Emma woke startled by the sound of a horrendous death rattle of a large dying beast. She peered out the window to see steam bellow from below her. Above her a chipped paint sign read: Welcome to Livingston.
She was familiar with the name. Livingston – the small town just before Bozeman, Montana. She smiled at the notion that she would only need to suffer a couple more hours on the wretched Northern Pacific train ride that she started from Saint-Paul. She went to rest her head against the window again but the loud ruckus of baggage being lifted off the train and people shouting in confusing and hurried language at one another kept her from her attempt at returning to her nap. She frowned with her eyes shut. Is all that awful noise really necessary? She thought.
She opened her eyelids and caught the eye of the conductor out the window. He gave her a toothy grin and waved at her. She shot him a weak smile and sat up, averting her eyes towards the front of her compartment. He walked up to the window and rapped on it gently, then curling his hands around his mouth he shouted into the window, “Ma’am, I’m sorry for the inconvenience, but the train is delayed here at least until morning.”
A nervous pang shot through her. This was going to be an issue. It was the twenty-third of December, and she had promised Percy, her fiancée that she would make it in time for Christmas Eve dinner with his family in Bozeman right before their trip westward to Tacoma. Missing that dinner was not an option.
She rested her hands in her lap and sat up straight and spoke directly to the conductor through the window, “there must be a misunderstanding, sir. I bought a ticket to reach Bozeman today .”
The conductor leaned an ear up to the window and shouted, “eh?”
Steam bellowed with a whistle out from the train again. Emma clucked her teeth and grabbed her handbag and marched off the train.
The frigid air hit her bare cheeks like a sharp blade as she stepped down the ladder well. The conductor helped her off with a hand. The glaring brightness of the winter Montana sky blinded her. She put the brim of her felt hat down to hide her eyes in its shadows and looked up at bright white sawtooth row of the nearby mountain peaks. When her eyes adjusted to the grandeur, she turned to the conductor.
“Sir, there must be a mistake. You see, I purchased a ticket to reach Bozeman by today.”
The conductor gave her a pitying smile and when she was finished with her statement, replied in a calm voice, “Yes, ma’am, the train was indeed scheduled to arrive at Bozeman by this afternoon, but you see, there had been an unfortunate turn of events. Boulders fell in the mountain pass. Men are heading there to resolve the issue immediately, but I am sorry to say that it just will not happen by today. If the weather holds up, we might be able to depart by tomorrow afternoon.”
” Might depart tomorrow afternoon? ” Emma repeated with a shrill voice. Emma clutched her handbag anxiously and looked around at the other people leaving the train with their luggage, seemingly unperturbed by the very major inconvenience. Her face heated up so that she could not feel the cold biting Montana wind. The conductor looked on her with concern, as if she might faint at any moment.
“Ma’am, I’ll have a boy fetch your luggage for you. There’s surely a room available at the inn.”
He then looked around her with a frown and asked, “are you traveling all alone, ma’am?”
“Yes, I am now. My aunt took ill in Saint Paul. My cousin is with her. I opted to reunite my fiancée and his family for Christmas. So here I am now. And they are in Bozeman.”
She added the last statement with emphasis.
The conductor nodded in understanding and motioned to a young boy and instructed him to grab her bags.
“I’m truly sorry for the inconvenience ma’am, but rest assured we will do everything that we can to resolve the delay and get you on your way to Bozeman,” he said and then carried on assisting other stranded passengers. Emma’s mind frantically searched for an alternative to being stuck here another day, and possibly more if the weather does not cooperate.
The porter boy arrived with both her luggage pieces and looked up at her mutely with rosy cheeks and a runny nose, awaiting her orders. She smiled awkwardly at the boy then waved the conductor back over.
“Excuse me sir,” she shouted. The conductor spotted her with the luggage lying at her feet and came at once. “Ah, there we are.” He leaned over to the boy and said, “alright lad, Livingston hotel. Smartly now.”
The boy nodded and lifted the suitcases off the ground, one in each hand. Once the conductor had finished tousling the boy’s hair, he straightened up, and before he could say a word to Emma, Emma said, “I will not be staying at the Livingston hotel tonight. I intend to take a coach over the pass to Bozeman. If you will be so kind, please point me to where I may hire one.”
