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I watched the Wells Fargo stagecoach tip up on two wheels then roll on its side while a cold wind whipped my hat against the side of my face. From where I sat on my horse, there was no sound as it fell, sliding toward the place we call Sandy Cliff, southeast of my house. In the strange slowness of its tumbling, I considered for a time that the wind had tipped it. The box quit rolling at the very last point from which it could hold; another inch and it surely would topple over. A full minute seemed to drag by before the blanket of quiet was torn by the sound of mules squealing. When the noise came, it was a roar of sound: cracking wood and shearing metal, people crying for their lives, the animals’ awful bray, stirred and blended by a wind that threatened to tear every leaf from every tree, every tree from every root.
My horse and I had come to a stop to listen for quail at a stand of brush that marked the foot of Sandy Cliff when we saw the ruckus high above. It was a long climb up the side of the shifting powder that faced the cliff. I’d long ago discovered a series of irregular clumps of rock that made the only reliable route, and it was only manageable afoot. Riding the long way around would take half an hour or more, for in this weather my horse thought every branch that swayed was a spook coming at him.
I kneed Baldy through the brush and untied the morning’s hunt, a clutch of headless dove and quail tied by their feet in rawhide and hanging from the pommel of my saddle, found a broken branch high as I could reach, and hung them there. No telling how long I’d be climbing and no sense making wolf bait out of my horse. I left his reins hanging loosely from a stump where he could rest and forage, then started up the hill, shotgun in hand, working my way across the irregular rock clusters. Nearer the rounded edge at the top, there was nothing I could do but scramble on my hands and knees, trying to keep the muzzle of the shotgun clear.
When I could see the coach, I called, “You folks all right?” The voices that answered could have been men or women or both, hollering for help; a tormented howling mixed with the mules’ bellowing. I saw the poor animals now, kicking at the coach and like to killing themselves and the folks inside. While the front pair scrambled and fought for footing, lodged sideways in the loose sand, all but burying their rear team, the back pair of mules groaned and fought, slowly dying of their broken bones under the cloud of reddening dust.
I hollered again, saying, “Where’s your driver?” Another flurry of voices answered me, none of it I could make out. When at last I stood upon the edge, I thought for a bit that I was dreaming, for I’ve had a troublesome nightmare of being trapped in a coach or a wagon while it slid down a slope with me tumbling inside and helpless. The Butterfield nine-seater had lodged itself sideways, deep in the sand, and looked to be in danger of toppling the rest of the way. One of the rear mules was already dead. His harness mate was wild-eyed and foaming. One look at him and I wished the poor animal had died of fright before I got there.
“You be still until I loosen these animals,” I said, quieter now.
A man’s voice hollered, “Get me out!”
I laid the shotgun to one side and took my small .32 from my pocket. Three bullets quieted the tortured mule, but commenced all manner of howling from the humans in the contraption.
The front axle had broken and every wheel was cracked. The tongue was still fixed to the coach and the doubletree pinned the rear team fast, twisted and wrenched as it was, and all the chinks and buckles of leather and rope were knotted. I figured there was no way I could unharness the living mules. They were tangled and caught, and one dead mule was on top of part of the lines. The two living, frightened animals would surely work themselves to death if I didn’t loosen them from their trap.
I pulled the hatchet I’d brought for the birds from the sling at my waist, and went to chopping at the leather straps holding the mules. I had to shake my head at the waste of gear I was cutting; that’d cost Wells Fargo a pretty penny when this was righted. Reckon I’d make good on a couple of these straps for them, since I was the one cutting them. I saw the lead reins were half-hitched to the rail next to where the driver’s feet usually rested. Well, I got the two living mules up and standing and, for that few minutes, there was nothing but silence coming from the people in the coach. I leaned over as far as I dared and looked off the cliff, then I circled the place, hunting for the man or men who should have been driving from the seat on top. There was no sign of anyone, so I sucked in a breath and hitched up my split skirt, getting ready to climb up for a look inside. Tender at first, I gave the coach box a wiggle, to see if it was bound to slide off the edge. I determined that if it should start to go, I would jump clear, and not try to ride it down, as I believed the thing would likely tumble. It seemed steady, so I climbed up on the leaf spring, setting the shotgun on the coach’s side which was now its roof. There was a loud cry from more than one voice, “Robbers! Highwaymen! You can have my watch and chain, but don’t shoot me!”
“Hush, all of you,” I said. “This isn’t a holdup.” I slid the shotgun to a place it looked like it would stay, and got myself up on the side of the coach where I could stand. The walls were painted and finished up slick and now were covered with sand that made them slippery. I yanked on the door. The whole rig was racked at the corners and the door stuck tight. A man on the inside pushed while I tugged, until it finally came open and fell against the side. Someone inside gave a cheer. I pulled off my hat and stuck my head in the doorway. All I could see of the inside was a dark jumble of clothes and faces. “Any of you too bad hurt to get up here and climb out?” I said.
