Western Short Story
And now, for all his good behavior promises, one of the women sat in his mind from the first moment he had seen her. All of it might have been coming down to this first look, all the way from the old country, across the great water, the ship in constant turmoil; atop the waves, and even below deck, with him as a youngster often hidden in secret places by an old sailor with sea-going sons of his own.
She had spoken first; “What did you do before this, Mr. Greenspan, or were you always at this kind of work? My husband can do most anything with his hands.” It was a proper introduction and championed her man as they pointed towards Oregon.
Valter Greenspan, a wagon master heading west again, was, at one time, old before his time. His story shouldn’t be told to her so early, but he yearned to tell her. She was accessible, curious, sociable at a good scale.
“Here I am, in a warm spring of 1868, about to start on my fourth trip west as a wagon master, this time out of western Pennsylvania, long after my overseas trip from my Jewish homeland in the Near East, looking casually at the host of ladies bound for the spaces on this newest trip yonder. My eyes have lit up at the measurement of talent, beauty and availability of the ladies venturing under my control. Some ladies, on the earlier trips, did not survive the rugged ordeal. Some of those faces could halt my rides, if I let them, if I paused to deliberate, dream a bit. There have been instances where they kept me going, to the next step of these journeys.”
He did not tell her the western plains, evident from the outset, had drawn him like a magnet, their open stretches, the plain, green miles of them, as if his mind made easy acceptance of all the clear stretches of the prairies. Greenspan was his name, quickly part of America’s mix from the Ashkenazic Jewish ornamental surname of Grünspan, which undoubtedly came from German Grünspan ‘verdigris’ (Middle High German gruenspan), borrowed from medieval Latin viride hispanicum and meaning ‘Spanish green.’). It would be too much for the lady, a good looker if he ever saw one.
At 45, Greenspan felt at home on the wide spaces of this new country, immeasurable years from the old land where his father ushered him elsewhere. “The old world seeking new gains,” his father said, seeing him off on his endless journey. “See me at the end,” he added at their parting, his eyes drifting, a hand on the youngster’s shoulder for the last time.
In his sleep, or on a hard ride, he’d feel the weight of that hand, the warmth of it, in spite of the years since departure.
Parting, he learned, must be absorbed, or it overruns the soul.
He assumed all women heading out had understood their chances from the outset, their dreams of a new life with their man, for all of them were attached to the man of their choice, or so it appeared to be. They had dreams, hopes, and visions galore, along with a hard-fisted desire to succeed on their mission: it was so simple, there was a place waiting for all of them, out and beyond, and that is what brought him and them together for this new trip of his, this fourth journey into the known unknown, as he would point out to new comers who carried questions.
They deserved the warning, from a Hebrew sailor turned wagon master, who sailed to Boston from the warring territories of the Near East, sea life traded for life on the trail; Indians, brigands alone and in bands looking for the easy life. Many of their kind he had met, had seen in operation, could detect them early, and up close, he believed, by their eyes, stories told by a wink, a shift of view, and rarely clamped shut.
This new sparkler, Charlotte Kenwood, possibly half the age of her husband Henry, a robust, forward-looking man, wide of shoulder, arm-strength almost visible, willing to do any task regardless of muck or mire, slop or slew, and quick and thorough at fixing wagons as well as horses. Greenspan wondered how Kenwood was with women, with this woman who had caught his own eye out of the lot in the fold. He’d keep a keen eye on both of them.
All of them deserved a look and a judgment; it was a wagon master’s responsibility.
And of course, it was Henry Kenwood who said, “I hope they all got sense enough to carry an extra wheel, or even two. It sure would make any job easier, including mine, ‘cause I figure much of that is coming my way listening to some others talk about he can fix anything, and I know they’re talking about me saying that.”
He was right on the button with that interpretation, right on the button. And the wagon master brought back visions of leaving a wagon, two wheels broken for good, on the side of a trail, folks trying to save what they could on other wagons, small treasures of seeds and clothes and spinning wheels, and the whole future of a family at sudden odds with life on the move.
Greenspan tried to recount the deserted wagons on those other waysides and gave it up in a hurry in a search for new confidence. That was a demand uppermost in his make-up; keep’em happy, keep ‘em sure, keep ‘em moving.
But he also knew life had its ebbs and swings coming his way as well as the departures.
Charlotte’s looking at him, as often as she did, made things pleasant for a loner, saying unwritten messages, marking places on his heart, perhaps on her own heart. It was guesswork at his best, so, he kept up the chatter when he could.
“You watch where you’re going, Miss Charlotte. Some loose rocks up ahead.” She’d smile at such approaches, the special care she could make of it, not caring who saw how she smiled back at him, saying, “I won’t break any bones, if I can help it. No slowing you down because of me.”
