“Promise In the Dust” by Beth Cato
Hiram Jenkins followed the dirt road into town, saddle hoisted under one arm and black hat half-crushed. One leg dragged and lifted a little with each step.
He heard the jingle of harness and steady thudding of hooves in soft dirt as a wagon drew alongside him. “Well, if it isn’t Hiram. You look even dirtier than usual, boy,” said Dr. Pauls from his high vantage in the wagon seat. The bay mare stopped, snorting in a cloud of unsettled dust.
Hiram lowered the saddle to rest on the slight jut of his hip. “Much obliged for a ride the rest of the way into town, Dr. Pauls.” He kept his gaze low and humble.
“Certainly. Climb on up,” said the doctor. “You having horse problems again? What happened to that black stallion I heard you were breaking in?”
Hiram hoisted himself into the wagon and set the saddle between his feet. “Thought I had him broke, but halfway to Hanford he decided to buck me off, and the saddle come too. Off he went. Since I don’t got a horse and had a long walk home anyway, reckoned I may as well just go to town and see about getting one, if I could.”
Dr. Pauls clicked his tongue and the mare trotted onward. He glanced sideways at Hiram. “You get hurt in that fall? I can take a look at you when we get to town, but you know you’re already on credit.”
Hiram clenched his knee and stared ahead to where the fledgling city took form along the straight edge of the distant horizon. He didn’t like the idea of getting further in debt to Dr. Pauls. He didn’t even like getting a ride from the man, but he was already feeling low and desperate, his pride sunk lower than a rock in the slough. Ella always said he had too much pride, anyway.
“Not hurt bad,” Hiram said. “It just needs time, that’s all.”
“Hrm. Well, if you change your mind, you can always drop by.” Another rider passed, heading towards Visalia, and the men exchanged a nod and a wave. “Where were you planning to see about a horse? Robinson’s?”
The doctor chuckled. “Good luck with that, boy. You know the man’s a hothead, and he’s like to drive a hard bargain.”
“Got to have a horse to run a farm,” Hiram said.
“You could always come to town. There’s lots of work for a man of your abilities there,” Dr. Pauls said, keeping his voice mild.
“Came to farm, doc, and you know it,” Hiram said, scowling beneath his crooked brim. “It’s what Ella wanted.”
Dr. Pauls sighed. “Hiram. Ella’s gone. You got to be flexible to make it in this world. I been here in California since right after the war ended, almost fifteen years now. Not every man is meant to farm, though I’ve known a good many who’ve tried, good men at that. I know you’ve had a bad year. The drought, Ella, the mess with the railroad, this bad string of luck with horses. Maybe God’s trying to tell you something.”
Hiram turned his head away to ponder the rows of budding corn with their wide green leaves shimmering under the valley sun. “I made a promise, doc,” he said after a long silence. “No more machines. I came to farm.”
Ella had always loved coming into town. She expressed her delight with child-like squeals, grabbing hold of Hiram’s arm and pointing to this and that, jabbering about how quickly things changed in a month away at the homestead. She found something magical in how a two-story building took form out of a stack of lumber and a handful of nails, and took even more delight in the bounty of nature around their home. The long purple blooms of the Indian paintbrush, the sprinkling of orange poppies like miniature suns. She would stand in the doorway during the first faint beams of dawn, her white nightgown diaphanous and partly hunched on one hip, and marvel at the sun’s rise over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. “It’s like God’s frost-tipped crown set all aglow,” she said, eyes dazzled, hands clasped in reverence.
But now, that magic was long gone. The smell of the dirt seemed more potent, the clamor of the growing city more disorienting than delighting. Hiram disembarked from the doctor’s wagon and clasped the saddle under his arm. “Much obliged, doctor,” Hiram said.
“Come by if you need me later,” said Dr. Pauls, and clicked his horse onward.
Hiram hadn’t even stepped within a building’s shadow when he heard his name being called. He turned to see two men conversing ten feet away under the overhang of another business, one of them waving to him frantically. “Hiram! Hiram Jenkins. Come over here for a minute.”
He limped over to the strangers. “Hello there,” Hiram said, reaching out to shake the speaker’s hand.
“You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Charles Good. We talked at the Christmas party. Our wives were going on and on about how best to make biscuits.” His grin was so wide it made his ears bobble. “This here is Mr. Oswald, visiting from Fresno for the day. He has himself a grape vineyard. Mr. Oswald, this is Hiram Jenkins.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Jenkins,” said Mr. Oswald as they shook hands.
