The buggy jostles down the newly grated road. My wife Emily is curled up next to me, exhausted from our long travels. But I can't sleep. My mind is too full of worries.
"We're here," the driver says as he rears up the horses. I lift the flap that serves as a window and survey our destination. It's about six o'clock I would guess and just beginning to get dark. The town of Salinas consists of two rows of buildings lining a dusty road. One row holds the general store, livery and a lunch counter. The other looks to be offices. Maybe a doctor or an accountant. I'm not really sure.
"There's a bit more just beyond here," the driver says. "Want me to take you?'
"Uh," I say racking my tired brain, trying to come up with an answer. I sigh. "No. Thank you though." He nods and I shake Emily gently.
"We're here," I say. She stirs and sits straight. I hop down from the carriage and extend a hand to help Emily. She grabs our meager luggage and yanks it down. I pay the driver and we huddle on the side walk. Not very many people are out and the majority of those who are appear to be intoxicated. I immediately think I'm made a giant mistake, but I try to not let it show.
"So," Emily says yawning. I struggle to pick up our bags and say,
"Come on. He said there's more down here." I lead her down the narrow wooden sidewalk to the "other" part of town. A particularly large building boasts a sign, "Erikssons Boarding".
"Perfect," I say taking Emily's hand and pulling her after me. We jog up the steps and hesitate on the porch.
"Is this okay?" I ask her. She shrugs.
"it's up to you."
I'm glad that's her answer, since at this point, I don't know what I'm going to do if she suddenly decides to not follow me. I put on a smile to try and make her feel as if it will be fine and knock on the heavy front door. An elderly woman with silver hair pulled into a complicated bun and a black dress opens the door.
"Yes?" she asks in a northern accented voice.
"Um, we were wondering if you had any room s for rent?" I say. My voice sounds weak and scared- not how I had planned it. The woman looks me over before noticing Emily standing behind me. She offers Emily a warm smile and steps aside, letting us in. There's a crackling fire in the corner fireplace and it sends a tingling sensation through my numb fingers. The woman motions for us to follow her to the study, where she sits daintily behind a hefty oak desk.
"What can I do for you? A room?" She studies us, and obviously sensing our age, she adds "two rooms?"
I glance at Emily, who has a small smile curling up the sides of her mouth.
"One," I say, twirling my wedding ring around my finger. The woman looks at us again before opening a drawer, taking out a box of papers and waving for us to sit. There's only one chair, so I let Emily sit. I try to be chivalrous. Being a country boy doesn't always lend to that, but I'm trying to get there now that I'm not in the country anymore.
"I'll need your name," she says dipping her pen in ink.
"Cyrus O'Brien," I say. After writing it down, she sticks her hand out.
"Nice to meet you," Emily says taking her hand.
"Oh, and this is my wife, Emily," I scramble to introduce her. I'm not accustomed to the formality of life outside the military or family farm just yet. Mrs. Eriksson smiles and asks our ages.
"Nineteen," I say. "Both of us."
She nods and fills out the rest of her records.
"How much?" I ask timidly.
"Fifty as a deposit. Then twenty-five every two months," she looks at us to see our reaction. Without hesitation, I open my billfold and hand her a hundred dollar bill. She inspects it.
"It's federal," I say. She nods and sticks it in the drawer. I had hoped there'd be no questions asked and so far, it's coming true.
The two weeks we've been staying at Eriksson's so far, have been interesting to say the least. All of the other boarders are bachelor workers, mainly for the railroads, in their twenties. Most are good fellows, though there are a few I don't trust around Emily. Those of us who aren't working tonight- in my, case at all- are in the sitting room. I've been mostly not paying attention, as I have a million worries occupying my mind, but I shoot back to consciousness when I'm shaken.
"Huh?" I say, slightly startled. The men laugh.
"I asked you a question, Irish," one of them, John Marks, laughs. I hold back rolling my eyes at them calling me that, which they've taken to calling me recently , I guess, due to my red hair and freckles. But really, I've gotten worse.
"I said," John repeats. "What's your story?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, why are you here?" I know you're not from Salinas. That's obvious."
"Yeah, you talk funny," another one called Charlie adds.
"Well," I say rubbing my tired eyes. "We're South Carolinian."
The room feels like the air has been sucked out, tension replacing it. The war between the states has been over for about nine months, so there's a resentment that lingers. I don't blame them. Smiling, I try to show I hold no alliances.
"Why'd you come here?" John asks, squinting at me to make sure I'm not pulling anything over on him.
"Long story," I say, but I can tell I'm not going to get away with that as an excuse. I sit back on the floral sofa and dig up my recent memories.
"Well," I begin. "We were riding back home from the war…"