Published on Wednesday, July 2, 2014
By Anna Sykora
When people see a lady in mourning they peek at your hands, to find a ring. I didn't have one, and the three grubby youths packed onto the coach's middle seat gawked at me as if I'd dropped from a star.
"Mighty young for a widow," the largest muttered, upper lip twisted by a scar into a permanent sneer. Ignoring him, I gazed out the window at the West Texas prairie, wide and flat, with nothing to see but clouds and sky while we jounced over ruts in the hard-baked trail. The coach's familiar rocking motion made my eyes begin to prickle. Would I ever see New Hampshire again? Not likely; I had travelled too far.
Feeling down-hearted, parched as the prairie, I shut my burning eyes, half-hoping to wake on our shady porch, with Mama knitting in her straight-backed chair and the winy tang of apples in the air...
Hunched beside me old Reverend Vanderzander shut his Bible with a thump: "So where are you boys bound for anyhow?"
"Colorado." The sneerer slapped a fist into his palm. "To try our luck panning."
"Pike's Peak or bust," the smallest bleated, who looked about 14. Two flies had stranded on his greasy bangs, and maybe fallen asleep in the heat.
"Are you brothers?" the gaunt reverend inquired. "You do look like peas from a pod." Hard to tell, I thought; so encrusted they were, like creatures who never bathe.
"And how. We're the Brewster boys, from the Oklahoma Territory: Tom" (the sneerer thumped his own chest), "Dick and Little Harry."
"Well I hope you won't live like heathens in some godless mining camp."
"Gold: there's a dream that sparkles bright," drawled raw-boned Dick. "Kinda like Heaven here on Earth." He winked at me and his brothers guffawed. Clucking his tongue, the reverend cracked open his Bible again, and I must have dozed. Next thing the driver was shouting something.
"What is it, Indians?" I started up.
"Just the next station, Miss Hawkins," Reverend Vanderzander soothed. "And I reckon we'll get a change of driver." Bouncing slightly on the leather thorough braces, our battered conveyance creaked to a halt. Not waiting for the reverend to assist me, the Brewster boys piled out together, clamoring for a "drink of something hard."
While we waited for hostlers to change the team, he helped me to a cup of cool well water. Led up, the half dozen fresh mules bucked like colts and rolled their eyes, as if they had not learned their duty.
"Savages." The old reverend gave a painful sigh. "I do hope our new driver can handle them."
"Back East we use horses," I said. "And these coaches look like pretty, painted teacups, rocking along on shiny yellow wheels." Green paint flaked from the body of our coach, its wheels so crudded with dirt and manure I could not judge what color they had been. "And inside they're trimmed with damask and fringes, not this plain leather splitting from use. Why, this is the sorriest Concord coach that I have ever seen."
"And this is the West, miss," broke in a broad-shouldered youth, speaking with the ring of authority. "Our stagecoaches work as hard as our mules. No need for damask here."
I almost shot back, "You couldn't find damask here;" but his blue eyes glowed so frank and friendly I surprised myself with a little smile. What a fine, strapping son of the West; his lean face burnished by the sun; his long, reddish hair combed out neat and cleanish under a broad-brimmed hat. What a contrast to the Brewsters, who had grunted at me for 100 miles. Maybe he could even make conversation?
"I'm your new driver," he said, and I colored. "Buck Wheeler. May I assist you, miss?"
I nodded. "Oh," I gasped as he lifted me light as a spool of thread, and set me back into the coach.
"All aboard," he cried gaily, and the Brewsters came crowding, overrunning the rear seat now and leaving the middle to a square-jawed, faded woman in a decent gingham dress, her hands all rough and red. The reverend tucked his lean legs in beside me, and the coach rocked a little as our driver clambered up to his high box.
"Let 'em go," he shouted to the hostlers then, and with a crack of the whip and a jangle of harness, off we rolled once more.
"He's mighty young," the old gentleman complained. "I do hope he doesn't overturn us. The young'uns all drive as if racing Satan for a pot of gold."
"We young 'uns are building up the West," Dick Brewster crowed, and our new passenger turned right around in her seat:
"That may be, sonny. But when I open my laundry in Hueco Tanks, I hope you three will pay me a call--and I will scrub you down for free. 'Twould be a public service too. Just ask for Mrs. Mahoney."
Three changes later, as the sun drooped red, we rattled into Broke Ankle Station, only to find it a smoking heap, the mules run off by Indians or bandidos. No sign of the master or his crew. Maybe they took them too?