Charles Good shook his head. “Mr. Oswald, I don’t think you understand. This is Hiram Jenkins, of Jenkins Industries. His father-”
Hiram shifted his gaze downward. “Don’t need to-”
It was too late. Recognition flared in Mr. Child’s eyes. “That Jenkins! Well I’ll be. I’d like the honor of shaking your hand again, Mr. Jenkins. It’s a privilege to meet you, sir. If it wasn’t for your invention, I might not have made it through the war. I even got to see the Man in action, why -”
“Please,” said Hiram, taking a step back. “It wasn’t my invention, it was my father’s, and I don’t have nothing to do with that anymore.”
“But why ever not? Do you know how many lives that contraption saved?”
“Northern lives,” corrected Hiram. “The Rebs didn’t fare quite so well.”
“Ones that mattered,” said Mr. Oswald with a shrug.
Mr. Good looked around with a nervous laugh. “Best be careful what you say, Mr. Oswald. Lots of displaced southern folk have come to settle out this way.”
“That said,” said Hiram, backing away, “I really must be getting along. Nice meeting you, Mr. Good, Mr. Oswald. Best of luck with the grapes.”
It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but the sweat trickled down Hiram’s neck and pooled beneath the collar of his shirt. In long, uneven strides he passed the general store and the druggist, and just past Finn’s Saddlery he took a left down the dirt alley way.
Two of Robinson’s boys met him on the edge of the yard, their faces grim. “Hiram,” they said almost in unison.
“Funny you should come around here when we was just fixing to come out your way,” said the elder boy.
Hiram stopped short. “And why would that be?”
“Because I have a proposition for you,” said Robinson, stepping out of the stable and spitting a viscous gob into the dirt. “Come on in, Hiram. We needs to have a talk.”
Grimacing, the farmer looked between the hulking teenage boys and their father, and followed Robinson into the livery stable.
“You haven’t been into town for a while,” Robinson said, squatting atop a stack of hay bales.
“Been busy.” Hiram set the saddle at his feet and unconsciously rubbed his knee.
“I heard about that. I heard you found some mighty devil of a horse you was trying to tame.”
Hiram grunted. “Tried.”
Robinson grinned and shook his head. “You’d be too gentle. You got to let a horse know who’s boss, not coddle him. Men coddle babies and women, and you know how that turns out.”
“What is this deal you’re talking about?” Hiram asked.
“Well, I can readily surmise you’re in need of a good horse. I might even get you two, one for riding and one for the plow. Both broken in good, of course.”
Hiram said nothing, his lips compressed tight.
“Even if you don’t get to town much, I know you must know about this railroad business. I was in the Settler’s League until I had some unfortunate differences with the founders.” Robinson sighed melodramatically. “South Pacific Railroad is sending marshals around to evict the good folks from their land. Did it to two families last week out Grangeville way. Straight went in, dumped all their goods in the road and dismantled the house and barn. Then, when they gone, the settlers just went back and built it all up again, nice as can be.”
“Ugly business,” said Hiram. Hiram was impacted as much as anyone, but he didn’t have much heart to get riled up about it, not now. Like many families, he and Ella had come to settle in Tulare County because of the advertised rates by the Southern Pacific – $2.50 an acre. The life and death of a settlement depended on the timeliness of promised railway tracks coming through town, and the Southern Pacific owned most all the land.
Hanford had even been named after a railroad man, James Hanford. The settlers came out and dug their own irrigation canals and built up houses and crops, but when the railroad came knocking for payment, their agents said the rate was now $35 an acre. That was a lot of money – heck, $2.50 an acre was a lot of money. A Representative had gone to Congress a few years before to fight for the sake of the Settler’s League and argued that the railroad reneged on their deal by not meeting construction deadlines, but failed. Then the Southern Pacific won a court case granting them rights to the squatters’ land.
Robinson leaned forward, a feral smile on his lips. “It’s about to get uglier,” he said. “I’m not wanting to mess around with this no more. I got my own land out there, and I’m not paying for the improvements I already paid for. The railroad ought to keep its promise and take us folks serious, and if not, we’ll make them.”
“How you planning to do that?” said Hiram, gaze flitting towards the exit where the two boys leaned in the doorway.
