Young bones heal fast. And young, numb minds believe them healed before they truly are. Four weeks to the day, on the fifteenth of April, 1863, while the American Civil War was starting its third year, Clay Logan, Prince of the Road, headed west for the California gold fields.
He was through driving stagecoaches forever.
The beseeching of the superintendent did no good, nor did the pleading of his friends and of the reinsmen with whom he shared a kinship. His wife and his child and his dreams were gone. The only aim that remained was to get as far away as he could from the memories in Ohio. His mother and father were dead like Samantha. Ironically, his father had been considered the greatest stagecoach driver around, yet they had both been killed in a stagecoach accident one bleak January day in 1860 when his father overturned the coach his mother was riding inside of into the Maumee River at full flood. Clay’s brothers and sisters were scattered, some vanished. Nothing was left in Ohio to hold him.
He soaked the cast off his arm, then packed some food, his rifle, a handful of books, and all the clothing he owned, put it all along with cooking utensils and anything else he might need on the trail on his three remaining horses, two Cleveland bays and a sorrel-colored Morgan with a golden mane and tail, and rode away from Defiance County.
The roads were long and lonely, weaving through rolling farm fields bordered by dense, dark forests of hardwoods, just beginning to turn green with spring. Searching fingers of farmland groped everywhere, fertile, dark soil with new green life emerging from it to mock the deaths Clay had suffered. For America, spring was a time to be on the move, mostly west, and from time to time he passed wagonloads of people, or horseback travelers, or men on foot with knapsacks on their backs. Some of them were without arms, or even without legs, some missing eyes, or bearing some other scar from the horrible war that was raging. They were escaping the war-torn East and the so-called bread famines, headed for the farming country of Oregon or the gold country of Colorado, Nevada, and Idaho Territory and the hope of a better life. Most of them traveled in groups, or in pairs. And most greeted him with friendly waves and greetings. But seldom did he give much more than a nod back, and when the travelers were husband and wife, with children or without, he often could not even bring himself to meet their eyes.
Clay Logan was a lonesome man, his skin turning deep brown in the April sun, with his bristly ash blond hair protruding from under a gray, round-crowned hat. His greatcoat was gray, too, and his boots and trousers black but spattered with the mud of the open road. Even his neckerchief was gray. The only splashes of color in that palette of drabness were the red of the horses and the steely blue of the rider’s deep-set eyes.
Through Indiana and Illinois he rode, then finally into Missouri, where big mules and heavily muscled farm horses were hard at work breaking still-virgin land, and the dirt mounded away from the plow blades in fertile black ridges, as far as the eye could see to the rolling horizon, or at least until the vast tracts of hardwood timber absorbed the furrows.
Sometimes faster travelers would catch Clay on the road, and sometimes they paused to keep him company. But Clay couldn’t greet them with his old smile, the one his mother had called impish. There was no gladness left in his heart. Only memories of Samantha and the tiny baby boy he had named Thomas Jefferson the morning that they laid him beside her in the ground. Eventually, because the conversation was sparse or nonexistent, these travelers always moved on. Then once more Clay was left alone to the cacophony of the wind and the trills of a thousand songbirds that literally filled the trees and dotted the tops of the stronger grasses like blue and red and yellow blossoms.
Then there came the one traveler who seemed not only to sense Clay’s loneliness but with his sad eyes and drawn face managed somehow to share it. He was in his forties, his cheeks hollow and lined, his lean body stooped a little at the shoulder. He rode a breed-less bay horse and led a pack donkey behind him.
The man introduced himself as Rodney Anderson, lately out of Vermont, and at the last roadside inn for many miles, he and Clay fell in together. They rode, seldom speaking, studying the skyline and the trees and the wood glade animals that sometimes stood in the borders of the forest in the tall green grass and stared at them as they went by.
After two nights together, they camped in an area of downed cottonwoods along a quietly trickling, shallow stream, the kind that has seen its wilder times and is on the last leg of its journey before emptying its dogged remains into the closest river.