"We will be stranded," the reverend mourned as we stood around the looted corral, just an oval of thorny, piled-up bushes broken down on one end.
"Never fear," said our driver, calm as the captain of a paddle boat back East (though he looked no older than 25). "Tomorrow our mules can serve us again, after we rest and water them. Shotgun, help me unhitch them." Shotgun Johnny, lame and grizzled, with just one eye, rode with Mr. Wheeler on the box and emitted, I found, a characteristic aroma of saloon.
"And what about us?" asked Mrs. Mahoney, sturdy arms akimbo.
"We'll cook in the open, camp outside."
"Well we're used to that," Tom Brewster boasted. "My brothers and I will build the fire."
"I am Alice Hawkins, Mr. Wheeler, from Franklin Falls in New Hampshire's heart, and I have a question for you, sir."
"Shoot." He licked a scorched pea from the corner of his mouth and grinned like a happy dog.
"How do you remain so calm and steady? Had we arrived at this station just a few hours sooner, we could have been taken or killed."
"Well I'm used to raids," he said cheerfully. "Mules are worth stealin' here in Texas. A mule can work like six men, Miss Hawkins. At least nobody got scalped this time."
What a consolation.
"Hey look, everybody--shooting stars!" He pointed halfway up the sky. "Hey, maybe our luck is gonna turn." Those fine, silver streaks looked like distant fireworks on some celestial Fourth of July. Even the gloomy reverend oohed and ahed.
Mrs. Mahoney wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "Each of us should tell a wish on those stars, and I will start: I am wishing for a wagonload of dirty wash, for my new laundry."
The Brewsters wished for hatfuls of golden nuggets. Reverend Vanderzander offered a prayer: "May the good Lord guard us overland and keep our wheels from falling off."
"Amen," cried the driver, and clapped his hands. "I'll check them again in the mornin'." Shotgun Johnny wished for a barrel of whisky.
Come my turn, I said quietly, "I just hope I won't get bit by a snake out West. And I hope I will never die in childbirth."
"That's two wishes," hooted Dick Brewster.
"She's purty enough for two," said Buck, and I felt glad I'd freshly braided my corn-yellow hair before he joined the coach.
"Mr. Wheeler, what's your wish?" I asked him.
"I hope I will find my lady love." He peered into my face, and the Brewsters all howled like hungry dogs. "And I hope I won't never get tangled in the traces, and dragged on my face by a runaway team. That's a cruel death, worse than scalpin'."
"God forbid," I murmured.
We ladies overnighted in the Concord coach, where Mrs. Mahoney (bless her heart) snored like a plough horse come home late from the fields. I felt relieved when the sun rose bright again in a cloudless sky, and I heard the menfolk cursing again, as they chased our poor mules around the corral and caught them again, and harnessed them to the coach.
Mr. Wheeler got around to checking our tickets. "I see you're bound for Santa Fe, Miss Hawkins. A mail order widow?" he jested, eying my gingham gown of black, as dusty by now as a mummy's wrapper.
"No," I said proudly. "I'm to be a teacher."
He gave a loud whistle, snapped his fingers: "Glory be, an eddycated girl," and Shotgun Johnny shrank away from me, rolling his eye as if he'd seen a ghost. "I never got an eddycation," Buck rolled on. "My dad sent me out to work, choppin' cotton. I just draw a wheel to sign for somethin'. 'Wheeler,' you get it?"
"I do," I said dryly.
He plucked up his whip: "Watch this though." Shotgun had drawn a flask from his pocket, and was lifting it towards his puckered lips--when the whip snapped it out of his hand. I gaped as the liquid glug-glugged into the hoof-trodden ground.
"Tarnation, Buck," the old man whined. "Whatever did ye do that for?"
"There'll be no more guzzlin' on this coach. Not while I'm a'drivin' it. We got a precious cargo." He indicated me with his pinky finger. "All the way from the state of New Hampshire."
"You know I can't drink plain water, Buck," he groaned. "It hurts my heart."
A few hours later, with no breakfast, I felt faint from the cookstove heat, my face and hands as gritty as the prairie trail. It made no difference if we rolled up the leather curtains in the unglassed windows or let them down.
Suddenly the rattling and rocking slowed, and our conveyance bounced to a stop. Dick Brewster slithered out to see what was the matter, and then reported back:
"A leader picked up a stone in his shoe. Buck has to tend the hoof."
I got up. "Excuse me, please. Nature calls." When Dick didn't move, just leering at me, I pushed right past him and helped myself down.
