Home: Figments: Steeples and Graves

Steeples and Graves

Soon, chores were done, the men returned with the oxen, and everyone was sitting around the campfire, mopping up the last of the syrup from their baked beans off of their tin plates with crumbly butter biscuits.

Miss Lindstrom was the first to finish. She’d cleared her plate, gone to her wagon, and brought out a banjo. Then, as the others finished their meals or smoked their cigarettes, she plucked slow, lonely notes from the instrument, which floated up into the starry skies. For some time, the travelers listened quietly to the notes rising, and then falling, each tone a wistful sigh. Then she began to sing, the lyrics hauntingly sung in some unfamiliar Scandinavian tongue.

Pyöveli joka kaapata we
Estää sinun köyttää hetkisen
Aajaksi neito kanisteri hiippakunta
Häntä isä ajava heittää

As Miss Lindstrom finished the verse, Margaret raised her palm, requesting that she pause for a moment. “I think I know that one,” she said. “May I?”

Miss Lindstrom looked quite surprised, but nodded agreeably. She continued playing the song, and the next time the right notes came around, she nodded to Margaret, who began singing a very similar song, but now in English.

“Slack your rope, hangman,” she sang, quickly, with urgency.

Slack it for awhile,
For I see my father ridin’
Down the longest mile.
Father did you bring me gold?
And have you paid my fee
Or did you come to see me hangin’
From this gallows tree?

Now the rest of the party was looking up with surprise, their faces eager with curiosity. Margaret smiled cunningly. A good singer was really a storyteller, and a good storyteller hooked her audience early.

You know we’re poor, dear daughter
We cannot pay your fee
And so I’ve come to see you hangin’
From the gallows tree.

One of the gentlemen had found his harmonica and joined in. Margaret’s eyes met Miss Lindstrom, and the two of them shared a sly nod, and Miss Lindstrom played into the next verse, picking up the tempo slightly. The harmonica whined anxiously, building the mood of anticipation.

The firelight danced in Margaret’s eyes as she sang the maiden towards her doom. The daughter’s fate seemed certain, spurned by not only the father, but now her brother, her sister, and her friend. Margret could see she had her listeners hooked, caught spellbound by the maiden’s dilemma. Time to draw them in. With a tense, frightened voice, she sang, “Slack your rope hangman, slack it for a while. Now I see my lover riding, down the longest mile.”

Around the fire, some gasped. Others held their breath. An illicit lover… would he save the maiden from the hangman’s noose?

Margaret’s voice deepened. “Fear not my fair maiden, I brought gold and paid your fee, for I’ve not come to see you hangin’ on that gallows tree.”

The audience had been listening over the campfire breathless, and now they let out a sigh of relief, as if they felt themselves were the ones being judged.

 “Oh that was wonderful!” Diana clapped her hands together. “Spooky perhaps, but wonderful. But what did that poor maiden do to deserve being hung?”

“I don’t really know,” replied Margaret. “I always thought she’d stolen something.”

“They’d never hang a woman for stealing,” said Mr. Simms. “That’s just not right. Maybe she was a witch.”

“Well, if she was a witch then why didn’t she just curse ‘em all? And besides, who falls in love with a witch?”

“Pirates.” Miss Lindstrom had been resting her hands, and now looked at the crowd quite seriously. “They were pirates, the ones that took her. At least it was so in the song I learned. I’d never heard it in English before. That was so clever; you’ll have to teach me the words, Mrs. Reynolds.”

“It’d be my pleasure, my dear. Now, do you know any others? Let’s do ‘There’s a hole in my bucket.’ That one is so much fun.”

Diana’s mind wandered as the other ladies tried to find the right chord. The song reminded her of Scheherazade, waiting each night for her executioner to come, only to be saved at the last minute. Diana wondered if anyone would come to save her, if she lost Harold out in the wilds of Pike’s Peak Country.

Harold was singing along with the rest of the party, slapping his knees in time with the music. Diana smiled at him proudly, and joined the chorus. When it came back again to the hole in the bucket, everyone was a little exhausted, but happy. A hot tin pot filled with coffee was passed around, and everyone huddled into little groups, the men pointing skyward discussing things like aspirations and azimuths, the women leaning close and swapping stories.