The conductor held back a laughter and his face şırnak escort furled into exasperation. “Ma’am, I -“
She interrupted his protest with a stern, “Sir, the coach station if you please.”
The porter boy watched the pair duel with his vacant eyes. The conductor took a deep breath and said, “Ma’am, there are no stagecoaches between here and Bozeman. Not this time of year.”
Emma continued to fix her eyes with severity on the conductor, making it clear that no divine will could hold her here in Livingston and miss Christmas with Percy and his family, who she has yet to meet.
The conductor sighed and said, “all right, I strongly advise against it, but if you must, I suggest you find Miss River Langtry. She knows these parts better than anyone I can think of. You can find her in her office just around the corner. If there is anyone that could possibly help, it would be her.”
Emma gave the conductor a grateful bow of her head and left the station with the quiet porter boy in tow. When she arrived at the office, indicated by a small placard stating ‘River Langtry — United States Forestry Service, she tipped the boy with a coin, then entered the sawdusted office.
River Langtry sat on the other side of a paper-strewn desk in the small room, warmed by a small franklin stove that crackled cheerily, on top of which was situated a tea kettle on the verge of whistling. She wore a yellow deerskin jacket and wore her bright blonde hair in a tight ponytail. She had a fair, sharp face and sharp eyes. Above and behind her hung a simple evergreen wreath, the sole Christmas decoration in the rustic office.
She busily scratched away at a piece of paper with a pen and had not looked up to see her guest. Emma gave her a polite moment to finish her writing — she did not want her to lose a train of thought — before giving a light cough to catch her attention.
River stopped her writing, laid her pen down on the notepad and leaned back in her chair to study the young newcomer in her office.
A pregnant moment passed before she said, “what can I do for you, sweetheart?”
Emma’s face flashed to a scowl at the word ‘sweetheart’ but put on a faux smile and replied, “good morning, my name is Emmaline Finch. I was told that you might be able to assist me in reaching Bozeman by tonight.”
River furled her eyebrows. The tea kettle started to whistle loudly. River let it whistle as she thought over what Emma said. Outside, a gentle snowfall started. Indicating that Emma’s request was meaningless to her, she responded with a tangent. “What’s that accent from?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Your accent. You’re not from around here.”
Emma turned her smile to impatience and with an upturned chin she responded, “I’m from London. Now to the matter of reaching Bozeman…by this evening…”
The tea kettle continued its ever-strengthening whistle until Emma could not bear it any longer. She marched over to the stove and took the kettle off to place it on River’s desk. River watched with disinterest.
“Yes. It’s in England.”
River turned her eyes back up to Emma, who stood now next to the franklin stove tapping her foot, but a dignified posture. She smiled at Emma and leaned her chair back to prop her boots on her desk.
“Lovely accent,” she stated.
Emma crossed her arms. “So, will you help me?”
“Don’t think so.”
Emma breathed out in exasperation. “Well, do you mind explaining why not?”
River raised an eyebrow, then looked out the window. Emma followed her gaze to see the glistening, dancing snow-dust that had started to fall outside in the bright morning light. “Because there’s no way I can get you over the pass by night fall. Take the train, sweetheart.”
“I was on that train, Miss Langtry. The only reason I’m asking you to take me is because the train is stopped here indefinitely. From my understanding, Bozeman is just a thirty miles distance. And my name is not sweetheart. It’s Emma Finch.”
River nodded along as Emma made her case. When she finished, River responded, “I’m fully aware it’s a thirty miles distance. Ms. Finch. Twenty-six, actually. But that’s twenty-six miles through a mountain pass when a snowstorm is fixin’ to cause some trouble.”
River shrugged. Emma took to rage by River’s apparent lack of compassion in a moment of her obvious need. Her face heated up.
She put her hands on her hips as she thought about how to proceed. If River was not going to help her, she only knew of two other options. The first was to give up and stay at the Livingston Hotel for the night and pray that the railroad repairs are done by tomorrow. She’d be late for Christmas dinner in that case, but at least she’d be there. But what if River was right about the snowstorm. How bad would it be? How long would she be stuck here? Christmas alone? That was not a realistic option in her mind.
The second option was şırnak escort bayan to find someone else that would take her. This was a better option. If River refused to be her guide, perhaps she could find someone that would.