"Aw I get it. You go backwards," he suggested, hopping down after me, "and I'll go forwards. I won't peek."
"You better not." Briskly I walked back down the trail. Good heavens, not a rock to crouch behind; not a bush to shield my modesty. Spreading my skirts, I squatted on the ground. Well this was the West, not Franklin Falls...
I heard a rattling--and spied a thick, ugly snake coiling right beside me. I screamed as if Comanches were scalping me; I screamed as if the folks back in Franklin Falls could hear me and come running, like the time I broke through the ice on the mill pond skating and almost drowned.
"Oh that's a big 'un," Buck said admiringly, trotting up with Johnny's shotgun. "Don't budge an inch, Miss Hawkins. Unless you're a' weary of my drivin'."
"Please call me Alice," I breathed.
He hammered that snake with the butt of the gun. "Wait, Alice," he cried as I scrambled away, pulling up my drawers with both hands. For some reason I heeded him though, and waited as he whipped out his knife, cut the rattle off the snake, and wiped it on his dusty pants. "It's a lucky charm." He handed it to me as if presenting me with a ring of gold. "It keeps all the other snakes off you, Alice. Never go a step in the West without it."
"If you say so," I said doubtfully. "And thank you, Mr. Wheeler. Thanks."
"Please, you call me Buck."
I nodded, wrapped up the rattle in my handkerchief, and stowed it in my deepest pocket.
"This part I'll keep," he said with satisfaction, peeling the snake's remnant from the ground.
"What?" My belly spasmed, and I felt dizzy. Gripping the blood-slimy thing, he looked like a wild man. He frightened me.
"It's good eatin'. Tastes like chicken. I'll keep it in my hat, and roast it up later. Then you can try a little mouthful--Alice."
"Mr. Wheeler, your taste is vile." I spun on my heel and marched back towards the coach, only looking back when he wailed:
"I done saved her life, and she calls me vile." With a gigantic sweep of his arm, he hurled the dead snake into the prairie. In a blink a vulture came flopping down on it, and I regretted my unkind words. It's not like I had a friend in Texas. Nobody would shed a tear for me if I took sick on the trail and left my bones to bleach on the hard, hard ground.
Still, Texas was a vile state--a slave state. I'd be glad to wipe its grit from my high button shoes. New Mexico, with its capital Santa Fe, was free. Just like New England.
That night, at a ramshackle wooden station, I shared a cupboard with Mrs. Mahoney, who snored like a locomotive dragging lumber up a mountainside.
Weary, and unable to rest, and feeling gritty as a sack of sand from my weeks of bouncing around inside the Concord coach unbathed, I stepped up to the unglassed window. Hoping for a breath of fresh air, I drew aside the leather cover.
The half moon's rays bathed the wide, flat prairie in silver magic. Slowly I lifted both arms in my sleeves, as if reaching to take flight. Just then I heard the sweet, soft plaint of a lone harmonica. I spied Buck Wheeler seated on a rock, his broad brimmed hat beside him.
When he waved his hat at me, I waved back at him, with my fingers. Next thing he comes creeping up to the window, quiet as an Indian:
"Don't you never take off that black gown?" he whispered. "Not even for sleepin', in this heat?"
"I am in mourning for my mother," I told him. "She died on the steamer on the way to Galveston. A fever took her, and they buried her at sea."
"Aw that's a pity, Alice. I didn't--"
"Buck, I do not crave your sympathy. I told you, I am going to be a teacher. I have a contract, at a convent school in Santa Fe."
His handsome face fell. "A convent, Alice? You'd corral yourself with the grim, grey sisters? They never smile, they never frolic. They'll dry you to a paper in some inside room."
"Teaching is all I know how to do."
"I don't believe it." He raised his voice: "Alice, a smart girl like you? Why, I bet that you could run a saloon."
"For men like you to get drunk and be pigs in?"
"Aw we wouldn't be such pigs," he wheedled, reaching for my hand. Which I withdrew, stepping back a pace. "Aw we'd just sit in a row and sigh, admirin' your golden hair."
"What's all this about pigs in saloons?" Mrs. Mahoney blared, and I shut the curtain on Buck's suit and crept back up to my narrow bunk.
He stayed for a while, though, serenading us soft, with some mournful ballad about love unkind. Mrs. Mahoney chuckled in her bunk, slapping her sides until my upper bunk began to sway.
"I swear, my dear," she burst out at last. "You have turned that poor laddy's head."
