'The Conestoga Odyssey.'
By Phineas Redux
Summary:— Henrietta 'Harry' Knappe and Sally 'Snapshot' Nichols, lovers in 1870's Red Flume, Arizona Territory, USA, wake one morning to discover the desert isn't the only nearby area dry as a bone.
Note:— Influenced by the 'Wolfville' stories of Alfred Henry Lewis.
Copyright:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author, and are wholly fictitious representations: the overall local geography may be questionable, too.
The ladies,—speaking metaphorically of course, neither Henrietta Knappe nor Sally Nichols in any way actively seeking appointment to such a high social position—had been called to the Rochester Hotel, Red Flume, in order to take part in an urgent meeting just organized by certain upstanding, at least when they weren't dead drunk, business men and a few similar women of the town. What the subject of the meeting might be the women were not told by the youngster who brought the invitation somewhere's close to 10.00am that morning.
"We got anythin' important, thet cain't wait, on our agenda this bright day, lady?"
Sally scratching her blue cotton breeches-covered behind as they moseyed out the street-door of their own hotel where they kept a private room.
"Nah, was thinkin' of ridin' out t'the Three Circle Ranch, an' annoyin' thereof Mister Bailey with our presence."
"A fine proposition, the which I'm all in favour of; but, it seems, duty calls." Sally, having finished making herself comfortable, hitched her waist-belt, tapped the butt of her left-hand .38 Smith and Wesson, and gazed around at the state of the public activity on Main Street. "Which's the fastest way t'the Rochester, agin'?"
Henrietta leading the way, it was some six minutes later that they hove up at the two-storeyed building, on Dapper Street, where, in the wide main lobby two men with anxious expressions awaited them.
"Mr Taine, Mr Kinnaird—howdy both, what's the trouble?"
"Miss Knappe, Miss Nichols," It was Mr Kinnaird who performed the welcoming attentions. "If you'd both come upstairs, we have a private room for the meeting—there's several people already there, waiting your arrival."
"What's goin' on, then?" Sally stepping by her lover's side as they ascended the stairs to the second floor, moving down the long corridor. "Sumthin' Sheriff Donaldson needs ter know about?"
"No, no," Mr Taine interjecting as they reached one of the doors along the corridor, which he opened, stepping back to let the ladies enter first. "A purely business arrangement. Here we are, gentlemen an' ladies. Our two guests are here, ter listen ter our problem an', hopefully drag ourselves, an' the majority o'the citizens o'this fair town out'ta the clutches o'Fate entire."
It was a long room, with two high windows giving light; the centre being taken up with a table nearly as long, around which were seated some six men and two women, the latter in rich dresses; all known to Henrietta and Sally. Mr Taine indicated two empty seats on the extreme corner of the left-hand side of the table with an outswept arm.
"Take yer seats, ladies; an' thank ye kindly fer acceptin' our plea fer help. We here, havin' a proposition t'make ter ye both."
"Oh-ah?" Sally still standing, hand on the back of her prospective chair, she already becoming somewhat irritated at the need for both Henrietta and herself to constantly repeat themselves. "So, what's the problem? Don't feel constrained by social etiquette nor manners, Harry here, an' I, havin' not much truck with same no-ways. So, spill it."
A resplendently waist-coated cheerfully rotund man in his early fifties spoke up from his seated position halfway down the right side of the table.
Sally took a few seconds to digest this statement then, finding it needed clarification, raised her right eyebrow in the man's direction.
"Mr Foster, how's the Camp-Garden doin' these days, long time since I stepped over there?"
"Dry." The proprietor of the said establishment frowning miserably while delivering this mystical news.
"What Mr Foster means ter signify," Another man, on the opposite side of the table, now spoke up. "is that he, like the rest of us round this here table, is dry—dry as k'yotes in the middle of a dry desert without a watering-hole in fifty mile."
Henrietta here took up the reins of investigation.
"Mr Galbraith, the Golden Strike keepin' well in yer absence, I hopes; yer tells us, Sal here, an' I, thet you're dry—an' kindly allows thet Mr Foster, here, is in the same state o'ill health; is thet what yer sayin'?"
"Ma'am, it is."
This short statement was accompanied by a low rolling growl of assent from the throats of the remaining seated attendees'; which didn't clear the matter up much for either Henrietta nor Sally.
"So, yer all dry, is what the tenor o'this meetin' seems t'have concluded?" Henrietta seeking enlightenment, but not receiving it.
"Yeah." Mr Taine now obviously working as the meeting's spokes-person.
"Why don't ye all repair t'the nearest water-pump an' refresh yersel's thereof, then—if'n yer all thet thirsty?" Sally striving to see daylight at noon, with little success.