“Merciful heavens! It is a woman,” said a man’s voice. “Have you come to rob us?” The fellow looked to be standing where he could nearly reach the doorway. There were two women, one sort of hiding the other, and another man. The standing man seemed to be young and pretty stout, but the other fellow was old, probably older than my father-in-law.
“Give those ladies a hand up here, mister.”
“How do we know you aren’t going to shoot us where we stand?” he said. I pulled back and sat up stiff. “Seems more likely I should be worried about you, the bunch of you running hell-for-leather across my place. How come you decided to head this direction? Across this way there isn’t any road at all, just a cow track. You’re not even headed to town.”
“Ask the driver. If you can sober him up. He got up drunk this morning and has been surly the whole trip. Now let me up.”
I ignored the fellow’s outstretched hand and stood again on the slick wall of the stage. I knew all of the drivers who regularly came this way. Some of them, I knew their families, too. None of them were the kind to go wild and drunk down the road. The Company surely wouldn’t put up with that. I hollered down, “Who was driving it? Mr. B, or was it Dailey? Where’s he at?”
Three people looked back and forth, shaking their heads. I looked as far as I could see from up on top, standing up. The bushes at the side of the trail were undisturbed. If the driver had fallen, it had been before the mules charged up this sandy hill. “My name’s Sarah Elliot. I’ll go hunt your man. Mister, you and that lady help her friend stand up there,” I said. “Are you able to get up? How about her? Is she faint?”
“Oh, my Lord,” said the woman, “I think she’s dead.” She drew away from her friend. “Get me out of here, please,” she cried. She was a young woman, probably no older than twenty or so. I reached in through the doorway and she took my hand but she had no strength in her grip. She’d got a good crack on her head and blood seeped down her face onto her shoulder. I had to take off my glove to get hold of her hand.
I said, “Give her a leg up, men! Don’t stand on ceremony.” With a good bit of pushing and pulling and a genuine struggle by the poor woman, she was finally up with me. However, soon as we were both on it, the side of the coach began to sag and cracking noises came from the wood. “Get on down there,” I told her. “Take that step on the spring there and lift up your skirts so you don’t tear them. Go on, pull ’em up or you’ll trip. No one’s here to see you.” Then I turned to the young fellow. “You better pass the other lady up here next.”
His eyes widened and he stammered, “I won’t. I—I sha’n’t.” He looked to be some kind of bona fide sissy. Eastern clothes, a fresh white collar hanging by one button. Afraid of a poor dead woman.
“Well, I’m not helping you out if you leave her in there. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” The other passenger looked to be a man every bit as fancy as the young one, though scuffed up quite a bit more. The lady standing next to the wheel, I couldn’t rate, but she seemed genteel enough. I turned to her and hollered, “You there, hand me those cutoff rigging lines. We’ll tie up a sling and lift her out.”
“Get me out of here,” the young man demanded. “I insist you get me out first.”
“Then who’d tie up the girl?” I said. “What if she were your sister? Wouldn’t you bless some kind man who saved her mortal remains and removed her from this unnatural coffin?”
The woman standing below me spoke up. “Oh, she’s not his sister, of that you can be sure, miss.” She passed me the leather and I squatted on the coach’s side, pulling up the length of it and searching for a usable stretch.
“Please,” said the old gentleman from inside the dark chamber. “A bit of decorum. Miss Castle is dead.”
The woman made a face as if she might cry, and said softly, “It’s only that I knew her and Mister—Doctor—Fairhaven there. That’s all.”
“You’re a doctor?” I asked him. “What in tarnation kind of doctor is afraid of a dead woman?”
The young man puffed himself up. When daylight hit his face, I saw he was not so young as I’d first imagined. More thirty than twenty. He said, “Of letters, not medicine. Philosophy. Literature. The study of higher thought, wisdom of the ages . . .”
“Ah. Wisdom of the ages,” I repeated. I shuffled down the leather straps into the coach and tied my end of them around the axle’s broken nub. “Well, that ought to have built in you a sound philosophic respect for the dead. Loop this around her middle.”
With the strap in his hands, he seemed resigned now to do as he was told. After a bit of commotion, I could hear him muttering something about what part of a woman exactly was the middle, but I didn’t think it was worth the breath to argue. It’s part of the confounding humor of Providence that the scalawag had lived and the woman had not. As I know folks, likely she’d have made two of him in kindness and decency. The young woman helped me pull the strap and we laid her friend on the ground. Miss Castle’s neck looked to be broken. I got back on the side and motioned to the old man next.