"Oh I didn't mean to," I confessed. Still my heart was beating awful fast, and when he left off repeating his song I lay there breathing in the breathless dark, and wondered if a fever was taking me.
Buck was supposed to leave us at the next station on the line, where the reverend bade us ladies a dignified adieu. Instead my admirer remained as a passenger, settling onto the middle seat, poised directly in front of me, as if this were nothing strange.
"Mr. Wheeler?" Mrs. Mahoney inquired, barely able to suppress her mirth.
"A change of plans," he said, and cleared his throat. "Now I am to resume drivin' this coach at Bethel Springs."
While he continued with us inside--and somehow, through all our subsequent changes of station, of cargo, of passengers--this stalwart clung to the middle seat as a sailor clings to a mast in a storm--all he would do is look at me.
Often I gazed out the open window (Mother used to praise my sharp-cut profile), but often I bestowed a little smile. This made his blue eyes glow. And so we rode on together, in a fragile, bouncing harmony, for many and many a mile.
Gleefully Mrs. Mahoney scolded: "Won't you watch your bold eyes, Mr. Wheeler? Ain't you never seen a young lady before?"
"Not like this golden-haired maiden from Franklin Falls." He gave a heartrending sigh. "That's in the heart of New Hampshire, I believe."
"Stop staring at her, you brazen lout."
"I won't," he defied us with glum pride. "I'm gonna drive Alice into El Paso, and then I'm gonna never see her anymore. Not when this coach rolls on for Santa Fe."
I felt sorry when he returned to his place on the driver's box, at Bethel Springs. Somehow I had gotten used to having him around.
Later dear Mrs. Mahoney, and the others left us, leaving me stuck with the Brewster brothers, who soon grew ill from sharing a skin of some vile, Mexican hooch. They lay on the floor of the coach like pigs, clutching their guts and groaning loud. The stench was quite exceptional, and I warned our driver I felt fit to swoon.
"Then step up on the box with me, Alice," Buck pleaded. "I vow I won't let you tumble off."
"And what about me?" Shotgun whined, screwing up his one good eye.
"You go ride up top, with the mail." Scowling, the old man obliged, and Buck helped me up on the driver's box.
Now I watched how he held and guided six mules: three to a hand, three reins in each. You need hands of power to drive such a team; why, you need to be strong as a bullock yourself. Pulling back, you have to brace yourself on the wooden lip of the box.
"This here is our hardest part of the journey. The driest anyway," Buck told me while we jog-rattled along. I'd never sat so high up in my life, and never behind such a long team working; three pair lugging the heavy-loaded coach at a trot with their animal strength. "Too bad I can't go slow, and spare the teams," said Buck, "on these last hundred miles to El Paso. The last miles of happiness in my life."
"No need to feel afraid, dear Alice." He thought I was worried about myself. "You get fresh mules and water every 20 miles, and you're in the healthiest place on the coach riding up here with me."
As we perched there together, in the pride of our youth, I bathed in the sunny breeze, with its musky odor of sage. Leaning back I closed my eyes.
"Alice, are you happy?" Buck sang out beside me.
"Yes. And never so happy, in my skin. But I feel small as a wee glass bead." The trail unwound ahead of us like a ribbon across the boundless prairie.
"That's how it is out here," he said gaily. "Now gee up, ye lazy mules!"
Right then I thought I'd never seen a finer young man in America: with the fiery tricks of the sun in his hair, and his blue eyes keen on the galloping mules, and his white teeth even in his wide mouth. When he popped his whip over the laboring animals, not even touching their surging backs, he made them move pretty smart. Maybe, for my account.
"Lookie there, Alice: antelope." He pointed the whip at a vast herd rushing the far horizon, their light legs flashing in the sun. "There's all kinds of game out here: buffalo, and prairie dogs and birds. We could live off the land, like Indians." He raised his burdened hands, as if to gather up the wide-open, golden afternoon; as if this were all one sumptuous gift that he meant to give to me.
"And it looks like no folks, nothing but a track. But there will be, Alice, down the road... A big dream--sure as my name's Buck Wheeler. There will be coaches and crossings here, and fine little towns far as eyes can see. And drivers, to steer you here or there. Wherever you care to go."
"We got that back East already, man," I chided. "It is called a train. And it runs even faster than your mouth."
Buck raised his eyes to Heaven, as if I'd I wounded him sore. "This girl wants to be a teacher," he called out to the plunging mules, who rotated their hairy ears as if to hear his plaint. "Well, Miss Alice should teach I say, since she already knows it all. A teacher in a convent, in Santa Fe," he concluded bitterly. I held my peace.