"Or, yer all bein' owners' of about every drinkin' establishment in Red Flume," Henrietta coming in with what seemed to her the knock-out argument. "why doesn't ye all go back ter yer several places o'business an' when there set-to imbibin' whatever nose paint yer several choices amounts ter. Thet'd take the first sharp stab o'thirst off, wouldn't it? Why d'ye all need Sal an' I here ter tell ye sich a clear answer ter yer problems? The beer barrels all empty, an' the bottles o'whisky all rattlin' in their crates, ful'la empty air instead o'the elixir thet takes the pain away an' makes everythin' rosy, or wha—Oh, God!"
"What?" Sally a step behind in catching up; but then. "Oh—Jee-sus!"
"Precisely, ma'am." Mr Taine happy they had cottoned-on to the crisis. "I'm dry; that is my Silver Slipper's as dry as the centre o'the desert at this particular moment. Ditto every other establishment owned by all those round this here table at the present time."
Mr Kinnaird, always one for the relevant facts of any situation shook his head a little here.
"What Mr Taine means is, ladies, that, though not quite down ter the dregs at the bottom of our several barrels, an' bottles, we can certin' sure see same dregs mighty near the surface, an' gettin' closer thereto with every drink every customer takes with every dam' encroachin' minute—pardon my French, ladies."
"In effect, ladies," Mr Taine here reclaiming the reins of the discussion. "we all, round the table here, have jest worked out thet, by careful rationing, an' helpin' each other out, we may be able t'last some nine more days—but thet's our limit; after which, if'n in search o' a drink o'any description whatever, you'll need'ta ride over twelve mile ter Yellow Dog ter quench said thirst."
This was not simply a crisis, this was Armageddon arrived wholesale, rubbing its hands together and sharpening its weapons ready for the imminent fray. Henrietta and Sally could only stand aghast at the horror of the moment so revealed to them.
"An' exactly where do we fit in this here dee-saster, Mr Taine?" Sally coming to the surface, her face paler than before.
"We here, round the table here," Mr Taine turning to take in the rest of his companions in adversity, with another sweep of his arm. "thinks you two is our only hope. Nobody else havin' the spirit an' downright bottom ter pull the thing off."
"Which'd be, exactly what?" Henrietta recovering the capacity of speech herself.
"We'd like yer both ter take a wagon over ter Silverton, an' return with renewed supplies o'beer an' whisky enough ter drown the town, if'n broke out complete in one go." Mr Taine here, in his woe, waxing more lyrical than he'd ever done in his life.
"Silverton?" Sally's geographical knowledge of the whole of the Arizona Territory here coming in useful. "Thet's fifty mile ter the nor-west? Why so far? Cain't we go some'er's closer? Seein' the dire need, an' all?"
"Silverton's the only near community with distilleries an' beer-makin' establishments on a grand scale enough ter meet our needs, is what." Mr Kinnaird slipping this in under Mr Taine's guard. "The only place you'll be able ter buy enough stock ter see us through till our reg'lar supplies start up agin'."
Henrietta looked at her sweetheart, who returned the action with a similar expression.
"Well, what d'ya intend we should do, in this here sity'atin?" Henrietta pinning Taine with a sharp dark blue eye.
"We've figured thet out, ladies." Mr Taine almost smiling, so relieved was he to be on solid ground once again. "If'n ye both go over ter Jack Fleming's Livery Stable, he'll be able ter supply ye both with the wherewithal needed—at our expence, in course. Thank you, ladies, thank ye, oh, ever so!"
Jack Fleming, over on Carpieston Avenue, had owned and operated his Livery Stable ever since the days, in Red Flume, when there had been thirteen other stables vying for the local custom. But he, being a man of extraordinary cold-bloodedness and stamina, had withstood the broils and tribulations of the years to such an extent that now, in June 187-, he found himself the sole laird o' the estate; in other words, everyone else having given up the unequal struggle, he had now become master of all he surveyed, the only Livery Stable in town.
If you wanted your mount's hooves re-shod, Jack was your man; if you required buying a new mount Jack was there also to see to your every requirement, at his own prices, of course—it being said he had only ever once been beaten down in price, and that by a young girl passing through the township called Mattie Ross, who had threatened him with her pet ferocious lawyer, J. Noble Daggett. But now, in the fine hot summer of his sole reign over the livery requirements of the entire township, Jack felt able and capable of pulling-off almost any lay he felt like, within reason, of course.
"Jack? Jack? Jack, where'n hell are ye?"
Henrietta, knowing her man, determined to start off on the right foot.
The open door of the main stable was blocked for a moment as the owner of the establishment made his way back into daylight from the dark shadows within, pulling a stray strand of hay from his shirt-front as he came.
"Wha's it? Hell'n damnation, cain't a man get ter takin' a quiet nap without—oh, it's yersel's, eh?"
