A Promise KeptbyAlex De Kok©
This is one of my efforts that has been out in the world as an ebook, but where the rights have reverted to me. I guess I'd rather be read by the many than sold to the few, particularly as self-promotion isn't easy for me, so tends to restrict the sales. Anyway, here it is. I trust that you'll enjoy the read.
The story has its origins in the 600-word tale 'I Get My Looks From My Pa', which, if you're interested, can be found in 'Tales from Snippettsville Issue 10', in the Chain Stories category.
I guess gotta admit I ain't the best-looking galoot in these here parts, and I reckon to explain that I have to say that I get my looks from my Pa. Yeah, the scar on my cheek comes from a broken bottle; the broken nose from a head butt when he came home drunk one night.
I was trying to stop him from hitting Ma, and I guess I managed that fine, 'cause he hit me instead, and not for the first time, nor the last. Ma died when I was thirteen. It was natural causes, nothing that Pa did. At least, not that time, it wasn't. Couple of years afore she died, Ma had gotten the notion into her head to teach me to cook, and I guess it's a good thing that she did, else me and Pa might have starved, because sure as eggs, Pa couldn't have cooked anything to save his life. No way.
Ma had taught me to read and write, too, using our family bible and a torn and dog-eared McGuffey's Reader. When she died, I got by doing odd jobs for folks around town, fetching and carrying for the trail herd cowhands and the like. I didn't starve, but it got darned close at times. I didn't steal, either, because Ma had brought me up honest, and I felt I owed it to her memory to stay that way. I don't think Pa had any such scruples, and I wondered sometimes--heck, I wondered often--what Ma had ever seen in him to make her stay.
When I was fifteen, Pa brought home a new wife, Mary. Only five years older than me, fresh and lovely as a spring morning, slender as a sapling, but with a woman's curves, with dark red hair, long and lustrous when she washed it and let it hang loose while she dried it and brushed it out, and huge green eyes, with long lashes. Looking back, I guess I probably started falling in love with her the first time I saw her. Too naive to show it, of course, and there was no way I was going to say anything foolish when Pa was around. No, siree. I kept any thoughts of Mary to myself. Pa could be a charmer when he wanted, but it didn't take very long for him to show his true colors, and one morning Mary was cooking breakfast with a cut lip and a bruise on her cheek. He came home drunk that night too and started on her again. I'd tried to intervene, but he was too big and mean for me then, and he'd beaten me senseless. Mary tended me, in her gentle way, but I'd had enough. Pa had left the next morning, before I was able to get out of bed, and I'd had to struggle to eat with my own split lip. I'd made my mind up; I'd had 'bout as much as I could stomach from him, Pa or no Pa. I hesitated for a long while, because I didn't want to leave Mary, but I knew that I had to go. Before either Pa killed me or I killed him. I waited until there was just me and Mary there.
"Mary, I've had enough. I'm sorry, truly sorry, but I gotta get out of here. I'm leaving."
She nodded sadly. "I thought you would, Jack. Fact, I thought you would have gone sooner. Can't say as I blame you, either."
"Come with me?" I didn't think she would, but I had to ask, because like I said, even then I was falling in love with her.
She smiled wryly, and shook her head. "You'll get by fine without me, Jack, but I'd get in your way if I came with you, and you'd start to resent me. No, you go, go far. I'll be all right." She gave me a faint smile. "I still owe your Pa for rescuing me."
Rescue, she called it. Taking her from drudgery with a father who hated her and two brothers who took their cues from him, into another life of drudgery with my Pa. If that was rescue, I'd misunderstood the meaning of the word. I took her hand, squeezing her fingers. I guess I was trying to show her, just with the touch of my hand, how determined I was to come back for her. There was a promise in my touch, a promise I had every intention of keeping.
"I'll get some money, and I'll come back for you. It'll take a while, Mary, but I'll be back. I promise."
She smiled again, a little wider, and this time the smile reached her lovely green eyes. "You do that, Jack. I'll be here." She looked away and laughed, short, bitter. "Where else would I go?" She squeezed my hand in hers. "Go far, Jack, get well away from your Pa, and don't tell no-one where you're a-goin'."
I gave her a wry grin. "I ain't got no idea myself, Mary, so how come you reckon I can tell someone?"
She almost laughed. "Mayhap that's for the best, Jack." She looked at me for a long moment. "I'll miss you, Jack Riley. You're somethin' in my life that's good and fine, but if you stay here you'll turn jus' like the rest of 'em, and I don't wish that for you. Go west, Jack, go west."
