietly, head down and breathing heavily. The man stood in his stirrups.  He guessed this was a make-or-break ride now.  His horse was already struggling.

“Well, Grey, looks like I’ll be walking too”.

He unhooked his right toe from the stirrup and eased his leg up and over, slowing as the cramping pain shot from his buttock, through thigh and agonised his calf.  He forced himself to complete the movement off the horse, unhooked his left foot and it hit the ground just after his right.  Just as the pain shot up and down his leg again, and stayed.  Right hand clung onto the pommel and his left slapped and grabbed the leather of the rifle’s holster strapped to the saddle.  He leaned forward, off balance, and pushed his head against the stock of the Winchester and his hat knocked backwards, saved from flying off by the cord that dragged into his Adam’s apple.  The horse juggled its feet sideways a couple of steps at the unexpected movement of its rider and the man slipped after it.  His leg muscle was still in spasm and all he could do was be dragged briefly.  The horse centred and stood still.

“Shit!” He grimaced.  The iron-rod pain still rammed into his calf.  His boot did not allow much movement as he pushed down into his toes and bent his knee; and up again to relieve himself of the spasm.  A strange little dance it would seem, from a distance, as he hobbled beside his horse.

While the man concentrated on his pain the horse took a few steps away from the eccentric circles, reins dangling like ribbons, in search of a blade or two of grass.  It had run out several miles ago.  The ground had dried and hardened as they passed and cracked into patches of sand. The horse, Grey, was annoyed, tired and hungry.  He snorted into the ground and kicked at it.  The breeze, frequently gentle, now gusted a little and felt chilled.  He raised his head and opened his nostrils to the moving air.  Lungs heaved in the colder air and he felt the moisture it carried soften his parched membranes.  Lifting his head higher he shook it into the new gust, bared his teeth at its increasing chill, tasted the water in that breeze and walked towards where he knew he could get a drink at least, maybe food.

As he walked, looking into the distance, at the blur of purple and mauve, he could also see a clump of green and stabs of black lifting up, circling and waving back down into the greenery.  A green strip, just a head-lengths wide, slightly to the side, at the bottom of where the three points stuck up like pricked ears.  Despite the dampness in the air he thought he could smell water and it drew him, as needs always do.  His amble, head swaying and sniffling at the ground had wound up to slow walk.  As his senses took over his head pushed onwards and with ears pricked forward his gait increased.  Muscles began to loosen, forget they were tired and weak and his hooves picked up as he moved at a trot to hidden water he knew was there.

cactus from edenWith girth still tight, rifle barrel still tapping on his shoulder and the roll-pack bouncing as always on the back, near his haunches, he moved lighter than previously, riderless . It was a few miles, worth the effort to see the green-mash assume tree proportions and shapes.  As he closed on the trees the shrubs poked into view via the drop of the ground into the gulley.  And there it lay, whispering and glittering in the last of the sun, the slow, shallow river.  The water was so cold but clear and sweet as he thrust his mouth into it.  A few strides and he was cooling fetlocks, soothing the overheated muscles.  Thirst slaked, muscles relaxed again, Grey moved back onto the sloping, grass edged bank.

The horse ambled along the river bank for a short distance ripping at the grass and lashing the leaves off the bushes tucked under the trees.  Then back towards the sloping runnel by which he had reached the river.  He strolled up the scree of the slope, snaffling leaves from the bushes as he passed with his fat lips sucking them in and a quick gnash of teeth before swallowing.  At the top he stopped.  Head swinging left and right, reins leaving dusty scythe marks in the top layer of dust, he looked for the man.  There he stood, shuffling, mooching and nibbling at the bushes, waiting.  A few minutes later he walked to the water to have another drink and relieve himself.

The sun slipped down over the flat horizon pulling the dusk into dark.  The moon reasserting itself with its cream and shadowed skin gave view over that flat plain he had ambled across two hours earlier.  Grey caught a scent in the air.  The wind, colder as the sun got hidden, had shifted direction.  He stood with his rump against the cold draughts, tail occasionally twitching in annoyance at the sputtering gusts. He raised his head, felt his main ruffled by another surge of cold air.  Turning his big neck and head into the wind he pricked his ears and took in a rush of air and  smells.

The strap, cinched round his chest eased as he moved.  He realised the warm patch on his back was from the blanket with its saddle on top.  The weight was minimal without his rider but he missed the warmth from the legs and their confidence.  And he had scented the man, the rider, with that smell that was almost part of himself for all the distance and time they had moved together.  He stood, waiting.  Listening now as the scent grew with the gusts and he looked into the flat shadowland from where he heard footsteps between the pleating winds.  The two-note whistle sprang from the darkness and his ears twitched to focus.  Grey snuffled a greeting and turned his head back so the wind could flow from stern to front again.  Twitched his tail, impatiently this time.  All the time watching for his rider to appear.

“Grey. Grey. Hi boy”.  The horse waited.  As the man’s hand caught hold of the bridle and fingers slipped between it and his cheek he jerked his head a little. Horse’s head turned and bumped into the man’s.  Heads stayed leaning against each other for some seconds, the man leaned heavily, briefly, and then pulled back shoulders and head for one last effort.

“I was going to walk with you, not follow on your tracks.  Thank God it was a straight line and you left me a track to follow.  Where to now?  Where’s that water?”  He turned the horses head with his hand, fingers still curled tightly into the leather of the bridle, towards the sound of the river.  The horse allowed the movement of bit to pull his head and neck round and shuffled his back-end into alignment.  Grey moved forward slowly and countered the weight of the man dragging slightly on his neck and shoulders.

Together they walked the brief distance to and down the sloping track to the lapping water-side .  The man conscientiously looped and hitched the reins to a nibbled branch and knelt to the ripples.  Cupping his hands, scooping up water and sucking in what he could before it fell away through his fingers.  He clapped soaking fingers to his cheeks and rubbed the damp round his eyes.  The actions were repeated to clear some of the dust and tiredness from his face.

The moon was higher and brighter now.  Around him the man could make out the bushes and trees, albeit as part silhouette or more nebulous black against the dark itself.  He was too tired to do anything else, he thought.  His leg hurt from the walking, his feet hurt from the walking, just about everything ached and pinched when he moved.  And strictly speaking he was just too tired to think. The man pushed himself upright and walked the few paces to the horse, at it’s side he straightened his stoop and leaned back to ease a stiff spine.  He breathed in the heavy smell of the horse and bent, leant a shoulder on its flank as he fumbled then moved lower to un-hook the strap and buckle.  Unstrapped, he dragged the saddle off the horse’s back and let it collapse onto the ground.  Took off the blanket and moved it, with the saddle, to the other side of the bush and laid them down in a space big enough for for the blanket. He untied his roll and waved it open like a table cloth onto the ground.  Almost in a trance he went back to his horse and checked the reins were securely tied to a stronger branch.

“I’m done, Grey.  Stay here, dammit.  No more running or even walking, not without me on board!”  He gave a friendly smack on the chestnut’s neck and rubbed the rubbery nose.  With a brief backward wave the man walked in a tired haze to his spot and dropped onto it.  There was just enough energy left to pull some blanket over his back and shoulders.  His temple touched the cool leather of the saddle but it did not wake him.

Grey reached for and ripped at the nearby leaves, shuffled feet and straightened his bulk into a neutral, comfortable, position.  His stomach gurgled and he felt the subtle rhythms in his intestines as he relaxed and the wind gushed out from his rear.  He twitched his tail and settled, waiting patiently for sleep to lock in or the start of another day.

 

 

related: Abbott’s Road,  Silver Spur

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