Even Jack knowing better than to get on the wrong side of the two women, whose combined reputations were celebrated across the Territory far and wide.
"An' the same ter you, Jack." Sally taking no prisoners, either. "Al'lus nice ter make yer acquaintance. So, Mr Taine, Mr Kinnaird, an' most o'the other owners of all the bars in Red Flume allows we're in their employ, ter save the town from imminent doom. So, what's the plan? The saloon owners' payin' all requisite bills, it bein' said afore-hand."
"Yeah, yeah, I got the double-eagles already in my money-box." Jack not seeming much enthused over the prospect, all the same. "Right, what ye requires, fer said journey—ter Silverton, I unnerstan's?"
"Yeah." Henrietta agreeing in principle.
"Well, what's needed is a large, an' a middlin'; the same I've got ready oiled an' greased." Jack nodding to himself, obviously pleased at a job already mostly well-done. "It'll take six fer the large, an' another two fer the middlin'; an', likely, two more, fer spare—emergencies, yer knows."
"Jack?" Sally cutting into this unmeaning flow.
"Yer knows my name, sure enough." Jack waxing facetious, knowing no better.
"Jee-sus, what, ma'am? Tell me, an' I'll give yer my answer, is all."
"What in hell'r yer talkin' about?" Sally leaning forward, her expression meaner than a coyote denied its antelope dinner. "Large 'uns, an' middlin' uns? What the hell?"
"Oh, thet's quite alright." Jack nodding again, as if a mystery had been cleared up. "The wagons, leddies. Mr Taine's filled me in on the details of what's needed, in this here emergency; an' what's needed, I tells yer both straight, is the mightiest wagon in the Territory, is all."
Henrietta here losing her own, never high, stock of patience came out fighting too.
"Jack, spill the beans, in a straight-talkin' manner or, by God, I'll rip yer tongue out with my bare fingers; an' yer knows fine if pushed I kin do sich, if required."
Jack, having by now recovered from the mists brought on by his short nap, finally realised he was edging ever closer to the verge of a high and steep cliff.
"Right, right, I get's yer meanin', leddies." He took a deep breath, and launched out on the sea of known facts in the matter. "Mr Taine told me what amount of stock you leddies'll be returning with. A hefty total; so much so there's only one wagon'll take the strain o'the whole amount in one go. You needin' a second, smaller, wagon fer support purposes an' horse feed an' water, in course. I had a mighty hard time throwing all the rubbish aside, an' draggin' the thing in'ta the light of day, y'know. Ain't seen daylight in, oh, fifteen year straight. But I took all yerstern over the dam' thing an' now she looks like she was jes' built a week since. Here she be, how's about thet, leddies?
He having escorted the women into the depths of the high wide stable, while he explained himself, they found themselves near the far end, where there were no stalls but an empty space filled with hay bales and other miscellaneous odds and ends. On the right side of the central aisle stood a normal covered wagon; the kind that two horses would find no trouble in pulling across the whole Territory. On the left side, however stood what at first sight, to the astonished women, looked like an ocean-going steamship run far aground; its canvas covered forefront rising steeply in the air, while its stern did likewise.
"Jee-sus, what the hell's thet?"
"Thet, Miss Nichols, is yer actual Conestoga Wagon."
Stunned into silence Henrietta, and more so Sally, stood beside the huge machine, taking in its sweeping lines, high top, and obviously huge weight. Henrietta recovered first.
"Would yer mind puttin' forth some in the way o'facts an' sizes here?"
Jack, rather proud than otherwise of his amazing wagon, was nothing loth.
"Stands some eleven feet high, ma'am." He nodding yet again, as he reeled these points off. "Eighteen feet long, an' aroun' four feet sumthin' wide. Can, if necessary, carry a load amountin' ter some six ton, at a speed o' generally fifteen mile a day with six hosses. Mr Taine tellin' me the weight o'the cargo ye'll be returnin' with'll be aroun' four an' a half ton, per'haps a smidgin more. So, plenty o'leeway there, leddies."
Both Henrietta and Sally had listened to this description with ever growing bewilderment, neither having ever driven one of the monsters before.
"You ever driven one o'they afore?"
"Nope, cross my heart, an' all thet twaddle." Sally's brown eyes scintillating with sparks. "Driven thet or'nary wagon, there, many a time; but thet there ocean-goin' liner—why, it'd take a whole team o'six or eight, or meb'be ten, at least. I mean, look at they wheels? They're strapped with metal tyres an' about eight inches wide, an' must weigh a hundred pounds each, easy."
