Patrick McFarland was emotional as he watched the final spike being driven, joining the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in Promontory Summit, Utah, in May of 1869. He was proud of the work he’d done on the most ambitious project of the nation, the Transcontinental Railway system.
Though saddened by the loss of his job, he was excited to return home. He received his last month’s pay, which he used to purchase a horse and tack. With little more than a bedroll, camping utensils, food, and his savings hidden away, Patrick would head home to his wife, Clarey, and their two daughters. He had not seen them in over a year. A thousand miles separated him from his home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, with only letters back and forth sending some of his pay to keep the home fires burning. He was anxious to get going.
Patrick rode east as soon as the ceremony ended through the high country filled with box elder brush. He would be traveling for several weeks. Having worked the railroad on the way out to Utah, Patrick could follow the tracks back. Stopping in the towns he had visited before to pick up supplies where he needed them. It was a beautiful spring day and his horse Cider, (named for his temperament,) walked steadily along. Patrick felt hypnotized by his body, swaying back and forth in the saddle like a metronome on a piano. Patrick got his horse for a good deal because Cider was a biter, and just an ornery horse.
Not used to being in the saddle, Patrick was quite raw at the end of the first day. The pain and stiffness made him wonder why he didn’t just take the train back to Council Bluffs. At the time Patrick purchased the horse, he felt the money well spent. A horse would help his family when he got home, more than a train ticket. He also relished his chance to see the west while it was still wild. The railway would bring thousands of people out west to settle. Soon this vast expanse would be no more.
Near a stream, Patrick dismount from Cider. He would bed down for the night. He pulled Cider’s bridle off, tying the horse by his halter to a branch with a long rope. Patrick knew Cider wouldn’t go far; food and water were plentiful near the branch. He threw the saddle down to use as a backrest.
With the sun going down, it started to get cold. Patrick took out his tinderbox gathering branches and leaves, started a fire near the stream. The dead tree he sheltered next to provided him with wood to burn. In short order, Patrick had a nice blaze going, making some coffee and setting a can of beans close to the flame. The coffee was strong, hot and full of grounds; the beans were sizzling when he took them off the fire. Patrick settled down with his coffee listening to the night sounds around him. He heard rustling in the nearby brush, drawing his gun.
“Come out, show yourself,” Patrick held up the pistol in the direction of the sound. Out from the bush came a shabbily dressed Confederate soldier in uniform. Patrick watched as the man nimbly walked with his hands in the air. The war had been over for years. Patrick kept his gun aimed at the soldier.
“There’s no need for that.” the disheveled man said. “May I?” He knelt by the fire holding his hands out. “Name’s Devon Rush. I’d be obliged to you for a cup of coffee.”
Sensing the man meant no harm, Patrick put his pistol back into the holster. He flung the dregs out of his cup and poured the man some coffee.
“You still wear the uniform. Aren’t you afraid of being ridiculed?” Patrick handed the cup of coffee to the rumpled colonel. Strings hung down from the frayed cuff of his uniform, where the jacket material had split from age. The man had worn this coat for a long time.
“Nah, No one ever comes this way. I’ve been out here over five years now.”
“You live out here? In the middle of nowhere?” Devon nodded his head.
“I never found a place to call home. After the war, there was nowhere to rest. Everyone was angry. So, I set down roots here.” The soldier blew on the coffee but didn’t take a sip. Just kept the warm cup in his hands. Patrick squinted at him deep in thought. There was something very strange about this man, but he seemed mighty lonesome, so he offered comfort.
“You’re welcome to bed down here by the fire.” The man leaned against the fallen branch pulling his tattered coat closer around him. They made small talk.
“So, where are you from?”
“Saline County, Missouri. A little town called Arrow Rock. Where are you from?”
“Council Bluffs, Iowa.”
“I’ve never been to Iowa,” the two talked until they fell asleep.
A kick to his gut awakened Patrick. He doubled over in pain moaning.
“Get up varmint!” expecting the colonel had turned on him during the night, Patrick was shocked to see a greasy man with the pistol to his temple, pulling him up from the ground. He looked behind the robber to see Devon was still asleep against the fallen tree, Patrick’s gun belt hung on another branch between them. The robber spied the pistol.
“Don’t even think about it. Give me your money,” the man shouted. Patrick fished inside his jacket pocket. He did have his last month’s pay in a separate pouch from his savings hidden in the lining of his saddle. The thief had a neckerchief tied around his face disguising himself, giving Patrick hope his life would be spared. He held out the pouch.
The greasy man grabbed the bag, hefting its weight in his hand. “That’s all you got?” The thief aimed his pistol at Patrick. Patrick admitted it was his last month’s wages, and that was all the money he had in the world.
“Maybe I take the horse, too,” the robber chuckled.
Patrick said nothing, right now, he was hoping to get away with his life. The man walked toward the horse holding his hand out. Cider nipped him.
“Ouch!” He spun around, looking shocked when a bullet went through him. He looked at Patrick and then at his belly oozing blood.
“Why’d you do that? I wasn’t going to kill you.” He fell forward with a questioning look on his face jerking on the ground as he bled out.
Patrick watched the colonel re-holster the pistol, then turn over to go back to sleep. He was shocked, but then a man of war would not think twice, killing a criminal.
“Thank you for saving my life,” Patrick said quietly. Devon nodded, closing his eyes.
In the early morning hours, Patrick woke to find the colonel was gone. He checked his pockets and his saddle. The money was all still there, his gun at his waist. He sighed in relief but wondered where the man had gone off to, sorry he wouldn’t be able to say goodbye and to thank Devon for saving his life.
He buried the robber, taking things from him that were necessary for his survival. He also took the man’s horse, who was tied up not far away. Patrick saddled Cider, closing his camp.
He followed the stream for a bit stopping Cider when he saw a Confederate coat just ahead.
He slid off the horse and moved forward with his gun drawn. When he got to the body he realized it was nothing more than a skeleton of a Confederate colonel, identifiable by the shabby uniform he wore.
“I’ll be.” Patrick searched the body and found a gold pocket watch initialed DSR. Devon Rush. He put the pocket watch in his coat vowing he’d return the watch to Devon Rush’s family. He buried the soldier where he lay, by the stream.
Did a ghost save him? How could a spirit talk, walk, hold a cup of coffee, shoot a gun? Patrick thought as Cider carried him home. The hypnotic sway and the endless thoughts moved him forward.
Patrick left the stream behind him, following the railroad tracks in the direction of Iowa pulling the other horse behind him. If he hadn’t buried two men this morning, he would have thought it all a dream.
Dawn DeBraal lives in rural Wisconsin with her husband Red, two rescue dogs, and a stray cat. You will find many of her published works in online magazines and published anthologies.