Episode Twenty-six ♦ Night Riders

The door read “Western Stables.” George, hand on the knob, stopped and looked at Anita. “I want to say something.”

Anita’s face scrunched. Her bag slung over her shoulder and her right hand on her hip, she looked away from George down the long, empty, white, concrete corridor.

“I’m a bit worried. Stables. Horses? Should we really be doing this?”

“You mean, should I being doing this?” Her tone biting.

“Yes,” George said. “I’m worried about you. Your health. And you’ve been, um…”

“I just want to get out of this stupid, fake place. These sterile tunnels. Twenty-five year olds playing kids and wearing pinafores and pantalets. It’s just dumb. And I’m fine.”

“But the baby.” George removed his hand from the knob and moved it towards her stomach, stopping short, afraid to touch her, worried he had overstepped the bounds of their friendship.

“George. Honestly. I’ll be okay. Pregnant women have been riding horses for centuries. I’m fine. I’ve just been a bit moody and with war starting, well, how does it make you feel?”

“I don’t think about it.”

She sighed, raised her hands, stopped, and said, “Let’s see what’s upstairs. If it makes me at all uncomfortable, you’ll be the first to know. Okay?”

He put on a forced, closed-lipped smile and buried his fears inside his gut.

Anita said, “You don’t have to come. I’ll go on my own. I can take care of myself.”

“No.” He shook his head and opened the door. “I want to go. We’re in this together.”

♦ ♦ ♦

At the top of the stairs Anita found an empty room. Three meters across the space was a door. She opened it. She hesitated. “Hello?”

“Over here.”

The air was perfumed by hay and horse. Drawn to the thick rumbling voice, Anita strode over to the small group. The large black man wore a long, dusty coat and checked the tack of the pair of horses harnessed to a small wagon. A man and woman stood by: they looked like a couple, both young, blond, and wearing modish jeans and jackets. Another man – in period shirt, trousers, and dirty work boots – held the reins of three horses.

“Wasn’t sure y’all’d show,” the black man said.

“We’re here. So what’s the plan?” asked Anita.

He glanced at her. “Bags in the back of the wagonette. You’ll ride with me. Hope your man can handle a horse.”

Anita looked from the speaker to the other couple – she never looking in one direction, he shifting in place and rubbing his hands on his jacket sleeves. “What’s the plan?” Anita asked again. The group stood around. Silent. Anita knew they were appraising her and her companion.

The man in period dress said, “I’ll give you a minute.” He handed the blond couple the reins and left through another door.

In a deep, quiet voice the guide said, “We ride west.”

“Where?” Anita asked.

“We’ll talk tomorrow.” He looked at her long green and ivory dress and then at George in his dress vest, white shirt, and trousers. “You wanna go, don’cha?”

“Yes. We want to go,” said George.

Anita, feeling a flutter in her diaphragm, lacked George’s confidence.

“Then you ride with me in the wagon, ma’am. Name’s Kent.”

“Nice to meet you Mr. Kent,” George said extending his right hand.

“Just Kent,” he said taking George’s hand. “You do ride.”

After Kent released it, George massaged his hand. “I did. As a kid. At camp.”

Every moment Anita felt less certain about the outcome of this adventure. She had a good life back in the free settlement: friends, family, the garden, a home. Thoughts of her sister and the kids tore her heart. She wanted to go back to a time when the future felt predictable, resembled her past. But words from Bubbeh’s prophecy haunted her. “Out of the diseased garden.” Yes, war was a disease. She wanted better for her baby. No, it was time to go. West. It didn’t matter where. Yes.

She said, “We’re ready. If he can’t handle the horse, he’ll learn or I will. So let’s go.”

“All right.” Kent nodded then called, “Samuel? We’re ready.”

“Sorry boss, but these are the best I could find.” Samuel returned carrying two leather coats and a pair of canvas pants. He handed a long coat and the pants to George and the shorter garment to Anita. “Get’s quite cold on the prairie at night. You can return them when you return the horses.”

Anita looked at Kent. He closed his eyes and gave a single shake of his head. She understood. “Yes. Will do. That’s very kind of you, Samuel,” she said.

“Pleasure ma’am.” He touched the forefinger of his right hand to his forehead and stepped over to the wagon. “May I help you up, ma’am?”

Kent looked at the blond couple and pointed to the horses. “You two already know your mounts,” he said. Then he pointed to a tan horse and said to George, “You’ll ride Whisper, a fox trotter. Change into the pants Samuel gave you. He’ll help you mount.”

♦ ♦ ♦

George glanced over his shoulder, across the gently rolling prairie. Stars disappeared above the eastern horizon as day broke fine and clear. Even with the easy pace, riding through the night had taken a toll: George thought he had worn away skin from the inner parts of his thighs. Kent slowed the wagon and dismounted.