“Well, everyone knows you’re mighty fine with machines, Hiram. It’s in your blood. We’d like-”
“No.” Hiram stood. “I’m not making a Man for you, or any such automaton.”
“Now sit down, Hiram. Let’s discuss this like gentlemen. I’m not asking you to make a Man. That’s too involved, too fancy for our needs. What we need is a nice bit of explosives, all tidy, with one of those new remote operating devices. There’s-”
“I’m not making you a bomb, Robinson, not even for two horses.” One of the boys pressed close, encouraging Hiram to sit back down.
“That’s a real shame, Hiram. I might threaten your life and all, but that’d just miss the point, and I got a feeling you’re not caring much for your life right now with Ella gone.” Robinson tapped his jaw, thoughtful, then made a sweeping gesture towards a nearby shovel. “You know, I got me a fine stable here, and we got a lot of shovels. It’d be a shame if me and my boys had to take some of these shovels out to the cemetery, do some work, move things around a bit.”
Hiram went cold. “You wouldn’t,” he said, breath catching.
“I’d like it done in two days, Hiram. Stanford is touring the valley, and it’d be awful nice for the news to reach him quick.” Leland Stanford, the former governor of California, was also president of the Southern Pacific. “My boy can escort you out to my barn, where I believe we’ll have everything you’ll need. I could make the device myself, but I just don’t got the time. I don’t reckon your property will miss you much, since word is you hadn’t planted nothing.”
“And by the way, you’ll still get those two horses when we’re done. I’ll even let you choose so you make sure they’re gentled, not like that beast you was trying to tame.” Robinson smiled with all his teeth bared. “I’m nice like that,” he said.
During any trip to town, Ella would eventually be found standing on the porch of Old Finn’s Saddlery Shop. She’d be there with a few other women and wide-eyed barefoot children, clustered around an old wispy-bearded man in a rocking chair. Old Finn didn’t have steady hands for leatherwork anymore. Instead, the Irishman occupied himself by sitting out on the front porch and spinning stories for any passersby. With gnarled, shaking hands, Finn painted vivid tales of magic and yore, making children gasp and women murmur with their hands at their lips. Ella didn’t have a drop of Irish blood, but she slurped up the stories like a thick stew, claiming them as her own, just like the old Cherokee stories she used to hear on her Pa’s knee.
“Do you think circles of flowers are really fairy circles?” she once asked Hiram. She was guiding the old paint horse by the bit while Hiram kept the plow steady.
“Don’t reckon so,” he said. “I was told it was just where cattle stirred up the dirt to sleep, then it reseeded all pretty in the winter ’cause the water pooled up in the low point.
“Oh.” She sounded disappointed. “It’d be nice to think of magic still being someplace in the world.”
“What, cows aren’t magical enough for you?”
She giggled. “More magical than some things. You know how machines are, Hiram. So precise, so man-made. They say the world’s just going to be filled with more and more of the things. How can you compare some big contraption with a crisp early spring morning when all the flowers are budded tight like clenched eyelids, waiting for dawn?”
“Suppose you can’t,” Hiram said. “There is something about those mornings. Machines… Machines just show what man can do, what power he has. A man can plow a field and claim it as his, but let it lie fallow for a few years, and nature reclaims it. But once steel’s poured into a mold, it can’t return to its raw form again. Some things just can’t be unchanged.”
“Finn says the Fair Folk are like that. I mean, that they are an unchanging part of the world. That in the oceans there are still seal fairies that look like men and woman when they take off their pelts, and dark-cloaked Pookas causing mischief and guiding the lost, and -”
The old paint snorted, and Hiram shook his head with a smile. “Between you and Finn and all those old poetry books, your brain’s getting all addled.”
“Bah. You stop and listen to the stories, too. Just last night I saw you flipping through that Tennyson book -”
“Which is about to fall apart, missy,” said Hiram. “That’s what I was noticing, not the words.”
She turned her head to flash him a brilliant smile. “Says you. And those books have been falling apart since I was a girl, and it just gets worse. But that’s fine, ’cause when you get a good crop we’ll buy a box more of books.”
“Then you’ll get more silly ideas in your head, sillier than fairy circles. Those demon horses that drown people who ride them -”
“Kelpies!” she interrupted with an excited bounce.
