There were two men at the freighter’s campsite. One was returning with an armload of firewood, the other held a Dutch oven and a three-legged pot. Easterly couldn’t help grinning. He’d learned that in this country if a stranger showed up at mealtime, he’d be offered what they had to share. Whatever it was that these two had would be better than cold biscuits and dry jerky. Let that stubborn Atá Halné keep riding. Easterly would take a hot dinner and conversation tonight and rejoin his companion tomorrow.
Leading his chestnut stud, Easterly turned Skewy toward the trees. Hund emerged from the brush, stuck his nose in the air and ran ahead. Easterly shot one more glance at his partner’s departing back. Too bad Atá Halné refused to stop. His loss. Easterly meant to enjoy any pleasant time when and where he found it. The horses’ ears went up. Even they were looking forward to the evening.
“Hello the camp,” Easterly hollered.
The apparent cook sat down the iron pot and gave Easterly a ‘come on’ wave. The two waggoneers were discussing something. Probably how much more to add to the stew, or whatever they were preparing.
Easterly dismounted, tied Skewy to a nearby tree branch and went to the fire for introductions.
“That’s a fine-looking rig for a young feller,” the wood gatherer said.
The cook waved a ladle down the road where Atá Halné disappeared. “Who’s that riding with you?”
The gatherer moved closer to the horses. “Something wrong with that big chestnut that you ain’t riding him?”
The cook worked over his vessels as he spoke. “Let’s leave the questions, Obie. Let our new friend speak a word.” He looked at Easterly. “I’m Frank, that there’s Obadiah.”
“I’m happy to know you,” Easterly said. Hoping his hint would be taken and reciprocated, he added, “I have some rabbit jerky in my saddlebag. My name’s Easterly, by the way.”
“Save your meat for the trail, boy,” Frank said. “There’s plenty for us all in the fixings.” He positioned the containers around the fire and went to the wagon.
“Seems it’d be easier to ride the stud,” Obie said. “Bigger steps, smoother ride.”
Easterly turned to see Obie studying the horses. “Well, yes, I suppose—”
“Ain’t important.” Frank returned with a fruit jar half full of golden, pulpy liquid he offered to Easterly. “Here’s some special peach juice to wash the dust outta your craw. It’s good stuff.”
Easterly sniffed the jar. It smelled like a Pennsylvania orchard. A pang of homesickness hit as the picture of his mother’s kitchen came to him, she peeling the fruit for a pie. He took three gulps. Didn’t mean to appear greedy, just couldn’t stop. “Sorry,” he said, as he returned the jar to the cook.
“Keep it, boy. It’s all yours. That’ll hold you over ‘til this here’s ready.”
“Mighty nice of you,” Easterly said. “Tastes a little different than I remember, it’s been so long since I had peaches.”
He saw Hund sneak something to chew on from in front of the wagon. Hund moved as in a dream. Easterly couldn’t concentrate. He was woozy, but he had to mind his manners. Here these men were sharing their food and his dog was stealing more. What had he become that he’d accept their hospitality and take advantage of them at the same time?
Wobbly and Disconnected
He took another swig, sat against a tree trunk and contemplated how sorry he was. Being sorry made him sad, and that state of mind made him think of the song his mother sang in the evenings on the old home porch: Annie Laurie.
Obie’s face was in front of Easterly’s nose. “Who was that feller that went on down the road? Is he coming back?”
“Mom sings like a bird song,” Easterly murmured.
“He’s already gone,” Frank said. “Get that jar afore he spills it. No sense wasting opium if we don’t have to.”
Easterly’s scalp tingled, thoughts ranged, eyes unfocused. His neck became too weak to hold his head. He struggled to understand what the freighters were saying.
“We’re cleaners, boy.”
It was the one called Frank, or phooey. Easterly giggled and drooled, and that was funnier.
“You didn’t take care of your horses, boy. You didn’t unsaddle ‘em, unpack ‘em or even let ‘em have a drink. And the river’s right there. No. You rode in, tied ‘em up and looked to fill your own belly. You don’t deserve what you got, so we’re going to accept that you’re giving it to us before you take a long swim underwater. That’s how we clean up the surroundings.”
“Unda wadda.” Easterly tongue went limp.
Alone and in trouble. Will Easterly survive? Leave a comment.
Happy Birthday, Charlie Bodkins.
To read the series, click on September 2017, in the Archive list and start with Tales Old Roy Told.
Writing Fiction is published on Wednesdays.
Thank a veteran. The time to do so is precious.