"A hundred an' twenty, t'be exact, leddies." Jack full of unwanted information. "The entire machine comin' in at around two an' a half ton itself. But, never fear, this one's bin fitted with a solid drivin' seat as ye can see, jes' like to a buckboard, complete with hand-brake an' everythin' else requisite t'an easy ride. One driver'll find, after gettin' ter know the way its mind works, o'course, thet there ain't an easier wagon type in all Ameriky ter drive. It'll take yer through snowfields; it'll take yer across rivers near chest deep; it'll keep on across the widest deserts or plains without losin' a wheel or breakin' an axle; hell, it'll keep goin' till Hell freezes over, an' then some."
"It needs six hosses, y'say?"
"Yep, considerin' what weight ye'll be comin' back with, six's the least ye'll be able ter do it with." Here Jack again showed his expert knowledge. "In course, it all rests on the axles bein' well greased, an' kept so; but I've done all thet, a'ready. Once ye gets the dam' thing movin' ye'll find it more or less goes by itself; though I got'ta warn ye, stoppin' or brakin' sudden ain't advised."
"Why?" Sally, believing this was something she could stand hearing an explanation of.
"Momentum, ma'am." Jack, obviously following a lifelong habit, nodded again. "Once the thing goes, it's so heavy that stoppin' the dam' thing becomes a career in itself. We here talkin' about it movin' on a more nor less level plain, in course. Ye'll find it don't like goin' uphill, neither, ter any recognisable extent. An', ante-likewise, goin' downhill, if the slope be anythin' more'n a one in twelve incline, well, yer might as well write yer will, throw it overboard to some kindly spectator passing by at a ever-increasing rate o'knots, an' give yersel' up ter the ensuing comin' life, is all."
The next day, ten miles nor-west of Red Flume, Henrietta and Sally found that Jack had not been exaggerating in any single given detail. Sally had six brown horses up-front, tied together with a multiplicity of leather reins and thongs, buckles and straps, and other miscellaneous bits and pieces. She held the guide reins in her right hand, while fiddling with a long whip in the opposite; but this latter had turned out to be more of a hindrance than not, the horses taking no notice whatever of its cracks over their heads.
But there was no reply, of course. They had set the expedition up in line astern, like ships at sea. In front Sally with her giant Conestoga; bringing up the rear Henrietta, with her ordinary wagon, a Prairie Schooner, pulled by a mere two horses, two more trailing behind on leading reins attached to the rear of her wagon. This all resulting in as much dust and noise as an army trekking across country in a windstorm. They had, after much discussion, decided that if one wanted to stop and discuss the state of the nation for any reason, Henrietta would let fly with a shot from her Sharps .50; while Sally, on her part, would simply bring the mighty wagon she commanded to a halt, thereby blocking Henrietta's forward progress—this latter action she hereby bringing into play.
"So, what?" Henrietta, standing by the buckboard of the mighty vessel, already out of breath and developing a mean streak at the physical effort needed to control even her small light wagon.
"Harry, what the hell'r we doin' out here?" Sally saying it as she perceived it. "This is madness; y'realise how dam' heavy this thing is, an' how bloody difficult it is t'drive, even over this more'n nor less flat terrain? Dam' near impossible, is what. An' the coming back, loaded down with booze, if'n we ever makes it t'Silverton in the first place, is gon'na be hell on earth, every dam' foot o'the way."
"Gal, we got three days t'reach our destination." Henrietta here mistress of the important points of their combined futures. "One day ter load up with four ton o'whisky an' what'all, an' another three days ter make it back ter Red Flume. Thet there givin' us a two day leeway a'fore the city of our hearts runs out'ta licker entire, an' the end o' the world ensues therein. Buck up, baby; buck up, snap them there steers in'ta action, an' let's get our butts on the move—we not makin' progress by standin' here in the dust yappin' at each other."
Three hours later, just after midday, came a further hold-up. Sally halted once more, Henrietta, mouthing silent obscenities, walked forward to the Conestoga's prow again, to stare up into the face of the young beautiful woman she had thought, up to this point, she loved most in all the world.
"Sal, what the hell?"
"Don't gim'me thet there tone o'voice, darlin'." Sally quite fed up enough herself to hurl back any level of personal abuse received from anyone. "We appears t'be headin' up some of a long gentle incline; one which the hosses is havin' trouble with, I'm havin' trouble with the hosses, an' the Conestoga, meantime, is simply laughin' at us all, whiles diggin' in its heels with every step; jes', I believes, fer the fun o'the thing."
An hour and a half later, after leading the two spare horses up and attaching them to the Conestoga in the lead, Sally, now driver of an eight-horse rig, finally managed to haul the huge wagon past the incline and onto more level terrain again.
"God, at this rate it'll take us a month ter reach Silverton, by which time Red Flume'll have died o'thirst behind us, entire. Nuthin' but bleached bones an' farewell notes blowin' in the wind t'be seen when we does get back there."