He laughed at her enthusiasm. “And those fish-women luring sailors and -”
“You think a fish woman could lure you?” said Ella, turning again. A tendril of hair fell loose from her bonnet and lay against her back in one long, beckoning curl.
“I’m no sailor,” said Hiram.
“What would lure you, then?” she said, lowering her voice.
Hiram applied gentle pressure to the reins, bringing the horse to a halt. “I think you know,” he said. He lifted his hat and let his fingers comb through his sweaty hair.
“Do I?” Her fingers trailed along the harness as she sauntered towards him.
“Yes,” he said. “You do.”
Two weeks after Ella died, he found the black horse in a flower circle at the edge of his acreage. The grasslands were green and verdant, and the horse’s hooves were almost obscured by a rainbow of blooms. Hiram hadn’t been feeling much of anything since Ella was gone, not even the warmth of the spring sun. But when he saw that horse grazing in the vernal pool, something stirred in him, a need of sorts. He plopped down in the grass and sat there, watching how the stallion paced with pricked ears. There was something about each ripple of muscle, the graceful heft of a fetlock, the sway of his mane.
Hiram snared the horse and brought him home to the vacant corral. Hiram’s loyal paint, the horse that brought them west, had died the same night as Ella as Hiram ran him hard for town. The paint’s hoof sank deep in a gopher hole, snapping his leg clean in half. A single gunshot ended his misery. Hiram dragged himself into town to Dr. Pauls, and by the time they got back to the homestead, Ella’s soul was long gone.
“Never had to run a horse like I did that old paint horse that night,” he told the black steed after weeks of gentling. “I feel bad for it ending like it did. He was a good old horse, he deserved better. If you’ll just take a bridle, I’ll treat you right, though it might bother your pride a bit to pull a plow. You seem like a proud thing. Maybe we belong together, the two of us.” The horse snorted loudly and shook his head, mane flapping like tattered satin, and Hiram smiled for the first time in a month.
That’s how Hiram spent most days, sitting or leaning on the fence, talking to that horse. The stallion was a fine listener with ears high and perked, even snorting and neighing at appropriate pauses in Hiram’s soliloquies. After a month, the black beast took a halter, and Hiram worked him on a lunge line while talking sing-song. The saddle came soon after, though he didn’t put himself in the saddle for another week. The horse was a playful sort. He’d bite his own lead-line and trot around the corral, tail high, as though he was leading himself. He would yank Hiram’s hat, and with a mighty twist of his neck fling the hat spinning on the breeze, and practically bray in amusement as Hiram chased his hat all over the yard. Mischief was better than misery, and Hiram was almost content.
Hiram had debated a trip to town for a few weeks, worried that someone might be missing such an elegant horse and try to take him away. But when it came down to it, it was high time he picked up some supplies, and he wanted to show off a bit.
“I think it’s time to head to town,” Hiram said as they were out riding that morning. Next thing he knew, he was flying backwards with his heels over his head and met the ground in a dazzling crash. Hiram stood, limping, and followed the horse for a mile, but the steed was like a blurred shadow on the horizon. Hiram hoisted up the discarded saddle, scowling at the busted cinch, and started the long walk into Hanford.
“Devil horse. At least you weren’t one of those damned Kelpies,” he muttered while rubbing his bum leg, but he looked to the horizon with longing. Ella might be gone, but that black horse was out there, somewhere.
“How do you do that?” asked the teenage boy, leaning so close his sour breath seemed to curdle the air.
“Do what?” Hiram sat in the midst of a pile of metal and parts. Bits and screws, blasting powder and pipes, all arranged in neat piles. Despite his reluctance, Hiram knew exactly what he was doing, and once the task began his fingers busied themselves in their assigned task. He didn’t need any diagrams, not for something this basic. When he was just a boy, he made small explosives to test the Man’s armor. This device was time-consuming yet simple.
“Is it true you helped make the Metal Man?” the boy said, not waiting for Hiram to answer the last question. “I’ve heard all about the Man. Everyone has.”
“I wasn’t much younger than you when my papa made the first full version of the Man,” Hiram said, a long screw pressed between his lips like a cigar. “I used to climb on it like a boy in an oak tree, swinging myself from one of its arms to the next. Papa said if it could survive a boy my age, surely it could survive a battlefield.”
“Wow.” He was breathy in his awe. “Sounds hell of a lot better than shoveling manure in a stable.”