“I believe my arm’s damaged, madam,” the old man said. “May not be broken, but it hurts considerably.”
“Help him up, there, Mister-Doctor Fairhaven.” I could see Fairhaven was in no mood to be accommodating, but again, he did as I ordered. I’d about got the old fellow halfway through the door with his one good wing twined around my right arm. Dr. Fairhaven gave him quite a shove and the struggle of getting him on top of the stage knocked the shotgun from where it lay across the window. The thing spun around, pointing straight at me and the old man for a second, before, slicker than a raindrop it slipped down the side of the stage and landed butt down on the ground. The jar caused the works inside to jump, for both barrels went off straight up and like to deafened me for life. I let out a holler and covered my face with my arms. No one was hit directly but the shot went near straight up so we suffered the hail of bird pellet for some minutes. The two mules, which had been calmly eating forage nearby, took off for kingdom come.
Our perch began to slide. For a long, long second, I held fast to the rim, hoping to shove myself clear if it should begin to roll, but the man had me by the waist and was clinging tight to my shoulder in fear. He’d pull us both over with the rig if I couldn’t shake him loose. The stage moved a good foot farther over the side toward our final judgment. The man inside yelled. We held our breaths like they were one thing all connected. Then the movement stopped.
The old man sighed as he clambered down the overturned coach. “I do apologize, miss,” he said. “I very nearly finished the rest of us off. Thank you, kindly, miss.
“Ah, thank you, Mrs. Elliot. Professor Osterhaas. Let me try to be less nuisance and more help. Professor Fairhaven, if you put one foot against the seat back, you’ll do well.” The coach slid another inch. Professor Osterhaas said, “Posthaste, man!”
I reached in a hand for the younger fellow and, although his palms were soft, I found him pretty wiry. He came right out of there like a cork in a bottle. We settled ourselves on firm ground and the stage gave a mighty shake, like it had been wakened from a doze, and lifted itself up, giving one good roll, and planted itself solidly upside down on the steepest edge of the cliff. I coiled up the leather straps, glad to find something to do with my hands to keep them from shaking.
I needed to get three hurt folks and a dead woman back to the house. I surely wished the mules were around to ride. They might be as far as the next leafy bush, or they might have hightailed it for home. I’d have to get Baldy from below, anyway, as I wasn’t about to try to load a dead body on a strange mule; I value my teeth where they are and my brains likewise. Baldy would put up with about anything, and I figured with the cold weather, he’d not mind overmuch. I told the folks to wait and I set off, half walking, half skidding around the sandy slope, and well out of range if the stagecoach decided it needed another turn.
Down where the horse ambled under a cottonwood, I took my day’s kill from the mesquite branch and fastened it to the pommel. Then I rode around the hill and up the ridge to where the tinhorns waited. The dead birds wobbled against my leg. It crossed my mind that with three extra plates at the table, I’d need to either add more birds to the pot or mix it mighty thin, and I hoped my boy Gilbert had had better hunting than I had.
We got the dead woman tied on like a pack. Professor Fairhaven thought I ought to go on home and fetch them a carriage, but I told them there was nothing for it but to start walking, as they’d be purely miserable waiting here in the cold and wind all that time without moving. My buggy wouldn’t hold the lot of them anyway.
We took the long way around where the footing was firm. There we found Mr. B, whose real name was Bennecelli, nearly half a mile from where the stage had tipped over. None of the passengers said they’d heard Mr. Bennecelli fall, and they hadn’t noticed any change in the ride. There was not a mark on him except for a few light scratches that we could lay toward him having tumbled from atop the stage. For all I could tell, he’d died in his seat. And there should have been a man riding beside him. Fairhaven had said Mr. B had acted surly and drunk, but he’s one of the nicest fellows around, so if he’d acted sour to those folks, he must have been sick. He didn’t smell like drink, and I’d never known the man to touch liquor. I figured he must have tied off the reins and the mules, trained as they were not to stop for fear of highway robbers and Indians, and the animals never knew they were driverless. They’d continued in a fairly straight path, too, missing the bend in the road where it goes north by my mama’s place.
Mr. Bennecelli used to sing fancy Italian songs he knew from his home across the ocean. I think he liked that I took the trouble to say his name proper instead of calling him B the way some folks did. He was fairly stout, too. Baldy wouldn’t carry two and none of these were in any shape to haul him. It was a sad thing to leave the man crumpled in the dirt like a tossed-out blanket.
I pointed in the direction of my house. I said, “Yonder it is. You all can rest at my place for the night. Then we’ll see to your belongings and getting you to town.”
