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The Long Train To Santa Fe

Short story By: John Kessler
Westerns


An atmospheric short story about the fates of a father and daughter as they settle in New Mexico in the late 1870s.


Submitted:May 29, 2011    Reads: 62    Comments: 0    Likes: 1   


Peerless were the sands and scrub that stretched across the territory of New Mexico; ancients to the brief number of years the pioneers had scratched out their farms and townships in the baking, featureless plains. And in the year of Our Lord eighteen-seventy-seven, the Greenberg family, formerly of Atlanta, Georgia, settled in the burgeoning frontier town of Jerusalem.
The town was typical of the growing number of settlements the European settlers built as the United States expanded westward to the Pacific, and northward toward the bleak, cold frontier of the 49th Parallel and beyond. Jerusalem, named for the Holy City, was small in stature and insignificant in its citizenry. The bland shops, clapboard houses and dusty people greeted the Greenberg family with indifference as they arrived in their covered wagons. The drifters eyed up Miss Greenberg like buzzards, and whilst she shied away, her father Thomas, the grand old man of the family, gave the scum and the waste a look to turn the hardest bastard in town to solid stone. Miss Greenberg was thankful to her elderly father for his defence. Thomas Greenberg thought to himself, "Coming here was the biggest mistake of my life…"
Thomas Greenberg, then fifty-eight years to the best of his knowledge, was a formidable man, even in his frail dotage. His daughter, splendidly colourful in her yellow travelling dress, could turn the head of any man within a hundred yards. Thomas was resentful of the unwelcome attention his daughter received. As for the other members of the Greenberg family, well, they had all passed on long before. Mrs Greenberg, raped and broken in Atlanta during the Civil War, had been dead thirteen years, whilst William, the only son and heir, died for no good reason in Oklahoma. The Greenberg family was all but dead, save the lost souls of father and daughter, drifting like flotsam throughout the American south-west.
Stopping outside the courthouse, Thomas Greenberg dismounted the ten-horse wagon and warily crossed the street, removed his wide brimmed hat and entered the building with a respectful gait. Miss Greenberg tarried with a vulnerable tension, fearful for her safety from the drifters and soldiers who gathered in front of the hotels, saloons, gambling dens and brothels. One such drifter caught her eye with his indiscreet behaviour. His black hair was an oddly endearing mess of locks, his dusty pants and shirt a sign of his long hours spent drifting across the high plains of the southwest. His sun reddened face and bloodshot eyes bore the sign of exhaustion. The young man lazily began to traverse the dusty street to strike up an acquaintance with Miss Greenberg. His manner was friendly and courteous, his accent betraying his Southern roots. Miss Greenberg initially was cold and uncompromising in her silence, but relented to his polite Southern charm.
"Whass yer name?" she asked.
"I'm Will McKenna," came the reply. He continued, "I'm from New Orleans. How 'bout you?"
"Atlanta…" Miss Greenberg was cold in her response.
The conversation ended there. Thomas Greenberg saw the young man through the window and snarled silently to himself.
After fifteen long and difficult minutes, Thomas Greenberg exited the building with Judge Dern, a taciturn and hard-faced man. The two men shook hands in a cold, business like fashion and parted company. Returning to his daughter, Thomas Greenberg brandished the deed to a large property on the outskirts of town. His daughter inquired as to the cost.
"Six hundred dollars."
"Well, I declare!" Miss Greenberg was astonished her father would pay for a clapboard house with nine tenths of their meagre savings.
"It's a lotta money, but we gotta settle sumplace. This town is as good as any…"
"We passed through better towns than this in Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma. Whass this place got tha' the other towns don't?"
"We've been drifting from one pioneer town to another for the last twelve years. Time for a better life."
Miss Greenberg had no answer to her father. She knew he was right in settling down, for the life of a pioneer in a covered wagon was exhaustive and took a heavy toll on the health of everyone who endured the savageries of the Great Plains and Southwest. Already, she had been ravaged by fever several times in the time it took for the difficult pioneer journey she and her father endured from Oklahoma through to Texas and into New Mexico territory. Thomas Greenberg had fallen ill through rheumatic fever and ailments such as sunstroke and savage winter chills. Miss Greenberg reflected on her father's ever worsening health. She knew her father would not live long, he was ageing and affected by ever more frequent sickness as he succumbed to a cancerous tumour. Miss Greenberg comprehended the situation she would face following her father's demise. There was but one escape route from poverty, prostitution and shame in a frontier town. The long train to Santa Fe. Arriving once every other day, the train snaked its way across the parched plains like a black serpent belching smoke and noise. The clicking of the wheels, the mournful whistle and bell gave the locomotive the nickname of "Dead Man's Express." How Miss Greenberg wondered, how she dreamed of the journey to Santa Fe, how she feared for her father's life, and her virtue. The Greenberg home, a modest affair, overlooked the single track which snaked away into the distance, Santa Fe and the High Sierras one way, the Texas ports and steamy New Orleans the other.

Miss Greenberg continuously dreamed of her chance to leave for Santa Fe, and one fateful Saturday, seven months to the day she and her father crawled into Jerusalem, New Mexico, she finally had her opportunity. Thomas Greenberg, now in the final stages of his illness, was weak, frail and gaunt, a shadow of the former man. His hair had turned completely white, his skin and eyes sunken, his body emaciated and thin. He spoke a few words to himself, "This is for my daughter… Hail Mary, full of grace…" He murmured the refrain, silently moving his lips to the extent that a woman and child crossed the street, fearing he was mad. Opposite the Grand Saloon, the largest and most debauched house of gambling, liquor and loose women in the territory, Thomas Greenberg shouted, "Which bastard is Will McKenna?" From among the crowd of frontier scum stepped a young man, scarcely a day over sixteen. With sudden violence, Thomas Greenberg drew a revolver from his coat pocket and blew out the brains of the harmless Will McKenna. The drifters responded with a flurry of bullets, gunning down the old man without mercy, compassion or a question for his actions. As Greenberg smashed into the hard baked earth, a mass of insults ranging from "psychopath" through "crazy old bastard" were thrown in slander.
Upon receipt of the news of her father's death, Miss Greenberg immediately sold her property for the sum of eight hundred and four dollars and six cents (an oddly pedantic amount, but she insisted on the cost due to transport reasons), to a kindly preacher who said a few words of comfort. Thomas Greenberg was buried next morning in the town cemetery, in a small discreet service which did not attract attention. As for the filthy drifters who gunned him down, eight were hanged on Monday, five on Tuesday and six on Wednesday. All the city scum hung there with broken neck and looks of terror on their faces. The bodies reeked of sweat, the flesh putrefied rapidly in the blazing sun, and the legs of every man had the irrepressible and unmistakable stench of stale urine as a final panic overtook every bastard who dangled from the rope's end. The hangings gathered crowds never before seen in the town. Miss Greenberg was not present. The day after the funeral, Miss Greenberg bought a ticket at the railway platform. She travelled alone with no property, no companions and no plans, on the long train to Santa Fe.





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