Hiram grunted. “Every boy thinks the grass is greener elsewhere at your age,” he said, feeling old. “The Man isn’t all that people think.”
The newspaper articles had made it worse, exaggerating the Man into something twice as tall and ten times more deadly. It had become the pinnacle of modern technology, the marvel of ages, and the guaranteed resolution to any war. The truth was simpler, though still impressive: it was the armored caricature of a man, the first prototype being some twelve feet high, with a shelf in its back for a human man to stand or sit and operate the cannons or guns in the arms.
“Is it true the newest Man can even walk around?” asked the boy, crouching over the explosives. Hiram pursed his lips and felt the profound urge to create a spark.
“I haven’t been at the factory for a few years,” said Hiram. “But I hear as much as you. They make all kinds of things now, offensive and defensive. Spiders, Turtles. They brought over a Russian who swears he can make a flying machine.” He pulled the screw from between his lips and worked it between two plates of metal.
“I don’t see how you could leave that all for some farm,” said the boy. “That’s just -”
“You want to do something better than shovel manure, right? Make your own way?” Hiram said, and the boy nodded. “It’s as easy as that.”
Hiram sighed. The boy didn’t get it, and nothing Hiram said would convince him otherwise. Adults weren’t much better. The more religiously-inclined always assumed he left because of the Man, of the War Machine it had become. Hiram wasn’t fond of all the killing, that was true, but that wasn’t why. The easiest excuse was the same one he provided Robinson’s boy – immaturity, and the desire to make his own way in the world. Most folks couldn’t argue with that, not when they’d come west with a similar purpose.
The truth, however, was something he had only whispered to Ella in the darkness of the night, when she wasn’t able to see his tears.
He had seen the man his father had become. The witty blacksmith who tweaked inventions by candlelight had become a man twisted by his own fame and notoriety, a man who wore a suit and stalked factory floors, a man who came home to drink himself to sleep like a babe on a teat.
“Idle hands do the devil’s work,” Hiram’s father used to say. As Hiram grew older, he realized this was true. His father had always been happiest when laboring in the shop, black-streaked sweat pouring off his brow as he hammered glowing metal, or when learning the right combination of gears to make robotic feet dance on the warped wooden floor of their home. There was no happiness in a factory, with a hundred sycophants fawning for favor and twenty- hour workdays with a thousand more things waiting to be done the next morning. His father was never idle, but his hands never held anything heavier than a pen or a bottle. The humming inventor had become a tyrant and a drunkard, screaming over invisible offenses and shoving workers off of scaffolding for easily correctable errors.
Hiram could have stayed there, canoodling with Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller. His father hadn’t even minded when Hiram fell in love with an Alabama girl while on a reconnaissance trip long after the war to retrieve rumored chunks from a prototype Man lost at Kennesaw Mountain. But Hiram minded, and he didn’t want to go back to Pennsylvania and work in his father’s tormented shadow. He didn’t want that toxic wealth to seep into his skin and poison his soul.
“I’ll follow you wherever you want to go,” Ella had said. “I’m not marrying you because your family has money, though Lord knows we never had much growing up. You choose what you want to do, and I’ll support you best I can.”
“I want to keep my hands busy,” Hiram said. “I could make machines like Pa, even make my own company… but people would expect things of me, things I don’t want to do.”
“What do you want to do?” she asked, slipping her small yet calloused hands between his pressed palms.
“I want to make you happy. I want to make you proud of me. Whatever it takes, I want to do that.”
Ella smiled. “That shouldn’t be so hard, seeing as your happiness will please me most. Hiram, no matter what you do, you got to be true to yourself. You can’t live your whole life under the shadow of the Jenkins name.” She took a step back, and with her bare big toe she drew a line in the iron-red Alabama soil. “Now, when you cross this line, you promise me you’ll keep your word and stay true. Doesn’t matter to me what you want to do, be it farm or lumber or drive steers, but I can’t see you being a big boss man in some automaton factory somewhere.”
“I can’t see myself there either,” Hiram said as he stepped over the line and into Ella’s waiting embrace. “When I look at my future, the only certainty is you.”
“This promise is bigger than me,” she said. “You don’t know -”
“Mr. Jenkins? Mr. Jenkins?” The boy violently shook Hiram. “Mr. Jenkins!”
Hiram shuddered, shocked from his reverie. He blearily looked at the lanterns suspended above, the machinery at his feet, and the acne-freckled young man frowning beside him.