Henrietta giving free rein to her sense of the way Life in general was heading for them both.
The evening couldn't arrive soon enough for the intrepid adventurers, and when it did they took the first opportunity to run off the trail a few yards and make camp. It took no time at all for the horses to be fed and watered, from the stocks in the Prairie Schooner; have running hobbles attached to their legs, and led away to nibble at what grass they could find. After which Henrietta made up their own meal of beans, bacon and coffee.
"Jeez, I need that." Sally groaning in satisfaction while taking another long swallow of the dark beverage Henrietta persisted in calling coffee. "Did we make our distance t'day, lover?"
"Jest about, near as I can figure." Henrietta nodding as she munched on a piece of bread dipped in the pan of bacon and beans. "Mmm, thet's good. We gon'na throw down our blankets out here, lady? Or sleep in the Conestoga?"
"Out here, I'd feel too constricted an airless in the wagon." Sally making this decision quick as lightning. "Anyway's, thet there wagon an' I's beginning ter have words t'gether, about what I considers a fair day's work, an' what it does. It'd probably creak all night, jes' ter annoy me an' keep me awake."
The morning broke blue, warm, and bright; the sun quickly rising in the sky and getting down to the business of broiling alive any traveler under its influence.
Driving positions had been swapped; Henrietta now driving the Conestoga, while Sally relaxed with the much more controllable Prairie Schooner; otherwise everything proceeded as the day previous. It had taken Henrietta almost quarter of an hour to get the wagon moving at all; jollying her team of six horses forward firstly with whistles, then shouted commands, followed by dire threats of what fate awaited them in Silverton if they didn't get their butts in motion. At last the Conestoga allowed it would move and the two-wagon train headed on out once more. But not for long.
Henrietta saw the three horsemen coming out of the thick brush on her right hand side almost as they straddled the trail, making her wrench the hand-brake on and haul back on her reins. Even so the men had to jostle their mounts out of the way as the wagon kept on at its own pace for another ten yards before trundling to a halt. The three horsemen all having bandanas over their faces to hide their features.
"Jee-sus Chr-st, woman, cain't yer control thet there wagon, nearly had me under the dam' thing."
"Sorry, needs distance ter come ter a halt. Nuthin' I kin do about it."
The first speaker, a tall dark-haired man in a long yellow duster, had been waving a revolver in his right hand, but now he replaced this in its holster, instead leaning over his saddle to examine the Conestoga and other wagon.
"Chr-st, ain't seen one o'they in, what, ten year?" His voice was muffled under the bandana, but still audible enough. "So, what's yer purpose, sis, hauling thet monster over this here trail? By the by, if'n yer has anythin' in the way o'money I'd be right pleased ter relieve yer of the concern o'keepin' hold o'same."
Sally had halted in her turn, behind the Conestoga, where she sat watching events unfold in front of her. Neither of the three men, after a cursory glance, had thought it worthwhile to canter along to harass her in person, being much more interested in the Conestoga and its driver. This inattention allowing her to place her Henry rifle at her left foot, out of sight, while she loosened the .38 Colts in her two hip holsters; the thieves not having noticed, under her own long dust-coat, that she was so armed. Meanwhile Henrietta, seeing no point in not doing so, had been informing the thieves of the reason for her and Sally's presence.
The leader of the bushwhackers straightened in his saddle, glanced at his companions, and tilted his hat to scratch his head. This complex matter attended to, he sighed heavily and addressed Henrietta once more.
"Well, sis, what yer tells us is right tragic; in fact so much so,—an' me an' the boys here having jes' as tender hearts as anyone else in the Territory,—I'll tell yer what we're gon'na do."
There was a pause while he brought his conclusions to a logical stand in his mind; while Sally, unnoticed, put her left hand on the butt of her pistol, ready for anything.
"We're gon'na give yer both free rein ter carry on yer charitable journey." He nodded to himself, pleased with his turn of phrase. "A dry town's a mighty horrible an' tragic state o'being fer anyone ter suffer; an' me an' the boys feels right sorely fer the poor citizens o'Red Flume, thet way. An' me, holdin' an inclination ter visit the community previous named at whatever time in the future, I doesn't want ter be welcomed there as the gent who stopped the whisky from comin' through in time o'need. So's, yer can whip yer steeds up, an' carry on ter Silverton, leddies, an' our best wishes fer the success o'your charitable mission follows yer, entire. G'bye."
Two minutes later the three hold-up specialists had disappeared back into the high thick brush from whence they had come; leaving both Sally and Henrietta to scratch their own heads.
"Well, I never thought thet'd be the outcome." Sally standing by the front off-wheel of the Conestoga gazing up at her lover. "Was mighty close ter openin' up with my Henry, afore they had second thoughts. You OK, darlin'?"