My house was already fairly crowded with folks, despite that it’s a nearly new house with eleven full rooms. My mama lives there, too. She goes by Granny to most everyone around. Then there’s my youngest boy, Gilbert, and my father-in-law, Chess, who’s been here since my husband died some years back. My little brother, Harland, and his four children have lived with us since his wife died of cancer in Chicago this last fall. My oldest boy, Charlie, is a lawman for the Arizona Rangers and last I heard he was up in Holbrook. At least he’s a Ranger until he gets back, for the talk around town last week was that they’d disband by the end of the year. Maybe then he’ll see fit to return to school and set an example for his younger brother. We reached the yard. Gilbert was out by the chicken coop with the kettle and a bag to catch feathers, skinning some game birds.
“How many’d you get?” I called.
Gil looked up, and a minute passed while he took in the parade I was leading. Finally he spoke as if it were the most natural sight, and he knew I’d explain by and by. He said, “Fifteen. Grampa is already peeling potatoes.” He looked back over his shoulder at some hens pecking in the chicken yard. “I think Brownie looks like she wants to set some eggs. I put a couple more under her and turned the nesting tub over. You bring home some company?”
“Stagecoach wrecked,” I said. “These folks were inside. Mr. Bennecelli’s dead.” The passengers stood shivering in the wind while I was all but glowing from all the work I’d done wearing this heavy coat. I handed Gilbert my string of birds. “When you get cleaned up, go ahead and start them cooking with some salt if there’s any left.”
I led the strangers into the parlor, stoked up the fire in there good and hot, and told them to rest, and that I’d bring them coffee soon as I could.
My father-in-law, Chess, was cutting up carrots for the stew, and with a scowl on his face he went back over the ones he’d just cut and diced them up finer, making a regular rhythm like a clock. “We don’t need more mouths to feed,” he said. “For once I thought we’d have enough supper.”
“I know it.” I also knew Chess had been cutting his own helpings pretty small. The man was looking drawn and old. We’d been living on our hunting and the remnants of last summer’s canned goods for a month, and winter hadn’t even set in good, yet. “I’m going back up the hill to fetch Mr. Bennecelli.”
Chess stopped his angry chopping. “You’ll need help.”
“I was going to ask Gilbert.”
Chess held the knife before him, staring down at the hilt. His hands trembled all the time now, and I saw his fingers whiten against the wooden handle before he said, “I’ll go along.”
“Chess, I’d rather you stay and sort out the company. The older gent there, Dr. Osterhaas, says his arm’s bad. Might be broken. You look after him.”
Chess said, “Harland can see to that.” He pushed the vegetables into a pile, laying the knife atop the mound. “Blessing!”
Harland’s little girl, my niece, was but five years old, born the day after my thirty-eighth birthday. Blessing came into the room carrying the rag doll Granny had made for her. I was right fond of the child. And I never ceased to wonder at Providence for bringing her to this house, for I’d never have known her or her three older brothers had not the earthquake destroyed Harland’s architecture practice in San Francisco last spring, and the cancer destroyed his wife this fall. Blessing carried her bundle as if it were a live baby. With all the consternation of a new mother, she put her finger to her lips and whispered, “Grampa Chess, Molly is sleeping.”
Her words drowned out his foul mood like water on a fire. “Blessing, my blessing,” Chess said, “you put your baby down now and cut up these potatoes. Cut ’em real small, we’ve got to spread the gravy thin tonight.”
“Poppy says there’d be more ’tatoes if Aunty Sarah’d let him buy us some.”
I knew my brother would gladly buy anything we needed, as I’d heard him offer, but this was not California and even in town there were no potatoes to be had this time of year. Chess knelt in front of her. He patted her shoulder and said, “You ever leave this table hungry, sweet dolly-do-lolly?”
“No, sir, Grampa Chess.”
“Well? The Lord provides all you need, then. That’s all anyone can ask. Mind your fingers with that blade.”
When Chess and I got the wagon hitched up and started back up the hill to get Mr. Bennecelli, I shook the reins and said to Chess but toward the horses, “The Lord provides all you need, too. It’s an ornery old cuss that won’t take good food when it’s put in front of him.” He grunted so I kept talking. “What good’s it do you to skimp on your rations? Last night there were beans left over.”
“Dogs has got to eat, too.”
“That’s why God made mice.”
“You’re a hard woman, Sarah Agnes. Now quit your fussin’ at me. Show some respect. There’s our old friend.”
We laid Mr. Bennecelli under a canvas tarpaulin in our flatbed wagon. We pulled it next to the house where the fence would keep the wolves away and wrapped Miss Castle in an old sheet and put her there, too. The cold tonight will freeze them and those stage passengers can haul them to town tomorrow. I expected to take further stock of our guests and see which of them I’d trust to bring my wagon back before I let them take it to town.
Copyright © 2007 by Nancy E. Turner. All rights reserved.