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Authors: Glendon Swarthout

The Homesman (25 page)

BOOK: The Homesman
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During the downslope to the river he observed several things. On this side of the Bellevue there was nothing in view but an emigrant train plodding west, the covered wagons so heavy-laden with household truck that half of it would have to be left by the wayside. After every crossing it took every train a week or two to learn and start shedding. A small cabin on the west bank might house the ferryman and his helpers and might not. On the east bank was a stand of tall trees, in and around which was a bustling encampment of tents and wagons and animals and humans, the pile-up of trains waiting their turn to cross. The ferry itself was a side-railed, flat-bottomed, flat-topped scow that used the strong current of the river as motive power. This was accomplished by means of a large hawser fastened to a tree on the bank upstream, and block and tackle playing freely on the rope attached to both ends of the scow. Just now the ferry was in transit from east to west, and Briggs figured he would make the west landing by the time the scow was unloaded of two wagons and teams of horses and some milch cows and he could therefore cross without delay. The span stepped out at a fine clip. Even the off mule, the one she'd called “the Thinker,” leaned into his collar and shared the chore with the nigh, “the Worker.” But then, all at once, they must have put on the smell of the Big Muddy like a nosebag—and away they went. Together they took up such a fast trot that the wagon bounced and swayed like a buggy. Briggs hauled on the reins and hollered, but he could no more slow those crazy jacks than he could have a herd of buffalo on the prod. Their ears were down and their tails up. “Whoa, goddammit!” he yelled. “Whoa!”

•   •   •

They knew better than he. They timed it like a clock. They covered the flat like scared cats, and just as they slowed themselves at the landing, the last of the milch cows was cursed off the scow and he was able to drive the wagon and trailing horses aboard directly. Getting down, he was approached by the ferryman, a Kaw Indian. For some reason, no one knew why, most of the ferry owners and operators along this reach of the river were Kaws. This one, who wore an assortment of attire including a once-white shirt and a plug hat with an eagle feather, spoke in grunts, indicating the passage price would be a dollar for the wagon and fifty cents apiece for the animals. Briggs said he had no money. No money, no go, the Indian replied. Briggs took him to the rear of the wagon, unbolted and opened the doors. The Indian peered inside, then looked impassively at Briggs, who, trying sign language, tapped a finger on his temple and rolled his eyes. The man stared at the four women, curious, then said something unintelligible in some tongue and, turning away, waved at his helpers. They laid to, working the rope, and the scow eased slowly from the bank. Briggs bolted the door and enjoyed the free ride, which required only a few minutes. He enjoyed skinning any Indian anywhere anytime, even a Kaw. He recollected occasions when Indians would have skinned him alive if they could. As the scow nosed to the east landing, he was up on the seat, and in a moment more shook the reins and the wagon rumbled off the ferry onto the solid, civilized soil of the State of Iowa.

•   •   •

Briggs was bewildered. Sights and sounds and hurly-burly overwhelmed him. For days his place had been the prairie, his company that of members of the opposite sex who could neither speak nor respond when spoken to. He had been in charge. Today he had stumbled upon the Missouri, been rushed to the river and crossed it, and now he was surrounded by humankind—a current of events was bearing him along too swiftly to resist or navigate. He was like the blind man brought suddenly to an elephant and asked to make sense of it.

He threaded the wagon through the commotion and inquired of a man the way to Hebron. It was down the bank half a mile south, just follow the road.

He put the mules to a brisk walk, the river on his right and on his left a line of establishments sprung up to outfit those emigrants who had come west with little more than cash and the clothes on their backs. There were wagon yards and smithies and pens for cattle and oxen and corrals for horses and mules, all of them doing a land-office business.

Then, as abruptly as everything else that day, he entered Hebron. Briggs recognized it at once as the small town Cuddy had imagined one night by the fire. Its main street was lined by shade trees already leafing out in April green. The houses were humble and clapboard, with neat and grassy yards in front and beds of many-colored flowers. Most were painted, even to the privy in the rear. Briggs was returned to his boyhood back east. He came upon the business center and noted two general stores, a hotel called “Hutchinson House,” a blacksmith's, a bank, a barber pole, a doctor's shingle and a lawyer's, and a livery stable, but not a single, solitary saloon. Hebron was dry as a bone.

