The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

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Barb A

 

 

FCity Boy
An episode tag for The High Riders

 

“Hey there City Boy, where ya travelling?”

The hundreds of miles from east to west could be marked in lessening degrees of salutations. Until finally, at this outpost, came City Boy. Was it a portent of things to come?

“There won't be any profanity on the stage,” the driver announced, settling one thick-heeled boot on the wooden hub of the front left wheel. “If you got opinions, keep' em to yourself. If you gotta chew tobacco, don't spit it on the floor. And there will be no profanity because there is a child on board. We'll be making stops at Cicero, Auburn, Dunn's Hill and Morro Coyo. Watch your step getting up.” He shoved his hat forward and, with flourish, hopped into the box seat to gather great chunks of reins.

We made the turn out of Desperate Springs on two wheels and a prayer and headed west into a cloudless morning.

There weren't many people on the stage. My book and I were sitting beside one of the windows (thank God), while across the aisle was a fat little man in cheap, worn-out clothes and the boy, traveling alone, hair parted neatly in the middle and wet combed into place over each ear. A piece of white paper was pinned to his shirt pocket denoting his final destination. As it happened, I was going to the same.

It was one of those early spring mornings that held promise, but kept it close. Would it stay cool, making the winter linger, or turn warm to start the summer? The Pinkerton card in my wallet made me feel the same way. Like a talisman, it held promise but offered no hints of what to come.

The first stop was downtown Cicero—downtown was a term loosely applied—and only one passenger embarked onto the stage: a tired-looking woman with a shiny opal brooch at her throat.

The lady arranged her skirts to straighten out the wrinkles and turned to me and said, “I've been to Cicero to attend the funeral of my brother's wife.” Before I had time to overcome my surprise and remark on that singularly personal bit of news, the driver cracked his whip. 

We slipped out of town on a plume of dust going west.

“You sell stuff?” the boy asked the fat little man.

“Sell stuff?” asked the man. “What do you mean sell stuff?” He threw himself into a rhythmic convulsion of finger snapping, tapping and pointing. “I am a purveyor of all goods found under a mercantile roof and without. In fact, my legs are made of tin, my arms good cotton tic. You cut me and you know what you'll find?”

The boy's eyes rounded. “Blood?”

“A stream of gumdrops and horehound!”

“My mama told me she was gonna bring me some lemon drops from the store, but she never came back,” said the boy.

“I see an open shelf and I just have to fill it. Lanterns, bags of beans, bolts of cloth, it doesn't matter what. I can't help it. I'm a maestro.”

We rode along for a while without talking, rocking past squats of brown land filled with scrub from the drought, and every now and then a homestead with a crippled chimney tilting on its axis. The town of Auburn came and went—a closed-up hamlet of two dogs, trash in the street and a boardwalk. Only one passenger boarded, a religious man complete with Capuchin head cap. 

He began to read from a small bible, advising us on how to live a noble, clean life. One scrap of words for each day of the year. The fat man across from us slumped in his seat with his suit coat rucked up under his arms, gazing out the window.

The countryside flattened out into miles of ranch land and pines. Even the priest's droning quieted down to fervent whispers as the sun shone in through the open window.  It seemed as if the late afternoon was riding along with us, and would last forever.

The lady finished pulling out the loose threads from her cloth handbag and said to me, “You may be wondering about my brooch.”

If indeed I had—and I hadn't—I certainly would not have said anything. City Boys do not brook those type of conversations lightly.

The little boy said, “My Pa told her she didn't need to go to town, we had green beans canned from last years, peaches, too. Even a side of beef in the smoker. Everythin' we needed, right there.”

The drummer filled in the awkward pause. “Did you know I can take two bits and turn them into a quarter? When you're a maestro, you take pride in your profession. Stocking shelves is my profession, all right.”

“My grandma already has a big blue dish on her shelf,” said the little boy. “She don't need to go to town.”

The Capuchin monk mumbled a sing-song chant of prayer.

“My Pa said she left ‘cause she got tired. They had a big old bed, though. She could of laid down anytime.” 

“There's no room to be tired! Everyday there's new challenges. You gotta meet' em head on. Yessir, no room to be tired. Not at all,” said the fat man. 

“You may be wondering about my brooch,” said the lady again, this time to general populace of the stage.

“Every day is a new day to sell. Early birds and worms,” said the drummer. “It's almost too easy, like baiting the clearing then shooting the bear.”

“My Pa hardly ever goes shooting. He just plows the wheat fields.”

“You see,” said the lady, “my brother's wife was one for finery.”

The stage came to a jerking stop. A man with a battered saddle, shirt halfway unbuttoned and a rather deadly-looking pistol at his hip stood to the side. He struck a pose with his legs spread. No City Boy there.

“You goin' to Morro Coyo?”

“Unless I'm lost,” said the driver.

He flung his gun and saddle up to the driver.

“Watch it, son,” warned the driver and the man swaggered aboard, bounced off my lap into his seat.

“You an Injun?” asked the boy.