Addressing the group, Kent said, “We should walk a while. Y’all need to stretch your muscles before breakfast.” Kent held out a hand to Anita. “That way, y’all’ll be able to ride the rest of the day.”

George watched the others from his saddle.

The blond couple groaned before the man lowered his right foot to the ground. He struggled to stand upright and stretched before helping his companion down from her mount.

Anita, now standing, said something to Kent. He walked towards George. “Give me the reins. Put your right hand on the pommel, stand, and swing your right leg over the back of the horse. Hold the pommel and slide down. I won’t let you fall. If you get hurt, it’ll only slow us down.”

“Thanks. I can handle it.” George sniffed and held his breath at the extra attention paid to him. He stood, wobbled, and swung his right leg over the horse’s rump. His boot prodded the animal’s left hip, and it lurched and started to circle. George lost his balance and slid sideways, his left foot in the stirrup.

A strong arm wrapped around his waist. “Pull your foot out of the stirrup. I got the horse.”

George found firm ground under the soles of his boots but struggled to gain equilibrium, the earth seeming to sway in front of him. He felt warm and flushed. Quietly he spoke to Kent. “Thank you, but I need to do this for myself.”

“Exactly. But you didn’t take riding lessons in Hannibal.”

“I was working!” George coughed against a constricting throat.

“It was a statement.” Kent’s tone calm and moderated. “Not an accusation. You’re doing great. Take the reins.” Kent walked around the wagon and team. “Okay, I’ll lead the wagonette. Y’all’ll follow. We’ll stop for breakfast when the sun’s up.”

Anita walked with George. “He asked me if we’d ridden in Hannibal. What could I say?”

“It’s fine. Just embarrassing. How are you feeling?” George strained to smile.

She returned it. “Fine. Though honestly, I want to ride. I miss it.”

“Where did you ride?” They fell in behind the blond couple.

“The commune. They never allowed The Track to be installed on the land. So if we wanted to go into town, we rode.”

“Yes. Willem mentioned it. Should have taken time off and joined you two for vacation,” George said. When Anita did not reply, he let the conversation drop. He worked at moving an aching leg forward, shifting his weight – every muscle below his chest protesting – then repeating the effort with the other leg. Still he took pleasure in the horses and morning air. It smelled green and fresh but not familiar.

As cramping eased, he stretched the tight muscles while walking. Time was irrelevant and yet, as soon as walking was tolerable, Kent stopped and staked out the team. “Men, there’s wood in the back. Get a fire started. Women,” he slapped a cloth sack. Dust rose. He pointed. “Flour’s here. Eggs, milk, salt, etc. You’ll find tinned fruit and some sausages next to it. Flapjacks and sausage will hit the spot before we continue on the trail.” With that he gathered up the reins for the other three horses, staked them, and filled bags with water from the wagon’s barrel.

The blond man started to remove wood from the wagon.

George asked, “How much do we need?”

The stranger shook his head.

“And what about kindling?”

The man seemed mute.

“Hi. I’m Anita and that’s George,” she said looking at the supplies. “Someone can certainly pack a wagon.”

The woman replied, “I’m Sig. This my man Eetu.”

“Work now, talk later,” Kent said.

George looked in the direction they had come from. The sun rose golden and full of promise.

♦ ♦ ♦

Even if Anita had ridden with Kent in the wagon most of the day, and even if she enjoyed an occasional nap, she was exhausted after setting up camp, the warm western sky burning bright with purple, pink, orange, and red.

They sat on the firm earth, not yet cooled by night. Sig dished out beans cooked without meat, much to the men’s displeasure. “No worry. I have sausages. We cut for beans,” she said.

Kent did not wait for sausages and began eating when handed his plate.

“Thank you,” George said with a smile as he took his plate, waiting for a sausage.

“Maybe you guys would like to cook tomorrow?” Anita asked.

“That’s fine.” George chuckled. “No one will eat it.”

“Maybe. We’re all hungry. I don’t mind cooking, but thought I’d offer to share the joy,” Anita said. She looked at Sig. “And where are you going?”

Sig gave a quick glance to Eetu and then looked at Kent.

Kent didn’t look up but said, “Better not talk about it. None of us have Informateurs, but if ever asked, we can’t tell what we don’t know. All y’all need to know, we’re headed for Saint Jo on banks o’ Big Muddy.”

They finished without more discussion, cleaned up, and each couple crawled into a tent. Kent preferred to sleep under the night sky.

Anita’s eyes closed, feeling quite drowsy, she thought she dreamed George’s questions. “How are you doing? Still glad you came?”

“Did you say something?” she asked.

“Are you okay?” He whispered.

Eyes still closed, a smile formed deep inside her essence. She smiled. “Yes, George. Get some sleep.” She let out a slow, deep breath and thought about the wide open space they had traversed that day, never seeing another person. For the first time in weeks she felt the weight of fear and worry release her heart. Her only regret was she hadn’t brought her sister and family along.

♦ ♦ ♦