Night blanketed down, and in the twilight, the fireflies began to glow and flicker in the grass, and like miniature candles swinging from the boughs of the new-green trees. In silence, Clay built the fire out of dead limbs that lay here in profusion from the last tree brought down by the prairie wind. They leaned their backs gratefully against the huge dead log and felt the heat of the fire in front of them and reflecting off the white, smooth wood behind.
“It’s powerful what a man becomes when he loses folks.”
Although spoken in a quiet tone, Anderson’s voice seemed almost cacophonous in the grassy glade. A little wind soughed by, and Clay looked over at his companion, gauging him. Did this man know, or only sense what had happened to him? Was there someone else who felt things and saw things like Clay did, without knowing, without being told?
A minute passed while the branches of the trees chittered together and the fireflies danced and a screech owl cried from a far-off perch. Anderson said no more, so finally, Clay leaned far forward and picked up a stick, pulling it from the fire and studying its glowing end. He made it dance in the shadows like a firefly as Anderson drew a pipe from his coat pocket and tamped it full of tobacco.
“You lost somebody, did you?”
Anderson nodded to the sound of a distant whip-poor-will. His eyes narrowed with hard memories. He sucked his pipe and let the smoke seep out his nostrils. “Lots of somebodies,” he said.
It sounded gut-wrenching, not just the words but in the hollow way, the man spoke them. But Clay was drawn to know the rest, and it was plain that Anderson needed to tell someone, although the pain of it pressed powerfully on his shoulders. Clay asked no questions, but he studied Anderson’s face, lowered and stained orange by the teetering flames.
The man felt him looking, and because he understood Clay he knew that was his way of asking him to go on. “My wife left me. Guess I was too old for her anyway, and her old sweetheart’s wife died on him, back in New York. She decided she wanted him back. She took our four young’uns. Headed off west to Buffalo.”
The story was tragic, but not what Clay had expected. Someone leaving you could hardly be classed in the same category as having them die. It was another minute before the man spoke again. He had been biting hard on the stem of his pipe, and the mounds of his jaw muscles seemed too large against the narrowness of his weathered face.
“They found them a house to stay in on the way. Abandoned house, I guess. I know, because I followed them. The boy . . .” He paused and cleared his throat, looking off into the night. “The boy, he tried to add wood to the fireplace when the rest was in bed. Must have put too much on, I reckon. Did something wrong, anyway. Set the house on fire.”
Clay’s heart had started again to thud with the pain of the story that was unfolding. Now he almost wished it wasn’t being told.
Anderson ran a raw, leathery hand down his face, his whiskers making scratching noises that rivaled the screech owl for harshness. “It was the boy that found the fire. But he was too late. Tried to get ’em out. Couldn’t. Burned his legs and his back. The others . . . Well, they didn’t make it.”
He shucked his pipe from his teeth and looked at the chewed stem, then thrust it back into his mouth and bit on it furiously, turning his eyes away to some dark corner of the world while Clay waited.
“I made it to his bed,” Anderson finally went on, still gazing into the dark. “Folks was at the burned house when I showed up and found the wagon and Meg’s horses. They took me where they’d laid the boy. So I made it to his bed and heard him say he was sorry for leavin’ me. Watched him stop makin’ sense, and it took all them burns three or four more hours to kill ’im. Four young’uns and the woman I used to love, Logan. All gone at the same time. So . . . I headed out. Nothin’ left in Vermont but some crosses on a hill and an old hound dog that couldn’t keep up. Long ways back,” he said with a sigh.
Clay could find no words of comfort. He didn’t dare speak at all. He simply sat and contemplated Anderson’s horror tale. He hung his head and quietly placed the stick back into the fire, pushing it into the coals a little farther.
“You lost someone too, young man. Ain’t none of my business, and I don’t ask no questions. But it burns in your eyes and I know you’re runnin’ fast to get away from the pain. Just wanted you to know you’re travelin’ with a man who knows. I understand a powerful lot about losin’ someone.”
The wind crackled the branches around them, and the owl screeched because he was angry that the whip-poor-will had stopped his plaintive cry. The last of the fireflies fluttered and bounced and flickered away. The fire was dying low, and the wind swirled through and stirred the sparks as if with an unseen limb. Heavenward, the stars sparkled like jewels, while Clay Logan’s heart was as dull and black as the inside of a boot.