River kept her impassive gaze on Emma as Emma thought through her two options. Politely, Emma said, “I understand you’re a very busy lady, and that you cannot possibly risk the journey today. Could you point me to someone who is willing and able?”
“Well, you can try the saloon. Maybe one of them boys is willing… And able. End of the street.”
With that, River picked up her pen and turned her eyes back down to the paper. As she scribbled, she said, “you have a good day, Miss Finch.”
The saloon. The idea frightened Emma. She shuddered as she imagined herself pushing open the doors to the saloon to find there a contingent of drunkards swaying over their whiskeys and beers. A young British lady in a room of savage men that would eat the Oxford boys she was accustomed to for breakfast.
River looked up again and said, “you can leave your bags in here while you arrange your travels, if that’s your worry.”
Emma shot her a contemptuous look, then turned her glare to the kettle that sat on the desk. It rusted around the middle bulging part. It was a tired, ancient thing, bent inwards in some parts, nonetheless still performing its diligent duty. She thought suddenly of an easy gambit. She reached into her purse and took out a stack of bank notes and placed it on the desk. “I’ll pay you good money. Here’s twenty dollars. That ought to be more than enough to cover a hard day’s work.”
She slid the notes towards River.
The money piqued River’s curiosity. She went to pick the banknotes up, and almost accepted, but opted instead to slide the money back towards Emma, responding, “sorry, ain’t doing it.”
Emma gave a harrumph but did not pick up the money. Instead she reached into her purse again, continuing her glare at River as she did so, to pull out another eighty dollars.
“A hundred dollars.”
A hundred dollars to be taken horseback twenty-six miles. It was a considerable sum. A month’s forester wage if not more, Emma imagined. Thought she had paid just as much for a first-class cabin from Boston, the money meant nothing to her. Bozeman could not wait.
River stared at the considerable wad of bills with a glow in her eyes that betrayed her stolid face. Emma gave the final blow to push her over the edge. An appeal to emotion — Tears welled in her eyes and she sniffled for affect. “Please. It’s to be our first Christmas together.”
River thinned her lips and took the money, shoving it a jacket pocket.
“How’s your horse skills?”
Emma’s spirits raised. She wiped her eyes and said,
“I’ve ridden horseback since I was eight.”
River nodded. She stood and stuffed the papers into her desk drawers messily.
“Thank you so much. This means a lot to me,” Emma said.
River shrugged and said, “can’t promise nothing. Things can turn quick out there and chances are, we’ll have to turn back. But I’ll set you up with a good horse, and a pack mule for your bags. You get yourself into something more suitable for riding right quick. We’ll get going in an hour. No delays.”
The flurrying snow came down livelier once Emma returned from sending an electric telegraph to Percy to explain her predicament. River prepared a pair of tall spotted appaloosa horses and a pack mule. She wore a thick wool overcoat and a coonskin hat, appearing like the goddess Artemis. Emma stood in awe at this divine huntress.
After River tied down the saddle on the second horse, she picked up an exceptionally large, by Emma’s approximation, rifle. Emma gasped at sight of it.
“Oh, do you need me to lend you a gun?” River said as she stuffed the rifle into a holster situated on the side of the horse with the stained butt sticking up like a wooden club.
Emma replied, “certainly not. Why on earth would I need a gun?”
“First time in Montana?”
River nodded and hopped up onto her horse. Emma walked up to her horse, a tall stallion with a shimmering, brown-white splotched coat, and rubbed its muzzle.
“My, aren’t you magnificent,” Emma whispered to it. The stallion gave a courteous snort in reply. Emma could tell it was a kind horse. A well-treated horse.
“What’s his name?” Emma asked.
“Don’t got a name.”
“You don’t name your horse?”
“The mule’s is Annabelle. But the horses don’t got names. Could never think of a good one.”
Emma clambered on her horse and clasped the reins apprehensively. River looked her up and down to make sure she was well situated on the appaloosa and ready for the ride through the frigid Montana winter. When she was satisfied, she motioned with her head for Emma to follow along and steered her horse onto the snow-painted clay road and pressed escort şırnak into a calm clopping stride out of Livingston and towards the white sawtooth peaks through which the Bozeman Pass cut.