"I will come back, Mary. I swear, I will. I swear that on Mama's grave."
She looked at me, holding my eyes, and then she nodded. "You do that, Jack. Like I said, I'll be waitin'."
It didn't take me long to gather my few things together in a knapsack, and I was ready. Mary hugged me, and kissed my cheek.
"You take care of yourself, you hear? You be real careful, Jack Riley." She reached into the pocket of her apron, dropped some coins into my hand, and closed my fist over them. "That might help, Jack."
I looked. About eight dollars, and I knew good and well that Mary had little, if any, more for herself. I tried to give the money back to her, but she refused. She could be as stubborn as me when she tried. I guess I accepted the inevitable, and took it, gratefully as I only had about three dollars of my own. I hugged her, and ten minutes later waved to her as I turned the bend in the trail and out of her sight, out of her life. I swore an oath to myself as I walked. Whatever it took, however long it took, I would come back.
I was surprised when I neared town, as there was three wagons there, ox-drawn and fully loaded. I guessed they were freighting west, and I wondered if they needed any hands. There was a spare-looking man, about thirty or so, lounging against one of the wagons, taking life easy. I walked over to him, and doffed my battered hat.
"You the boss here?"
He laughed. "No, jus' an em-ploy-ee." He said it like that, too, with the word strung out.
"Tell me where to find him?"
I shook my head. "My business," I said, real polite.
He laughed. "Okay, son. See over there? Fella 'bout six and a half feet tall, looks like a strong breeze would blow him over? That's him. Larne Eldersen. He's the boss."
"Thank you, sir. I'm obliged."
He nodded. "Good luck, but he ain't hirin'."
"I guess I'll find out for myself." I walked over to the man pointed out to me. He'd been talking to another man, I guessed one of the drivers or something, but as I approached the other man headed for the wagons. Eldersen turned to me as I came up.
"That's me." He studied me. "Somethin' I can do for you?"
He studied me again, then shook his head. "Sorry, son. I need a cook, but I ain't got no need for anyone else."
"I can cook."
His look was sharp, shrewd, a little surprised. "You? You can cook?"
I nodded. "My ma showed me how, the year afore she died. I cooked for me and Pa for a year or so, 'til he brought Mary home." I shrugged. "I still cooked once in a while, give Mary a break."
Eldersen studied me for a long, long moment then nodded. "Tell you what, son. You cook for me tonight, and again tomorrow morning, okay? I like what you do, I'll take you on as far as Oregon. I don't like it, I'll give you a dollar and wish you luck. What do you say?"
"I say yes, Mr. Eldersen. How many am I cookin' for?"
"Me, three drivers, a roustabout, and yourself. Six."
And that was how I found myself on the trail to Oregon. Eldersen had the basics, but I knew where to find some wild onion, and a few herbs that grew among the weeds, and I used every trick I could remember from Ma's careful instruction, and served the meal to the men near sundown. It was the spare-looking man, whose name turned out to be Tobe Hargan, who summed it up.
"Hire him, boss. Hire him now. This is ambrosia after that muck we been eatin'." I had no idea what ambrosia was, but it sounded good, so I started hoping. I looked around at the others, all lean, trail-hardened men, seeing them all nodding. I looked at Eldersen. He nodded, too.
"Tobe's right, son. This is the best food we've eaten for some time now. Seventy cents a day, until we get to Oregon. Mebbe a bonus, dependin' on how well this stuff sells when we git there. What say?"
"I guess, yes, Mr. Eldersen."
"You're hired. You tell me what you need, and I'll make sure we have it. Let me know what you use, and I'll keep the tally. Okay?"
"Sure, but I can read, write and do some figgerin' too, if you need me to."
He smiled. "Your ma teach you that, too?"
"Yes, sir, she did." He was surprised, I think, for there wasn't many a good man in those days had book-learning.
"Okay, seventy-five cents a day and I want to know everything you use."
I'd like to say it was an exciting trip, but in honest truth it wasn't. It was hard, unrelenting work. I rode with Tobe Hargan, 'cept it was more walking alongside the wagon while the oxen plodded along. He intrigued me, Hargan, because he was always telling me things. I guess some of them was even true. And he quoted poetry, and Shakespeare. I had no idea who Shakespeare was, back then, and I got kinda embarrassed when I found out he'd been dead so long. I thought he must have been from Boston, or New York, someplace back east, but he was actually English. Hargan had a book with a couple of plays, and some sonnets. Of course, then, I had no idea what a sonnet was, but Hargan used to quote 'em from memory, and he made 'em sound real pretty.