He stopped and, tipping his hat to a matron emerging from a general store, asked for the home of a lady named Altha Carter. That would be the minister's wife, was the reply. Just travel on to the white Methodist church and the white house beside it, the parsonage.

It was a small frame church with a steeple. The parsonage sat next to it, also white, behind a row of bleeding-heart bushes. There was a two-track drive past a stoop on the church side of the house, which led back to a barn, unpainted, where the parson probably stabled his horse and buggy.

Briggs turned into the drive and pulled the wagon up even with the side door. Hanging the reins he slid down, got the green sewing bag, and moving slowly to the stoop, mounted the steps. He buttoned the collar of his shirt. He knocked at the door. The late-afternoon sun lingered. The air was still, and there were smells of mud and spring and river in it. His legs went weak. He had to get hold of himself. To do so, he spat over the stoop into a bed of lilies of the valley.

•   •   •

“Sir?”

“Afternoon, ma'am.” He removed his hat. “Are you Missus Altha Carter, wife of the minister?”

“I am.”

“Well, ma'am, my name is Briggs,” he said. “I've come from the Territory, from Loup, and brought you those four women.”

“Women? Oh! For goodness sakes, yes!”

She switched through the door so suddenly that Briggs had to hop out of the way of her hoop skirt. If he'd expected Altha Carter to be wearing wings or bigger than life, she surely wasn't. She was short and sturdy as a stump and getting on in years, in her fifties probably. Her hair was gray and there were lines in her cheeks and crinkles at her eyes. Half-spectacles, which she looked over or through, rode the bridge of her nose, and she looked him up and down. There was warmth in her, and iron. She made him think of a small steam engine. All she lacked was a whistle and a bell.

She smiled her first impression of him. “You've been a long time coming, Mr. Briggs. I am relieved you're here. I'm sorry Reverend Carter isn't—he's out somewhere burying someone.”

She bustled past him to see his rig. Her dress and starched white collar were satisfactory, but the hoop skirt he disapproved, especially on a parson's wife. He had seen only one other, on a filly in Wamego last year, and wondered then, as he did now, what in hell women would think of next. Of course, an Altha Carter would wear what she pleased, and devil take the hindmost.

She turned. “Just a minute. I thought a woman was bringing them, named Cuddy. That's what Reverend Dowd wrote me.”

He frowned. “Ma'am, I'm sorry to have to tell you. Mary Bee Cuddy, her name was. She was with us up to a week ago, worked like a trooper. Then a fever took her.” Her face fell. “Ma'am, I feel bad about it, but I did everything I could, and it was no use. I buried her and we moved on.”

Mrs. Carter shook her head. “Oh, what a loss. I'm sorry for her and for you. She must have been a fine, intrepid human being.”

Briggs nodded. “She surely was.”

“How cruel—to come so far, on such a mission, then fall. I'm sure the Lord has taken her to His bosom.” She turned again. “What is that? I've never set eyes on a wagon like that.”

“It's called a frame wagon.”

“Exactly like a big box, with windows. And they're—they're inside? They've ridden in that box all this way? Mercy!”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“It's time to meet them.” She stepped down from the stoop and approached the rear of the wagon. “I'm not sure I'm ready,” she murmured, almost to herself.

Briggs put on his hat and strode past her. “Ready, ma'am?”

“Yes, please.”

He unlocked, then opened wide the doors. Mrs. Carter moved close and looked inside, into each of the four faces. Then she turned away, to Briggs, put a hand on his arm as though to steady herself, and bowed her head. He'd been mistaken. Behind her beans and mettle was a soft side. She'd take in any strays, from cats to persons, and find good homes for them. He waited. In a tree nearby, a mockingbird sang about love and insects and chivalry. Mrs. Carter raised her face, and her eyes were full.

“You must have had an awful winter,” she said.

“Ma'am, we did.”

“Let us take them in the house.”

“All right. Will you please hold this bag?”

She took the sewing bag from him, retreated a pace, and watched as he helped each woman down the step. Then, when they were on their feet, she was uncertain. “How shall we do it?”