"Fine, gal, jes' fine." Henrietta grinned down at her lover, settling her hat more firmly on her head. "Everything's goin' straight an' true. I'm gettin' ter know the in's an' out's o'this beast, an' its way o'thinkin'; an' am pretty well sure we can come, the both o'us, ter a understanding thet'll see us through ter Silverton. You go back ter the Schooner, doll, while's I gets this liner back in motion."
"Well, good luck ter you, is all I can say." Sally far more dubious about her partner's chances than not.
Just at midday, as they stopped for a light meal by the banks of a small stream, its waters tinkling over a shallow bed of pebbles, their next meeting with a traveler occurred. As they rested, sitting cross-legged together by the Conestoga, munching on some biscuits and drinking water from the stream, a horse's hooves could be heard approaching from Red Flume's direction. Turning to look over her shoulder Sally made out who the rider was.
"One hoss, small frame, not heavy-built; why, it's a gal." She hunched round further for a better look. "Young 'un, sits her mount pretty well. Here she comes; be nice now, Harry."
"Hi'ya, ma'am," Sally rising to her feet to greet the visitor. "How's things; fancy a cup o'coffee an' a biscuit?"
The rider's mount was a small sized brown pony, with a white flash on its nose. The rider showing herself to be hardly more than a girl, in her late teens. She sat her mount for a short moment, studying the two waggoneers, then smiled and dismounted.
"Hi'ya, you'll be Miss Knappe an' Miss Nichols?"
"The very same." Sally nodding her agreement at this identification. "An' you'll be—?"
"M'names Jessie, Jessie Reynolds." She stood by the side of the women, a friendly light sparkling in her light brown eyes. "Mr Taine, back in Red Flume, thinkin' ye might need sich assistance has sent me along ter provide help, if sich's needed mind yer, in roustin' along thet there team an', consequential, the Conestoga."
"Oh, aye?" Sally raising her eyebrows in query.
"Only if yer wants sich, Mr Taine was adamant in sayin'." Jessie grinned wider than ever. "Me, y'see, havin' a lifetime's experience drivin' Conestoga's since I was head-high ter one o'their wheel-hubs."
"How's thet, Jess'?" Henrietta allowing her interest to come to the fore.
"My pa owns a haulage company, back over t'Yellow Dog." Jessie shrugged her shoulders at the curious ways of Life. "Started with four Conestoga's, an' still has one goin' strong, apart from the moderner wagons we now has. I bin drivin' sich fer all'a ten year or so. Knows every in an' most o'the out's surrounding said Wagon. There ain't any trick a Conestoga can deal thet I doesn't know, an' kin defeat betimes, leddies. Conestogas' is meat an' drink ter me, no kiddin'. If ye see's it right I'd like mighty fine ter accompany ye t'Silverton, as side-driver, if ye fancies sich. Mr Taine already havin' provided me with recompense of a high an' honorable order, thet way."
This point was all Sally needed; she shrugging her own shoulders, and ignoring Henrietta's input, nodding encouragingly to the new member of the team.
"Sounds good, ter me." She glancing defensively at her silent paramour. "Ye'll be a great help, I'm sure; special as ye knows the insides o'the warped mind o'this here dam' Conestoga. What d'you think, Harry?"
"I thinks yer a trifle late in yer question, there, lover." Henrietta sighed, then smiled in her turn. "But Jessie's expert accomplishments in this here direction bein' mighty welcome, an' comin' jes' at the right time, I supposes she'll manage not ter be a hindrance on the way ter Silverton, sure thing."
Sally laughed, punching Henrietta lightly on her shoulder.
"Thet, Jess', is what passes fer a yes, in my partner's language. OK, Harry here an' I'll retire t'the Schooner, leavin' ye in charge o'the Conestoga, an' good luck ter you. Come on, leddy, it'll be a change ter have someone up front ter chat idly with, while's I'm drivin'."
Knowing she had no other course left open to her Henrietta sighed, shook her head, gave Jessie a heartening grin, and followed her partner back to the lighter wagon.
"Coming, dear, coming."
The arrival of the wagon train next day at Silverton was met with encouraging comments from those who were waiting its appearance; a telegraph message having long since awakened the whole of the township to the straitened and dire circumstances of their fellow community.
"I'm Baines, Dan Baines."
A solidly-built man in his late fifties welcomed the ladies almost as soon as Jessie dragged the Conestoga to a halt in the town's main street, in front of a convenient hotel.
"Ye've made good time, I'll allow; didn't expec' ye fer at least another two days."
"Ain't nuthin' t'drivin' a Conestoga, when ye knows what yer doin'." Jessie dismissing Baines' remark with youthful verve and contempt as she clambered down from her high perch. "I takes it ye knows what we're here fer?"
