Friday, March 30, 2018

With Boots On by Bruce Costello

In Bruce Costello's Western flash, grief-stricken Dwight is having a quiet night in his horse-drawn cab.

Twilight. Snowflakes swirl around the street lamps. Dwight sits hunched on the driver's seat of his hansom cab. He's covered in snow and motionless, like a limestone gargoyle. His old nag, too, is unmoving, her head down, and ears held back, as if lost in peevish thought. Dwight and the mare have not budged for over an hour. They left the yard before sunset and still not a single fare.

The street is silent, apart from the judge's gas buggy that goes belching by. No drunken cowboys gallop past saloons and dance halls, high in their saddles, shooting and hollering.

Gunfire has not been heard in De Soto City for many years. The McCleary gang is just a memory, apart from Ma McCleary, who Dwight often visits with flowers in the lunatic asylum where she lives.

Decades ago, Dwight abandoned the roving life of a gunslinger to become a hire cab driver, a domesticated man with slippers and pipe, living with a wife in a white cottage with a rose garden.

The snow begins to fall more heavily, but Dwight does not appear to notice. His eyes beneath snow-covered eyelashes fill with tears that run down his cheeks and freeze in his beard. He thirsts for human company. Someone to talk to. Someone to tell...

Bella, the girl he married with a smile as big as all outdoors and lips like honeysuckle wine, died two days ago, after they'd been forty years together.

The front door bursts open at Flanagan's Bar. Yellow light spills onto the street, together with the sound of voices raised in song and a banjo being picked to pieces. A man wearing a fur coat emerges and strides to the cab.

"Wake up, driver! What's wrong with you? Take me to Esmeralda's Place!"

"Sorry, Sir. My wife died two days ago. I sat by the bed holding her hand for a fortnight and..."

"Sorry, old timer, but death comes to all of us. Get a move on! I haven't got all night!" The man clambers aboard.

The nag sets off at a trot, as quickly as snow and age permit, arriving a quarter of an hour later at Esmeralda's Place. The passenger alights, hands over some money and departs with a curt nod.

Another man approaches the cab, collar turned up and hat pulled low. It's Josiah Richie the banker, well respected in De Soto for piety and charitable deeds.

Dwight's eyes light up. "Good evening, Sir. My wife Bella died two days ago. I feel so miserable, so utterly alone..."

"'Tis the Lord's will. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Excuse me. I need to get home quickly." The banker climbs into the cab and pulls the door shut.

Dwight tugs the reins. The mare moves off, struggling through the snow, and half an hour later reaches the destination.

"I'm afraid that's all the cash I've got on me at the moment," the banker says, alighting and handing Dwight a one cent coin. "Good night."

Dwight and his mare continue on their way, but soon stop alongside the lamplighter trudging homeward, his long pole on his shoulder.

"They're burying my wife tomorrow," Dwight says. "The love of my life, gone, just gone. Alive one moment, dead the next!"

"Talking about it won't bring her back," shouts the lamplighter, crossing to the other side of the street. "You gotta get on with things!"

Dwight drives a little further, then halts, doubles up and gives way to grief. A few minutes pass.

"How much more can a man take?" he cries out to his mare.

The old horse whinnies, and sets off, turning after a hundred yards into Boot Hill Road. Her breath comes in painful gasps. She walks more and more slowly, stumbling and lurching up the hill through deepening snow to the graveyard.

Here lie the bones of Ma McCleary's three sons under a sprawling pine tree. Vases of roses surround their tombstones. Dwight feels an odd kinship with the McCleary boys, outlaws who knew both the joy and the grief of life, and died with their boots on under a storm of bullets from his two Colt 45s.

He climbs down from the seat and embraces his mare. "She's dead, you know, the woman who loved me... they're burying Bella tomorrow. Just before she died I kissed her and she kissed me back. See, look, here it is, the hole they've dug for her, waiting for tomorrow!"

The mare's ears stand to attention. She rests her lips against the top of her master's head. Dwight presses his face into the soft, warm spot behind one of her ears, which smells of musk and hay, sweat and sunshine.

Suddenly a dreadful shudder shakes the horse. She gives a cry and collapses.

Dwight drops to the ground with her, cradling her head in his arms, kissing and caressing. "Don't die," he sobs, over and over again. "You're all I've got left." After a while, he grows quiet, and sits unmoving, blanketed by snow, still embracing the horse.

An hour passes. Dwight struggles to his feet. Clouds of snowflakes whirl round and round in all directions. His head turns and his eyes spin, as if he doesn't know where he is or why he's there.

Sinking to the ground, he sits at the edge of the empty grave, looking down. He imagines Bella at the bottom, gazing up smiling, arms outstretched towards him.

He smiles back at her and the thought occurs to him that there are only two types of people in this world - those alone in life and those united by death.

Leaning forward, boots dangling, Dwight takes a Colt from his coat pocket and puts it to his forehead.

7 comments:

  1. A moving story, Bruce. Your scene-setting is masterful and your portrayal of how self-centered each of us is, so preoccupied with our own affairs that we can't spare a moment even to listen to someone else's problems, spot on! Much to learn from your story.
    Beryl.

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  2. Thank you for this tender story that does not retreat from sorrow. An important reminder that it is often unclear what those around us carry,
    Ceinwen

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  3. Maybe a person can only take so much.Dwight hoped for comfort from his fellow man but some people are afraid of intimacy or too wrapped up in themselves. Nicely told and with a lesson for us all.
    Mike McC

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  4. A sad tale with a strong, well-crafted sense of time and place. Very moving.

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  5. Sad, but a wonderfully told story. Thank you.

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  6. So poignant, and Dwight might have survived it all if someone just took the time to listen and talk to him and let him know he wasn't alone.

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  7. I appreciate stories with not so happy endings. It reflects life more accurately. Thanks

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