“I'll go first and they'll follow me,” Briggs assured her.

“They will? Through that door, then, the one I came out of, and turn right into the parlor.”

He nodded. “Let's go girls,” he said to his group. “Come along now.”

He led the way, and they followed him single file across the stoop and into the house, turning right into the parlor. Here they bunched up behind him as he hesitated.

“Put them on the sofa, Mr. Briggs,” said Mrs. Carter coming after. “I'm sure there's room.”

He was unsure how to do it, but taking the first woman's arm, he guided her to a long black horsehair sofa, sat her down successfully, then returned to the second, and so on, until all four were seated in a row.

“There,” said Altha Carter. She handed him the sewing bag. “Give me just a minute.”

She stepped back through the door and he heard her raise her voice, perhaps to a servant girl in the kitchen. “Hallie, will you run an errand? Please go to Mrs. Conner's house, and Mrs. Offutt's, and Mrs. Vaughn's, and Mrs. Campbell's. Tell them the women are here from the Territory, and please come over when it's convenient.”

Briggs helped himself to the parlor. Cluttered it might be, but he couldn't recall ever being in a room as fancy. Walls and ceiling were pure white plaster. Red drapes bordered two glass windows. The floor was finished plank, most of it covered by manufactured carpeting with a pattern of pink roses in full bloom. Besides the sofa there were several small tables, one of them marble-topped, supporting a lamp with a brass reflector, and another which looked to be distant cousin to a table. Its legs were iron, attached beneath it was a kind of metal treadle, its top was like a hood made of tin with a lift handle in its center, and before it was a straight-backed chair. In one corner stood a melodeon, its stop knobs and keyboard uncovered, which implied it was regularly played. But most interesting to him was the large flag framed and hung on the wall over the sofa. It was just a corker of a flag. The field was of white bunting, edged all round with a wide band of gold thread. The centerpiece, incredibly, was a great big green silk alligator. Its tail thrashed, its head reared, its red eyes raged, while around its gaping jaws marched ranks of savage teeth. The flag was streaked gray by powder smoke, torn at one corner, and pocked with small holes, probably grapeshot.

Altha Carter returned to Briggs, who was fascinated by the alligator. “Isn't it colorful?” she asked. “It captures everyone. It was a regimental flag—have you ever served your country, Mr. Briggs?”

“No, ma'am.”

“Well, that was the flag of Beale's City Rifles. In 1815, after New Orleans, it was presented by Old Hickory himself to my husband's father, Gershom, who fought with Beale, in recognition of his bravery. We're very proud of it.” She gave her attention to the four women, saying softly to Briggs, “Do they speak?”

“No.”

“Do they—understand anything?”

“Ma'am, I don't know.”

“I notice their eyes move around the room. What does that mean?”

“It's hard to tell.”

“Perhaps each remembers a parlor,” she guessed. “From her own past, I mean. Oh, poor dears, poor dears. Have you observed any, any improvement in their condition?”

“Not much, ma'am. Well, they don't scrap with each other anymore, or try to run away.”

“I see. That's a good sign.” The minister's wife drew a long breath. “We'd better get down to brass tacks. Tell me their names—otherwise I won't know one from another. And don't you have some papers for them?”

“Yes, ma'am. Here.” Briggs opened the sewing bag, removed the sheaf, and placed the bag on a table. “What I'll do, I'll put the proper papers on each one's lap.” He started on the left. “Now this here's Belknap.” He could read out the name and address on the sheet because he was familiar with them by now. “Theoline Belknap. She's from Kentucky, and here's her sister's name and address.”

“Theoline Belknap,” repeated Mrs. Carter.

“She killed her baby.”

“Oh, no, no, don't tell me.” She clutched his arm. “Please, I don't care to know, it isn't important.”

“All right.” Briggs laid the sheet in Belknap's lap and read from the top letter of a packet. “This is Petzke. Hedda Petzke. Her brother lives in Illinois.”

“Hedda Petzke.”

He placed the letters. “This is Svendsen.” He read from an envelope. “Gro Svendsen. Norskie, I reckon. She's got two cousins in Minnesota.”

“Gro Svendsen. Very well.”

BOOK: The Homesman
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