“So what made you decide to come west, Abigail?” Margaret asked, turning to Miss Lindstrom. Ever since the song, the two of them shared a sort of new bond of friendship, like the warm feeling of two hands together pressing the sides of a mug, holding it up.

Abigail shrugged. “A man. A man who thinks he wants to find gold. What else?” The others laughed. “How about you?”

“Oh, me, I suppose I could nearly say the same thing. I’m out here because of a man, or for lack of one. Before my Hank died, he was talking with the other boys in our town about goin’ west. I thought they were all off their rockers. Then...” Margaret’s voice thinned to a whisper. Her eyes turned away from the fire, gazing out into the distant nothingness. “One day he went into the mines, and he fell asleep and that was it. They carried out his body. Said it was a pocket of bad air.”

Abigail leaned forward, her mouth forming a sympathetic “o” and touched Margaret’s arm softly. Diana looked a bit pale, crossing her arms around her chest. Margaret turned back to her companions with a wan smile.

“So, the boys went west after that. It was tough, raising my daughter alone, but we managed. We got along, least until the talk of war came. I think I mighta just found a cave somewhere, and crawled inside and waited for Hank to come and get me, if it weren’t for my daughter. She’s just like her father was, really. All strong wills and stubbornness, the both of them. She wanted to get away from the south. So, when the boys came back to Georgia with all these stories of gold and wild lands, they put a bee in her bonnet. Next thing I know, she’s plannin’ to go west, just like her Pa wanted to do. Go be a part of this whole frontier thing.” Margaret made a grand, sweeping gesture. “But I’ll be damned if I’d let her go on over yonder, by herself. So here I am.”

Diana felt a twinge of sympathy towards the Reynolds girl. At least her own ma wasn’t tagging along like some hovering chaperone. Still, she was intrigued by Margaret’s story. “So, did they really find gold? The boys who went west?”

“Sure as the devil they did. They showed me a nugget they brought back, bigger than my thumb. Said they hit the motherlode. Big enough to make our old Georgia mines look like little bitty things.”

“Oh, wonderful.” Diana sighed with relief, recalling the dusty eastbounders. “How lovely to hear good news again.”

“So you came west for the gold too, Missus Steeple?” Abigail asked.

“Diana, please. Call me Diana. I don’t know, really. Gold would certainly be nice to find. But it’s more about coming to this new place. It’s my honeymoon.” Diana added this last bit nonchalantly, as if it were some plain fact, but the others plucked it like a gem, cooing and nodding with encouragement. She smiled shyly. “Our minister suggested it, the same man who married us in April. Oh, it was lovely! You should have seen the flowers, and the sky, it was the loveliest shade of blue. You know, Elder Daniels had come out west, too, in ’60, just to see the Rockies. He was a geologist, with some crazy ideas about floods and time, and layers in rock or something.”

“Your minister was a geologist? Must have been one of those types.” Margaret said, raising an eyebrow. “What did he tell you?”

“Oh, our congregation didn’t listen to him. They called him an infidel.” Sarah smiled. Being a proud Methodist, she would never admit the old man’s ideas seemed practical. “When he came back, he it was too new a country for an old soul like him. If we were the sort of adventurous young people who wished to see the world, then we should go.”

“And you trusted a crazy old fool like that?”

“Why not? His advice made sense. He told us to sell the horses and buy oxen. He sent us to Col. Boon, who sold us Buck and Bright and Tom and Jerry over there. Said they were good oxen, that wouldn’t run. Not a one is so pretty as my old stallions, but my they’ve served us well, and we haven’t even had to use any lines. The horses would have been miserable with all the pulling. Elder Daniels also assured us that we’d end up falling in with another ox train. So far,” she smiled warmly at the other women, “he’s been right.”

“How romantic, married by Nostradamus and honeymoon by ox train.” Margaret teased. “Well, I do wish you both the best of luck. Why, I think we could all use some crazy luck.”


(Selected from a novel in progress)