Soon Shotgun Johnny climbed back into the box, and I rejoined the Brewster boys. At once I regretted that regression.
I slept for a while, hand over my nose. When I woke, the heat felt like a blacksmith's forge. There wasn't a drop of water left in the bottom of my tin canteen. Having come so far this summer, must I perish of thirst in the Concord coach?
Little Harry poked his greasy snout out the window. "We're almost to the Pecos river, Miss Alice. I can see it shinin' in the sun."
I never thought I'd rejoice at the sight of a just plain, muddy grey, winding river; a river without a boat in it, and no signs of human habitation. The Brewster boys went splashing in together, not even stopping to tug off their boots. Thigh-deep they scooped water from their hats all over themselves, and doused each other.
"It's better than a bath," Tom Brewster whooped. "River water never tasted so fine." He rinsed his mouth and spouted at his brothers like a fountain. Meanwhile, Buck and Shotgun Johnny were occupied unhitching six exhausted mules. Two by two they led them down to the river to drink their fill.
Where men and beasts gathered, the water looked murky, so I walked a ways upstream alone. At a clearer, deep place I leaned far over, reaching to scoop my canteen full--and must have fainted, in the heat. I tumbled in.
How I thrashed then; gulping in more water than I wanted. I couldn't feel a bottom with my toes. "I can't swim!" I yelled and sank, choking in the current pulling me under. Mother, where are you? I cried in my mind. I am going to die.
Then a hand grabbed me, two strong hands--and dragged me backwards, back into the light. "Don't fight me, Alice--I've got you." Buck held my chin up in the air. He turned on his back and stroked downstream with ease, pulling me along at his side. A ways below the coach, and the bellowing men, he carried me ashore, on a rocky shoal. And there he stood, warm and clutching me tight, while I trembled and wept and clung to his neck. In my breast I felt our two hearts beating.
"Don't ever leave me," he said hoarsely. "I want you to marry me, Alice Hawkins."
"You put me down," I said, and he did. I wiped my tears and snot with my hands, and we stood there glaring at each other, sopping and muddy as a pair of turtles, with our long hair plastered to our heads.
"Marry me," he repeated slowly.
"No, I won't ," I said, loud and clear. "I don't like Texas; it's a slave state. I want to work in Santa Fe. I've got a written contract, man."
"Missy New Hampshire, suit yourself," he choked out, and turned away. Squeezing the dark water out of his hair, Buck Wheeler walked back to tend his mules.
The rest of our journey to El Paso I hardly remember now. My heart felt heavy as the stump of a tree. I didn't want to speak to anybody.
When Buck strode away from the Concord coach, without a single word of farewell, I couldn't help myself anymore. I started weeping loudly into my hands.
"What's the matter, Miss Alice?" asked Little Harry. "Have you got a belly ache?"
"Mind your own business, boy."
"She's gonna teach in a convent in Santa Fe," his brothers informed the other passengers, as if this explained every painful circumstance in the wide, wide world.
"Well I'd run away from her school," cried Little Harry. "I'd go for fishing, with my friends." All the colors had faded from the summer, I thought, leaving me old and grey, and alone. And I was just 17.
A lone life would suit me best, for my stubborn pride--my Yankee pride. Oh I'd never see Buck Wheeler anymore.
I reached for my hanky and found his gift, the relic of the snake he'd killed for me. I shook it once, and all conversation stopped in the halted coach, as if God himself had spoken.
"I'd like to buy that, Miss Alice," Tom Brewster said. "I'll give you fifty cents for your rattle."
"Not for all the gold in Colorado." I tucked my treasure safe away.
Then the new driver shouted out to the mules; and the battered coach lurched forward once again, as if to take some final hill.
Suddenly I heard a merry whistle, and the door of the rolling coach popped open. Buck Wheeler hung from the luggage rack, a hopeful grin on his dust-caked face:
"I reckon there's space for one more in here. If not, I can ride up top with the mail. I bought a through ticket to Santa Fe. Now how about that, Miss Alice Hawkins?"
My heart gave a leap like a lamb in spring, and I smiled at him with all my heart. Then I scooted over on the stained, cracked seat to give the man some space.
Anna Sykora has been an attorney in NYC and teacher of English. To date, she's placed 129 stories in the small press, most recently with Rosebud Magazine (runner-up in this year's Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award), Tales of the Talisman and Niteblade. She has also placed 329 poems.