"Sure do, ma'am." Baines nodding energetically, with a wide grin. "Ah, here's yer friends comin' up—howdy, leddies, mighty fine ter see ye all, so quickly, too."
"Mornin'; who're ye, might I ask?" Henrietta putting on her business face.
"Baines, Dan Baines; own a bar over t'Gaites Street." Baines keeping up his friendly front, from long experience. "Mr Taine, over ter Red Flume, sent me a telegraph settin' out jes' what a dam' pickle ye're all in, over thet way. Dam' shame, leddies; we all here in Silverton feelin' yer pain, certin' sure."
At this point Sally, who had hung back to adjust one of her boots, the heel of which was showing signs of parting company with the rest of her footwear, now arrived by the side of her similarly dust covered partner.
"Howdy, howdy all—who're ye?"
Rocking back slightly on his heels Baines, like a true American hero, gulped once then came out fighting for the third time.
"Baines, Dan Baines, I owns a bar thet'a'way." He pointing with his right hand somewhere vaguely off in the distance. "Mr Taine, yester—"
"Yeah, we been through all thet." Henrietta feeling it high time for action more than words. "So, where's the nearest distillery, whisky shop, saloon with more stock than it needs, or other place o'business wherein we can buy up the entire stock o'whisky presently within the borders o'this fair city? We here, ye realises, bein' on a tight schedule."
"Oh, we got all thet sorted fair n'square, jes' follow me—or, meb'be, if'n I gives yer the directions ye'll find yer own way?"
"Too right, laddie." Henrietta gasping to get down to business as quickly as possible. "Tell us the way, an' we'll be thar, faster than a racoon up a tree."
The Talbarton Distillery, home of the best bourbon in the Middle West, or so its advertisements said, sat in the southern part of the fair community of Silverton; in an area otherwise given over to livery stables, stock corrals, light industry, and an up and coming gasworks—the latter making its presence felt, via the nose, over a wide area, when the wind blew in the wrong direction.
"Jee-sus, what's thet awful smell?" Sally encountering said establishment first. "Thought distillery's were supposed t'smell like perfume factories?"
"Thet there's the local gas-works, lover." Henrietta being up on the high-points of Silverton's social get up and go attitude. "The distillery's over here, see?"
The ladies' fame, or tragic expedition, or both, had obviously preceded them; for, at the main door of the three–storey brick office building which housed the whisky-making enterprise, stood a welcoming committee of no less than six persons; at the head a tall white-haired military-looking gentleman, with the air of one of the Old-time Prophets, mainly due to a white beard of incredible thickness and length reaching half-way to his waist.
"Welcome indeed, fair ladies." He setting off with what seemed a well-rehearsed encomium; though looking closely at his guests he immediately began to falter. "—er, we here are highly aware of the significance of our honour in—"
"Where be the whisky?" Sally cutting through this verbiage before the man could get his first wind. "An', come t'that, where's the beer barrels? We bein' on a mighty tight schedule, hereabouts."
Stopped short, before he had really begun to get a head of steam up, the bearded gentleman, huffed a little, puffed some more, then, surrendering forthwith, waved an unsteady hand at another man on his left.
"Glad ter meet ye all, ladies." This representative of the whisky industry being much younger, beardless and, apparently, full of beans and bonhomie in equal parts. "Tod Hamilton's the moniker, call me Tod. Right, we know how much needed your cargo is gon'na be, back ter Red Flume, so we've already set certain operations in progress. Ye'll need to leave the, er, large wagon—Jeez, it's big ain't it?,—with us fer the rest o'the day. We needin' ter put in some wooden barriers ter hold the beer casks, whiles the crates o'whisky'll need settling safe with leather straps an' cushionin'. How much, apropos of thet, talkin' in weight, can thet there rail car hold, in one go, as it were?"
Jessie, hitherto ignored as a mere wagon driver, now placed herself in a winning position in the discussion.
"Some six ton, overall, mister." She affecting a been there done that attitude like a good 'un. "We'll need'ta increase the team ter eight, thereby, but we came prepared fer thet, anyway's. Ye'll be puttin' the barrels for'rard ter the front o'the wagon, in course; crates o'whisky taking up the middle an' rar'. Spread the weight evenly, yer knows."
"Just so, ma'am, jus' so." Tod here realising he was in the presence of a young but forceful personality, who dam' well knew of what she spoke. "I'll get the men right on it. When's yer leavin' time, may I ask?"