She kept pace with him, for him; it was easy to see; and to hear teasing innuendos freely tossed about.
In two weeks, he figured the wagon train had moved about 200 miles. “Not too bad,” he calculated, “for people to march beside or behind their wagons, adventurous kin, women and older children, the odd straggler helped when needed.”
One of his now-and-then declarations, when some folks might be losing their grip, was a steady-as-you-go promise of, “We are a team and we will finish our mission as a team, the god of Gods be with us.”
He told her husband in a trailside talk, one of the few men he cottoned to, other than in harsh or hard commands, “I figure 160 days on the trail, Henry, plus breakdowns, Indians, robberies, sickness of a sort to contend with, that much adding up to 190 days. Of course, I might add, I could be off by half a year. The trip is that contentious, dangers everywhere. If I allow it to bother me, it’s like being aboard ship again, problems every which way I turn, and the threats are continual.”
Henry made his own observation: “You know a hell of a lot more than we do, Valter, and I hope a bunch of the others understand what’s ahead, but not all the possibilities. Some of them might not take another step, them needing your voice in their ears all the time. Charlotte fully understands everything.”
He was no part a fool, Greenspan decided.
The two of them were packing some firewood on a pair of donkeys, when they saw a party of riders, just below the horizon, moving at a slow pace, otherwise undetected, heading toward the wagon train.
Tapping Greenwood on the shoulder, Kenwood said, “How do we handle this, Valter? They’re organized and surely up to no good way out here.”
“We let them get their act together when they brace the train, if that’s what they’re up to, and I figure, just like you, that’s what they’re up to. They draw down on the train, we come up behind them, knock off a couple of them, reduce the odds, drive them away with help from the members of the train, coming out of their surprise. I’ve seen it before, sort of like that.”
It went as Valter Greenspan had pictured it; the brigands drew down on the wagon train, had all men, most all men, banded into a circle, when the wagon master and his ally aimed at the group, fired, and dropped three men right off their saddles. The rest scampered off, not to be seen again.
“You got the leader, Valter, because I picked on the oldest looking guy in the bunch, figuring he might really be the brains of the organization. We sure gave that company a frightful greeting.”
The pair were treated like heroes by all the members of the wagon train. A banjo broke into song that night, then a guitar. From horizon to horizon, the stars shone at each end of this wide Earth.
The next day, the train moved out, leaving three graves behind them.
Instead of Charlotte hurting her ankle on the rocky trail, the first wheel broke on the number 4 wagon, tossing various goods off the tail end, amid curses galore from the wagon owner who had to unload a goodly amount of supplies to free the spare wheel from its storage.
Greenspan, hearing the curses, rode up and said, “When it’s available, we’ll have some help here to jack-up the rear end and put on the spare wheel. Save the broken wheel, rim, hub and spokes, for future work. Never can tell when we might need some spare pieces.”
Both Henry and Charlotte Kenwood were on the scene in a hurry, using a rugged hand jack to get the wagon lifted. The pair worked like stevedores at the task, Charlotte’s smile not hidden at all, and the wagon master could not help the good feelings running through him. He wondered how much it showed, who knew besides her husband? We need each other, he must have been thinking, the three of us. At arrival, it could become a topic of conversation, so, he’d just start over and return to the East, without someone else’s wife. It wouldn’t matter.
Three weeks later, a Sioux party of warriors attacked the train, both parties having fatalities, and one of them was Henry Kenwood, shot with an arrow directly in his back as he scrambled toward safety with a youngster in his arms. Greenspan pulled the youngster to cover and then went back to retrieve the body of Henry Kenwood. Misery hit him full force and he could not face Charlotte, even at the hastily arranged grave site where she stood with bowed head in prayer or deep sorrow, or both feelings settling about her sure as pain lingers when its signs fly off, like a bird takes flight or a fish escapes a hook, a simple adieu.
The pace of the wagon train put them close to the middle of the country, and Charlotte stayed out of his way, the smiles seemingly gone forever, his deed undone, his small joys crushed, the dreams gone.
It was more than a month later, in the black of night, she slipped under his wagon where he slept on a canvas spread wheel to wheel. “We never made love, Henry and I, not once. He just wanted to get me safely to Oregon to join my folks. He understood we, you and I, had an attraction. I’m sorry it had to come to this, but from the first moment, I knew you were the love I’ve been waiting for. Please don’t hate me. I couldn’t stand it. These past weeks have been Hell for me, I swear.”
She rolled into his arms. They couldn’t see the stars were shining brighter than ever.
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