“Back off,” Hiram said, shoving the boy away.
“You were in the middle of building and just seemed to drift asleep, just like that,” said the Robinson boy.
“I’m tired. You’ve had me working on this contraption all day,” Hiram said, sighing. He looked down, trying to reassess what he had been doing before he lapsed into memory.
“Papa wants this done by the morning, or, well…” The boy shrugged. “Ain’t no time to sleep.”
Hiram picked up two bits of readied metal for the casing. “Would he really do it?” he asked.
The boy shook his head. “Not much Papa wouldn’t do when he’s mad, and he’s mad at the railroad,” he said.
“There are greater things in this world to be angry about,” Hiram said. “Pass me that piece between your feet. Let’s get this thing done.”
Robinson selected a spot north of Visalia where the railroad line skirted the golden humps of the Sierra Nevada foothills. The bridge was some ten feet high, passing over a creek swollen with snow melt. Unlike the flat valley, the slight hills provided Robinson’s gang with ample cover. He had left his sons at home, instead bringing five burly men who Hiram didn’t recognize, though they all knew him by his family name. But then, everyone did. “It’s a pleasure to meet one of the great Jenkins,” said one of the men, shaking Hiram’s hand, even as his wrists were bound tight with old rope.
Two of the heavily armed men stayed with the horses while Hiram was dragged to the hilltop along with the rest. Hiram’s wrists and ankles were finally unbound, and he lay beside the others, as though he were one of them. It galled him. He had never been a praying man, and hadn’t raised his voice to God since Ella died. But there, watching that bridge, he prayed.
The North to South line was the major track through all of central California, running from Sacramento on South to Bakersfield. All the East and West spurs, like the Hanford line, were new and didn’t get nearly as much traffic. Bound beneath the bridge, the bomb had adequate power to eliminate the bridge and half the train, dropping whatever remained into the river chasm. Hiram had thought to make a dummy explosive, but Robinson was no fool. He had checked the device three times to ensure that it appeared fully functional.
“Robinson,” said one of the men. “Train’s in sight.”
Robinson’s grin made his moustache stretch straight across his face. “Time?”
The third man checked his stopwatch. “By the speed, it’s a minute out. Arm it.”
Robinson compressed the button on the remote device. Hiram sucked in a breath, dread filling his stomach like lead.
“Rob, something’s on the front of the train.”
“What?” Robinson’s smile withered. He jerked his binoculars up and began to colorfully swear under his breath.
Hiram frowned and yanked a spyglass from the man with the stopwatch. He focused the lens on the front of the puffing engine, and let out a loud gasp. “It’s a Turtle,” he said. “A Jenkins Turtle.”
“Damn it to hell,” Robinson said, spitting into the grass inches from his face. “Can we stop it?”
“No.” Hiram could barely conceal his relief. “It’ll detect the potency of the explosions any second now and signal the engineer to stop the train. It’s designed to halt troop movements if there’s a concealed Metal Man. Defensive automatons are very sensitive, but effective.”
“So shooting it…?”
“It’s called a Turtle for a reason. It’s covered with a steel shield. Some of the debris from the bridge might hit the train, but see? It’s already slowing down. It’ll stop in plenty of time.” Thank the Almighty. The blasted shards of wood and steel would land in the river, but the train would not.
“Robinson,” hissed the same lackey. “There’s something underneath the bridge.”
Hiram lowered the spyglass and stilled, staring. It was a black horse, his neck arcing gracefully as he drank from the cool water of the shallows. An askew bridle dangled from his head. “No,” said Hiram. “No.”
He stood, even as the other men tried to grab his legs. “Come back here!” Robinson roared.
Hiram sprinted downhill as fast as he could, heart erratic and desperate. He had less than a minute.
On the steep slope, his bum leg collapsed beneath him, and he skidded on his backside before managing to push himself upright again. Thirty seconds; twenty. There was no time, no time at all, and still that stupid, beautiful black horse remained in the water, drinking without a care in the world. Any second and the bridge would be blasted into a million bits, raining shrapnel on the river below. Hiram took a deep breath and jumped into the shallow water, icy torrents soaking him to the waist. The horse looked towards him, head tilted quizzically as Hiram splashed closer.
Hiram jerked the bridle by the cheekpiece. “Come on!” he yelled. “It’s going to -”
He felt the blackness swirl over him like a warm winter coat and heard a muffled yet violent blast above, and then there was nothing.