Once we got into wild country, Hargan started wearing a handgun. I didn't have a gun, but we passed near some sodbusters and I used three of my dollars for an old Smith and Wesson pistol. I hankered after a prettier, nickel-plated pistol, but Hargan took me aside and told me some hard, cold truths about guns. Anyhow, I ended up paying less for the old Smith and Wesson than for the other pistol, and Hargan reckoned that the one I bought was the better of the two. It had a spare cylinder, and I kept them both loaded. I didn't wear the gun, just kept it handy. Never needed it, no one we needed to take a caution with came anywhere near us.
The food got a little monotonous, mainly 'cause I couldn't vary the ingredients, seeing as how there was nowhere to buy anything different, but Eldersen shot a deer and we had fresh venison for a change. I kept a look out for edible greens, and managed to keep the men content with what they was eating. Eventually, we got to Oregon, to the valley Eldersen was aiming for. The railroad was just creeping into the territory back then, and if we'd been any longer on the trail, our hardware wouldn't have sold as well as it did. But we got there first, and Eldersen paid me a thirty-dollar bonus on top of my pay. He also spread the word about my cooking, and I got a job with some loggers.
It was my first winter up in the high country, and it sure was cold, but being in a mainly fixed camp--we followed the logging teams, and they wasn't moving too much during the winter--allowed me to vary the menu a little, and keep the men content. I got a bonus from that job, too. Being a cook out there in the wilderness was a lonely job, but the pay was better than some of the other jobs I could have done. I managed to save most of it, too, partly 'cause there was nowhere to spend it, but mostly 'cause I didn't take to alcohol, and I didn't get into any of the card games. And, of course, I ate for free.
It was quiet for me that first winter, but I guess they cottoned to me for they hired me again the following year, which meant I could save again for my trip back to Mary, given as how there was nowhere to spend the money. I also got some useful experience. There was one of the loggers, not all that much older than me, and he was a mean sonofabitch, I tell you true. Me and him, we didn't like each other, not one little bit, and he took exception to my cooking one day. I took exception to his excepting, and we got into a scuffle. I lost.
Licking my wounds later, getting the evening meal ready, I realized I wasn't alone. Paddy Gilroy was waiting for me to find the time to notice him. Now Paddy was built like me. Middling height, going on tall, broad shoulders, light and fast on his feet. He was a bit battered around the face, and I 'membered someone saying he'd been a fighter. Paddy grinned at me.
"You lost, Jack."
"Aye, Paddy, I did an' all."
"You want to know where you went wrong?"
"You offerin' to show me?" I said, surprised, and pleased.
"Aye, Jack, sure and I am that, iffen you want to learn." I looked at him, and he smiled. "Yer built like me, Jack, and I can show you how to fight like me. I never lost a fight 'til I was over forty, Jack, and when I did, I gave it up, but I can remember how."
"What will it cost me, Paddy?"
"Not a red cent, Jack. I don't like that Billy Esdon any more'n you do. I'd surely like to see him get what he's been askin' for, but he's always careful not to say anything to offend me. Heck, just his bein' in this lovely place offends me, but I cain't exac'ly say that, seein' as how he's the boss's nephew and I need the job." He grinned. "You, now, you're the best cook I've known up here. You knock Esdon on his back and most of the boys will cheer. Old man tries to fire you for that, he'll have him a riot on his hands."
I grinned back at Paddy. "When? How?"
"Boss man asked me to work with you, drive the wagon when you need supplies. Spring is comin', the thaw will make the roads, what they is of 'em, impassable for a while, so's I reckon we can fit in maybe an hour a day fer me to turn you into a fightin' man while we's waitin' fer the roads to open. You game?" I held out my hand and he took it. We grinned at each other. This was going to be fun.
It was a lot of fun. And it hurt, too, 'cause Paddy didn't hold back when he hit me. "No point in that," he'd said. "You need to know what bein' hit feels like!" He'd gotten hold of some padded sparring mitts and we used them, but it was still like being kicked by the south end of a northbound mule. But I was a fair bit younger, a little fitter, a little faster, and it wasn't too long before I knocked Paddy down. He grinned up at me, wiping the blood from his nose with the back of his glove.
"Soon, Jack, very soon."