"Mid-day ter'morrow." Henrietta nodding positively, taking no prisoners in this matter. "Not a minute after noon, no sir'ree. We got'ta get back ter Red Flume a'fore she dries up entire, crumbles back in'ta the dust from whence she came an', on arrival back there, we finds nuthin' but shiftin' sands—like ter thet poem, y'know the one, Ozymand-alay, or some sich moniker. Anyway's, thet's the sity'atin Red Flume presently encounters; an' it's up ter me, my partner, an' Jessie here, ter save the town from thet awful culmination o'negative happenin's. So I suggest ye get ter business pronto, as fast as possible, an' without any more dam' hesitatin' nor fancy speeches. Beer, whisky, bourbon, rum, as much as ye likes—we'll take it all, an' more besides, thankin' ye all kindly."
Next day, just after high noon, they were back on the trail, now going in the opposite direction, nearing Red Flume with every yard crunching to fine dust under the wide iron-rimmed tyres of the Conestoga's mighty wheels; Jessie still at the helm, now with no less than eight horses under her professional control. Back in the smaller Schooner, now itself loaded with extra crates of whisky, Henrietta and Sally were applauding their good fortune.
"Good job Jessie showed up, after all." Henrietta acknowledging the fortuitous nature of the event. "The Conestoga, loaded as she is now, there ain't no way I, nor you young 'un, could navigate nor drive the dam' thing."
"Don't talk so loud, it might hear ye, an' then where'd we be?" Sally, a little light-headed at the fact they were actually on their return journey with their cargo. "Givin' Jess' all good regard, all the same. She handlin' thet giant wagon like to it was a child's plaything. Jest shows ye what part experience takes in these things. God, look at those dam' wheels, wider than some sidewalks I've been on."
"Well, let's jest hope it don't rain, a'tween here'n Red Flume." Henrietta herself not quite clear-headed at the moment, or she wouldn't have been so idiotic as to mention the possibility—well knowing how delicately tuned the Fates' ears are. "Thet thing bogged in the mud, we can jes' kiss savin' Red Flume g'bye, is all."
Sally, the reins of the wagon in her gloved hands, sat back on the buckboard to gaze at her partner.
"Harry, can ye hear me?"
"I said yeah, didn't I; what's up, youngster?"
There are arrivals, and there are arrivals; some take place in the mid hours of the night to little or no fanfare; a few happen in clamorous cold morning settings with just a few family members, irritated at the long wait, present; some in the bright glare of midday, with crowds of well-wishers in the thousands looking on applauding vigorously the great life-changing event. Now, which of these choices met the three ladies as they reached the environs of Red Flume, two days later?
"Jeez, Harry, look at the crowd." Sally leaned forward, jerking the reins of the Schooner to make the two horses move just a little faster than the gentle stroll they had been taking till now that morning.
"God, most o'Red Flume's there, no mistakin'." Henrietta herself astonished at the reception awaiting them. "Must be a hell-uv'a lot o'parched throats there; whisky must'a run out faster than we reckoned."
Men, and women, on horseback came riding out on each side of the trail as the two wagons slowly approached journey's end. With fine disregard for the local by-laws they dragged a variety of firearms from their holsters and made the sunny morning resound with the thunder of their weapons, those that didn't just mis-fire. At the very edge of town the crowds had over-spilled the sidewalks, blocking Main Street entire, necessitating Jessie bringing the mighty Conestoga wagon to a halt with all the expertise of which Henrietta and Sally now knew the girl was possessed. At the head of the waiting throng Mr Taine stood resolute and proud, like an ancient King overlooking his subjects; and it was he, once the shooting had wound down, mostly at Sheriff Donaldson's shouted insistence, who gave the welcoming encomium.
"God, ye're back, an' not a dam' minute too early, neither. Couldn't ye have made it at least a day quicker?"
Sally looked at Henrietta; Jessie glanced back at both; then, in unison, they gave Mr Taine their own welcoming speech—which amounted to only a few, though well-chosen, words.
There was a long silent pause, as of Time itself dying, then in one huge roar the audience of spirituous liquor-lacking citizens allowed Henrietta, Sally, and Jessie, were in the right.
"Whoopee,—Yee-haw—Give it t'him, gals,—Thet there's the spirit, leddies—hey, talkin' o'which, when's a portion o'thet there nose paint comin' on the market? I'm dry as a gopher in a sandpit."
Sally nudged her inamorata's shoulder, from their position on the Schooner.
"Well, look's like we're home, leddy."
"Yeah, an' thank God, too, An' if I never see thet dam' Conestoga agin', why, I won't cry one single tear, babe. Jeez, I could do with a drink, ter wash this dam' dust down.—"
They glanced at each other, amidst the ongoing noise and hilarity of the all-encroaching crowd pushing about the conquering heroines, then Sally broke out in a peal of laughter which Henrietta took up with equal joy.
Another 'Red Flume' story will arrive shortly.