Hiram opened his eyes and saw the night sky staring down with a thousand winking stars. He pushed himself upright, groggy. Next to him sat a man cloaked in black with his legs akimbo, a long piece of straw bobbing between his lips.
“Ah,” the man said. “You’re awake.”
“What happened? Where am I?”
“To answer the last first, you are quite near your homestead,” the man said. “As to what happened, I have both good and bad news. Which would you like first?”
“The good?” said Hiram, rubbing his throbbing head.
“The good news is that you are believed to be quite dead.”
Hiram frowned. “Then what’s the bad news?”
“You are believed to be solely at fault for the explosion at the bridge, you of that esteemed Jenkins name. Ah, don’t look at me so. I tried to stop you from going to town to begin with, all the good it did. But I suppose it would have only delayed the inevitable – that lot would have made you do their bidding as soon as they could.”
“Who are you?” Hiram asked. He tried to push himself to stand, but his legs were as solid as threshed wheat stalks.
“Oh, I forget. You haven’t seen me like this. Perhaps this would be more appropriate?” In a black whirl, the man was gone and an ebony horse stood there, pawing the flower-speckled ground and staring down at Hiram.
“You, you’re the – but – how -”
“I believe in human terms I would be a Pooka,” said the horse in the same lilted speech. The straw still drooped from his unmoving lips. “I hear mischief on the wind the way you would hear birds in a yonder tree. You seemed such a lonely fellow, and entertaining at that, so I stayed with you a while. Then you had to insist on going into town. Not wise at all.”
“You bucked me off. Then you were at the bridge. Pardon me for my befuddlement, but I just don’t understand.”
The horse sighed. “I sensed what they had planned for you. Like I said, I tried to stop you, but it did little good.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me if you could speak so fine?” Hiram asked. He rubbed his face with both hands, jostling his head to try and make things seems sensible again.
“Come now. Would you have listened to a talking horse? You barely believe me now, even seeing me change.”
Hiram grunted. True enough. He would have thought the grief finally made him lose his mind. Maybe it had. “But the bridge. Why were you there?”
“I’m sentimental like that.” The Pooka’s tail lashed against his hindquarters. “Surely you knew they wouldn’t let you live, promises or no. The only horses they would supply would be to haul your casket. You knew too much. Now you’re thought dead, and you’re not. All is well.”
“Pardon, but I don’t follow.”
“Hiram Jenkins is dead. Under most dismal circumstances, but dead. You can be whoever you wish to be now, go wherever you wish to go.”
The horse – the man – the whatever-it-was – was right. Wherever he went, he had been judged by his name. He could go somewhere and start anew, truly be his own man for the first time, not just the son of Jenkins, the inventor of the Man.
“But Ella -” Hiram said.
“Is dead,” finished the horse. “But there is that promise you made to her. You can still follow it, if you’re inclined to live. I wouldn’t dawdle here long, though. Men are like to come and examine your property in the morning.”
The promise. Ella. He’d told the horse everything in those lonely weeks. “You’re right.” Hiram stood on wobbly legs, realizing he was within the fairy circle. “I’ll just pack a few things,” he said, turning towards where his house squatted in the distance. He knew exactly what he’d take, too – food, some tools, clothes, and a few very worn poetry books.
“Good,” the Pooka said with a whicker. “Let’s not linger.”
Hiram stopped. “You’re coming, too?”
The horse flicked an ear. “You’re still in need of a horse, aren’t you?”
Hiram shook his head, a slow chuckle rumbling from his throat. “Whatever is going on, I reckon I’ll have a mighty good story to tell Ella someday. Very well then. But what if I try to ride into a town again and you buck me off?”
“Then this time,” said the horse, most somberly, “I suggest you take the hint.”
Beth Cato resides in Buckeye, Arizona, on the outskirts of Phoenix. Her husband Jason, son Nicholas, and two crazy cats keep her very busy, but she still manages to squeeze in time for writing and other activities that help preserve her sanity. She is originally from Hanford, California, the setting of “Promise in the Dust,” but lived all over the country during Jason’s time in the Navy.
Beth is currently working on a superhero urban fantasy novel. A full list of her publication credits is available on her website http://www.bethcato.com, and her writing blog can be found at http://celestialgldfsh.livejournal.com/.