It was about six weeks later, in fact. The mostly dry, breezy spring days had dried out the trails, the men were out in the woods again, and we moved the outfit to join them. I'd had the idea of a modified chuck wagon, like the trail herds used. Heck knows, I'd seen enough of 'em back home. I put the idea to the foreman, he took it to the boss, and I had my wagon. Once a base camp was established, the loggers would always build a cook shack, and I kept the wagon out back, once we had us a base.
I'd guess it was late May, or early June--I'd long since lost track of the days--when Billy Esdon made some remark about my cooking again.
"You don't have to eat it," I said. "More for the guys that like it. I don't hear them complainin'."
"Not to your face, they don't." His face twisted in a sneer.
I raised my voice, so that the dozen or so loggers in the cook shack could hear. "Hear that, boys. You been complainin' about my cookin' behind my back?"
The answer was prompt. "Of course we have, Jack. It's a man's place to bitch about the cook! You start worryin' when we stop comin' back for seconds." There was a general laugh, and Esdon flushed, scowling at me. I wasn't sure who'd spoken, but thought I recognized the voice as one of the Muller twins. The accent gave them away.
"See, Billy. They don't mean it." I held his eyes. "You goin' to eat it, or piss against the wind?" I kept my voice mild, but I left the mad in my eyes for him.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You're a troublemaker, and a bully, and I think you need takin' down a peg."
"You do, huh?" He sneered. "What do you plan to do about it?"
I shrugged. "Teach you manners, maybe."
"Like you did last time? Why don't you just apologize now?"
"Why don't you?" My voice was still mild, but I was braced, ready.
He stared at me, his pig eyes mean. "After chow, little boy, I'm gonna take you apart." He reached for a plate, planning to fill it, I guess, and I hit him across the knuckles with the ladle I was holding. Hard.
"You insult my food, you don't eat. Apologize, I'll feed you. Otherwise, get lost."
"You know who I am?" he hissed, sucking' on his knuckles, wincing.
"Yeah, a mean bully trading on the fact you're the boss's nephew. Well, to blazes with you! Unless you apologize, and apologize now, you don't eat." I was still staring him down and the loggers in the queue behind him edged away, wary, but he swore violently and turned on his heel and left, shouldering the others aside. I let out the breath I didn't know I'd been holding and turned to the next guy in line. He gave me a shaky grin.
"You had me worried there, Jack! Didn't know whether to eat or run."
I gave him a wry grin. "I'd rather you ate, Tom. I hate food to be wasted."
His grin broadened. "In that case, can I have some of Billy's as well?"
There was general laughter, the tension easing, and I joined in, but I knew I was in for an interesting evening. Paddy came over later, when they was finished eatin', and took me aside.
"I've had a word with some of the boys, and they's gonna keep an eye on you, make sure neither Billy nor his cronies get the drop on you."
The expected confrontation came as I left the cook shack for my bunk.
"Hold it, you."
I turned to see Billy with Al Janneau and Mike Sullivan, unsavory no-gooders like Billy. They were all holding ax handles. "Time for your lesson." And they all started towards me, spreading out. There was the unmistakable sound of the hammers on a Greener going back, and a voice spoke from the darkness.
"You boys drop those handles iffen you don't want a gut full of buckshot."
Billy and the others stopped dead, staring into the dark. There was another click from the other side, and another voice spoke.
"You heard the man." A soft laugh. "We got you boys in a crossfire."
"You wouldn't dare," said Billy, but I could hear the uncertainty.
"Try us. I'll count to three, and if you're still holding those handles I'll shoot. One, two." That was as far as he got, the ax handles were on the ground before he had 'two' out.
"Another time, Jack Riley," said Billy, sneering.
I was mad. Three onto one? With ax handles? "No, Billy, now," I said, an' I wasn't tryin' to hide the anger. "Just you and me. I'm the one you have the beef against." I shrugged. "You gave me a lickin' last time. See if you can do it again."
"You sayin' you'll fight me?" he said, and I could hear the disbelief. "After last time?"
"Maybe I'll get lucky this time." I shrugged again. "Let's find out, eh? Unless you're yellow."
With a snarl, he rushed me, but this time I knew what I was doing. I sidestepped and tripped him as he went past. If it had been him tripping me, he would have kicked me when I was down--he had last time--but I wanted to think I was better'n that, so I let him be. He got to his feet and charged me, and I hit him. I hit him hard, but he didn't go down. Not that time, but I heard his rib crack.