The Man From Skibbereen
Crispin Mayo had a wish to walk the high land with the company of eagles and the shadow of clouds, so he strode away to Bantry Bay and shipped aboard a windjammer as an able-bodied seaman. It was his first voyage on such a vessel, although he had fished upon deep water since childhood, and knew a marlinspike from a hickory fid before he was six.
He jumped ship in Boston Town and hied himself off along dark streets, trusting no man and steering a course sheer of grog shops and the painted girls who lay traps for trusting sailormen.
When the dawning came upon him he was beyond the city's streets and walking country lanes. He stayed shy of main-traveled roads for fear that if they found him they'd ship him home again, and he'd yet to see a mountain. So he begged a meal here, chopped wood for one there, and slept by the night in a haystack or a farmer's barn.
Somebody said while he listened that in a westward land they were building a railroad, and paying strong lads for the driving of steel, so he went that way and a hiring-man put him on a train. He sat royally upon the cushions then, and west he went.
All day they rode, and through the night and the day again, seeing only the grass, the sky, and far in the distance some wooly black cows, until a time came when the train clanked and squealed to a stop.
It was very hot, very still, and the black flies buzzed about. Cris Mayo stepped down to stretch his legs and saw shade, so he walked yonder and sat beneath a cottonwood. Cris Mayo closed his eyes. Far off he could hear voices calling in the shack, he heard the conductor swear, and sometime along there he closed his eyes, just for a bit.
He opened them suddenly to a shrill whistle blowing, heard the grind of the train starting and came swiftly to his feet, sprinting for the track. He went up the slight bank, his feet slipped on the gravel, and he fell. The train was gathering speed. Swearing, he ran, but a fast forty rods only left him panting and the train disappearing, slowly, drawing into itself with distance and the narrowing track.
He stood staring and alone. He trudged down the tracks, walking back to the small station, a box of a place with a signal pole before it and a sidetrack alongside the main line.
Under his hand the door opened, and he spoke inquiringly into the room. A telegraph key chattered, chattered like the teeth of a frightened banshee. He walked in, leaving the door standing, but nobody was there, the room was empty. The second room for sleeping was also empty.
He stepped through the back door and stopped of a sudden, for there was the darkness of a stain on the stoop there, a stain of blood.
Blood looks much the same when spilled in Skibbereen or in Boston or on the western plains. Something or somebody had bled here, bled a sight more than was good for him. Yet when his eyes looked beyond there was nothing but the wide waving grass and the sky over it, with them meeting yonder, far off.
He went back within. The instrument clicked angrily but he knew nothing of its operation. There was a chair beside it, and papers strewn all about the tiny desk with a pencil laid down as if the owner had just stepped away.
Was there anybody here at all, then? Or had they found him injured and taken him aboard the train? What had happened to the man? Had he hurt himself or been attacked? This was not Ireland and Cris was a far piece from Clonakilty. There might be things here, deadly things, of which he did not know.
The key was chattering so he went to it and put his finger on it and chattered right back at them, a wild burst and then another.
Silence--utter, astonished silence.
Then the machine erupted into a wild crescendo of sound, a quick, excited racket. When it was silent again, he touched the key just once.
A short volley of clicks, then silence. He touched the key again.
At least they knew that someone was here. When he was discovered missing from the train, they would surely know it was he who was at the station; yet would they come in time?
He went into the bedroom and looked for food. It was there, of course. A couple sides of bacon, a ham, jerked beef, dried apples, some coffee, flour. . . and there was a stove and a lamp.
He was getting up from peering into the lower part of the food box when he saw the rifle. It was on the floor, half under the bed. He picked it up carefully. It was almost new. When he worked the lever, it ejected a spent shell. There was a spot of blood on the floor near where the gun had lain, and what appeared to be blood on the stock.
He thought of the patch of blood by the back door and the vanished telegrapher. He went to the door and looked down the track. Nothing. The twin rails merged and vanished. Sitting on the bench was a square box he had not noticed until now. He recalled seeing it in the car near where the brakeman sat. He tested the weight: heavy.
Picking it up, he carried it into the station and put it down on the floor. Using a hammer that lay there with a few other tools, he opened the box.
Ammunition. Bullets for the rifle.
It was growing dark inside, yet he hesitated to light a lamp. What was out there? Was there anything?
He took up the rifle again, handling it gingerly. He had never fired a rifle.
A sudden burst of wind slammed against the walls and lightening flashed, once and again. Peering out the back window, he saw the rain coming in a solid wall, and something. . . something else was there!
Lightening flared once more. Something ghastly and white! Something rain-wet and walking, walking straight and stiff toward the shack! The blackness closed in and Cris Mayo stared, his throat gripped with superstitious terror. The lightening flamed, and in its brightness the white thing lay sprawled on the grass not twenty feet from the shack: clearly, in that instant, a naked man.
Fear forgotten, Cris Mayo slammed open the door and lunged across the stoop into the storm. Wind whipped at him, smashed his breath back down his throat, lashed him with sheets of rain. Head down, he plunged the few yards to the fallen man and his hands grasped the wet, cold body, half-dragging, half-carrying it in through the door. As he dropped it, a flare of lightening showed him what seemed two bulletholes, black and round, in the man's body.
Shoving hard, he forced the door shut against the wind, then he struck a light and held it to the lamp's wick. With a dirty towel he wiped him dry, then covered him with the bed's blankets. He filled a kettle and put it on the stove to heat. He found a packet of tea in the cabinet and filled a pot. There was little enough he knew about wounds, but he'd heard it said that tea was good for shock. Rummaging around, he found a bottle of whiskey, and put it by.
The man's skull was a mess. He'd been horribly beaten about the head, and shot twice. One of bullets had gone through. The other must be someplace inside him.
Was this man the missing station agent?
The man muttered unintelligibly in his delirium, then subsided. After a moment he sat up suddenly. "Help," he said, "help me." He looked at Mayo, but whether he saw him or not was a question.
"I've some tea, man. Drink it down now, I'm thinkin' it will help."
The wounded man managed a couple swallows. He lay down gain, muttered, and slept.
Cris made sure the man was covered, then blew out the light and with rifle at hand, sat down in the a chair against the wall by the bedroom window and tried to relax. Thunder rolled, lightening flashed, and the rain beat against roof and wall and window, but Cris began to nod and closed his eyes.
Through pounding rain a rider came from the night, lightening picking highlights from his glistening slicker, throwing deeper shadow under the turned-down hat-brim.
The rider sat his restive mount, peering through the darkness at the station, then suddenly swung his horse and rode away. Crispin Mayo did not look out. He did not see the vanishing rider.
Crispin Mayo was asleep.