The newest passenger thought over his answer with solemnity. “No.”

We paused at an abandoned shack with a rusty metal windmill casting some hot shade to water the horses. “Dunn's Hill!” shouted the driver. He cranked the door open and looked at each of us as if checking to see we were still there. “Fifteen minutes. Better stretch your legs.”

Sweat dampened my shirt, trickling down my back. The newest passenger stared at me from his perch beside the windmill, a curious smile on his face. It broadened and went from mere curiosity into speculation. Offering no apologies for either my mode of dress or my existence, and going against a lifetime of tutelage, I stared back. He tipped his head and looked away. 

The fifteen minutes had soon expired and we loaded into the stage. The lady unclasped her handbag and searched within, coming out with fistful of handkerchief filled with lavender candies.

“You all help yourselves,” she said. To me, she whispered, “It's leftover from the funeral, but we won't tell them that. It's still good candy.”

She took the biggest piece and set it in the palm of the boy. “You eat this now, even though I'm sure your grandma will have supper for you in Moro Coyyo. It won't spoil a thing.”

She carefully squared away the corners of her handkerchief and folded it twice. “Ear bobs, necklaces, rings, why my brother's wife would buy anything she saw in the store window. More than anyone could wear at one time.”

“I wanted to be a lawyer,” said the fat man. “I was ambitious, could speak well. But I did one thing wrong. I went to California. Place is lousy with lawyers.”

“My grandma says there's a word for what my mama is, but she won't tell me.”

“In fact, you could say it was the finery that killed her,” said the lady. She stuffed the handkerchief back into her bag.

The newest passenger looked at the candy held between his two fingers, then his eyes flicked from one passenger to another, finally landing on my book. As a westerner, he was oddly silent. Yet he managed to communicate his derision quite thoroughly and the heat crept up my neck. It was, after all, too large of a book to be carried cross country.  

“She fell trying to get her jewelry box down from the top shelf in her closet. Broke her neck when she hit the floor, finery all around her. My brother found her like that, head twisted to one side, laying there in that pool of stars and moons.”

“What's your mama's name?” asked the newest passenger in a soft drawl.

The monk marked his place in his bible with a red velvet ribbon and closed it in his lap.

“Her name's Ann, but they call her Sweet Annie.”

“My brother just couldn't get it off his mind. He'd go out on to the porch at night and see the same stars and moon he saw around his wife. He'd stand there and cry like a baby.”

“I get around,” said the fat man. “It's for my job. I bet I'll run into your mama one day.”

“Pa said she was tired. That's why she left.”

“I couldn't stand to see him like that, so the night before the funeral I gathered up all her jewelry and marched down to the mercantile. Found out that most were just paste. All except this brooch.”

The little boy piped up in earnest. “She'll be wearing a blue dress, it's the only one she ever wore.”

“I'll know her by that dress, then,” said the newest passenger.

“They call her Sweet Annie.”

“And when I see her I'm gonna tell her I rode the stage with you. And how we sat here talkin' and eatin' candy. You want me to tell her anything else?”

“Just tell her I said hey.”

The newest passenger looked at the boy for a long while, as if trying to make his mind up about something.

We all sat in silence, or what passed for silence, finishing our lavender candy thinking about mothers and blue dresses and love and stars and moons.

The monk opened up his book again. “Fear nothing that you are about to suffer. Dismiss your dread and your fears!”

Soon the driver was yelling to the horses.

There was horse and wagon traffic in Moro Coyyo, people crossing the street, meeting the stage. Everyone sat still, even the fat man had his back against the seat. The monk had closed his eyes, clutching his bible.

But there was some confusion at the depot. A mean-faced woman with thin lips swept open the door, grabbed the boy by the forearm and bustled him off the stage.

“Grandma, see him?” The little boy pointed to the newest passenger. “See him? He might meet my mama one day.”

The old woman glared over her shoulder. “I do not have time for this foolishness.”

Another religious man, this one wearing a collar, came to meet the lady. But the man stared with disgust at the brooch fastened to her neckline. His arms flopped at her in irritation. “What in the world is that, Emma? Fakery or finery? Both? You shall not choose worldly goods to rise above others.”

The fat man stepped over to where an aproned man was sweeping out the front of the mercantile. “Hello friend! What do you need today?” But he didn't get a single glance from the sweeper.

Last out of the stage, the talisman burning a hole in my wallet, I retrieved my derby from the seat. Someone from my father's ranch was supposed to meet me here.  Not for the first time, I wondered what I was doing, deep down I wasn't as sure as when I left the city. Yet I wasn't afraid, only that I was in the middle of something I'd be better out of.

The newest passenger lingered by the stage, accepting his gun and saddle back from the driver, mocking grin firmly entrenched. 

A fresh-faced young lady approached the depot. She looked puzzled for a moment, glancing between the two of us, then shrugged. “Mr. Lancer?” We both turned and answered.

Oh, no. Surely there was some mistake.

 

~end~
8/15/2013; 10/2014

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