Emma started to worry when she saw the thickening layers of clouds above and the thickening snowfall. But the air was still, and River seemed unperturbed. If she didn’t outright reject the mission, she certainly believed it was possible to make it to Bozeman by nightfall.
The ride to Bozeman was quiet. River led Emma alongside the narrow-gauge railroad that ascended linearly into the mountains. Annabelle the mule followed closely behind.
The snow had turned into a cotton grey blanket in front of them, hiding the landscape, making the world a tiny place. The only sounds came from the movements of the horses and the mule — The hooves pushing into the snow and the mud of the road, the constant shifting and rubbing of tough wool and rawhide against horsehide, the metrical silver clinking of River’s spurs that seemed to push time forward like a pendulum, and the sound of snow hitting the ground with the hissing of sand in an hourglass. Emma could not bear this sort of silence. She rode up alongside River to strike up a conversation.
“So, Miss Langtry. I find it extraordinary, and quite a pleasant surprise to find a lady forester here in Montana. How did you manage to take such an office in such a place that seems to exist only for rough men?”
River sat erect on her horse and seemed not to pay any attention to the question, keeping her head pointed towards the things that fell into their short vision. But she had heard the question, and responded, “I know the land better than most.”
She answered no more or less than she was inclined to. Pulling River into a conversation was going to be like pulling teeth but Emma took it as a worthwhile challenge. There was nothing better to do with the many hours of riding still ahead of them anyways.
“I see. And what does the job entail normally? Besides guiding distressed British women from one town to the next.”
River’s face remained unmoved by the quip. A passing fir caught her attention. She took to studying the bark and snapped a short stem from the protruding evergreen branch.
“Job changes depending on the need. Sometimes I scout good trees for the loggers. Sometimes I stop the loggers from taking too much. Sometimes I help the sheriff track down poachers or fugitives in the swamps or the hills.”
She tossed the evergreen stem aside.
“That sounds exhilarating,” Emma said. But she noticed that River spoke of her post with a clinical and sterile understanding of her obligations. These were menial tasks she needed to do to subsist her life, as a dog would perform tricks for food.
“Can be,” River responded.
Emma glanced at the long gun hanging loosely in the saddle holster off River’s right side then up at River herself. She sat on the saddle as an exceptionally competent and confident woman. Her cheeks were rosy from the Montana chill and curved with the perfection of Italian marble statue. She had a sharp pointed nose, a sharp, thin chin, and sharp eyes that were a brown like watered-down coffee. Emma tried to place her background — she was European certainly, but there was something more to River which she could not place. A comfort with silence not customary in a civilized place.
“May I ask you about your story?” Emma asked.
River raised an eyebrow at her.
“My story? Didn’t I jus’ tell you my story?”
Emma laughed suddenly, causing her horse to give a startled snort. She patted the horse’s neck and replied, “don’t be daft. I mean where are you from? Where did you grow up…? What are your parents like?”
River’s face furled. She paused to formulate an answer.
Emma laughed again. “These are not hard questions Miss Langtry. Of course, you don’t have to answer if you prefer not to. I am simply trying to make conversation.”
River stewed in thought about the question. Emma waited patiently.
“Well, let’s see. I was born in Boulder, Colorado but raised all over. My pa was a white man. A gambler. Ma was half-Cheyenne but raised by Christian-folk, I think. Don’t know too much about them outside of that. Ma died before I could memorize her face. Pa was a miserable. He left over the Rockies. Didn’t see him since. My aunt on my pa’s side took me in and raised me alongside my cousins. She was a traveling nurse, so we found ourselves wherever she could find a job. Colorado. Utah. Wyoming. ’til we ended up here.”
They had started to ascend rapidly into the mountain pass. The road became winding and narrow and the snow had thickened on the ground as a white cake frosting. The railroad they followed disappeared in the snow. The visibility was no more than fifty feet, but Emma could feel the immense mountains reaching up around them.
“That’s extraordinary,” Emma said in genuine awe. “And your aunt and cousins, are they still in Livingston?”
River shook her head. “Aunt died of consumption. Cousins died in the Sioux wars.”
“Oh, I’m incredibly sorry,” Emma said. But these sorts of tragedy, Emma knew to be common to the people of the wild west. And River spoke of the tragedy just as she talked about her occupation: in clinical terms.