The Silver Pony

by Matt Schelke, , November 14, 2008

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It was thirty years, five months, and six days ago when she came out to the gold fields of California, the rough diggings where even a plain girl was worth her weight in the yellow metal. But the girl riding in the wagon with me on that long-past day was far above plain--dangerously far above plain.

Now, why was I riding with that beautiful girl? It was part of my job--a job that I’ve been ashamed of since those fateful hours. I was a bride-auctioneer. You see, when you eat, sleep, and work surrounded by men for years on end, you start missing the ladies back home. You come back to your cabin after ten hours splitting rocks and wood, sifting through river silt, and building cradles, and there’s just a stove and a bed. No woman to hold you or make dinner and no children to call out to you. Just a stove and a bed.

So, some of the men got together and formed a mail-order “temporary bride” company. You apply at a makeshift office, they find a girl back East who needs money, and they ship her out to your cabin. After you leave the gold fields, she returns to her family.

Problem was, sometimes the men didn’t want their brides. Loneliness produced bitterness, and that bitterness was directed at the women. So, occasionally, the company had an unwanted bride on their hands. That’s where I came in--I auctioned her off to the highest bidder.

This girl was special, though. She was the prettiest creature I’d ever seen: refined and quiet, not like the girls I usually auctioned off. More like the farm girls I grew up with. I ran away from my family’s farm ten years ago to get rich in these gold fields. You see, my family was torn apart by the death of my father and two brothers from cholera. The disease left the farm in the hands of my grandfather, my mother, my sister and myself, but most of the work was put on me.

I remember the day I left--it was a dark day with low, dense clouds that seemed to be suffocating the sun. I was refilling the feeding troughs when I noticed that the air seemed heavy and I couldn’t breathe. I imagined the whole farm closing in around me and squeezing me into a tiny box. My life was in that box--milking, feeding, harvesting, and slaughtering every day, every month, every year, over and over again in endless cycles of seasons and hours. That night, I took some clothes and food and ran, ran, ran.

The stage I built for the auction was a small wooden platform with a makeshift podium that was replaced each month because the wood was rotten. When we got there the yard was packed with miners. Some had just come from the diggings and were carrying picks and shovels; some had come from their cabins and had put on their best shirts for the occasion. Most were grubby, stiff men with bottles and flasks by their sides, eagerly staring at the new girl with their ravenous eyes. Jack McMurty, the most experienced miner in the camp and famous for his victories over the Indians, looked especially pleased with the new specimen. The girl glanced around and then looked away.

I started off the auction with three rifle shots to quiet the raucous crowd. You can’t yell in the mining camps, as nobody will listen; the only way to get attention is by shooting. So, three shots later, the place was all ears.

“This beauty is straight from the Appalachian foothills of West Virginia, where she was raised as an innocent young farm girl. She knows how to cook, clean, and will be the perfect companion for your time in the gold fields. I mean, just look at this perfect body and pure face. Imagine her lying beside you after a hard day of work, and you holding this smooth-skinned angel for hours at a time. This deal is better than anyone back East can get--those stiffed-necked businessmen are too timid for a wild-hearted, adventurous girl like this one. Gratify all your desires and fantasies with just a small investment. The bidding starts at three pounds of gold!”

“Three pounds here!” shouted a greenhorn in the front row.

“You’re going to need those three pounds to buy yourself a tombstone!” shouted a grizzled man in the back. “Three-eight!” he added.

The bids climbed higher and higher. I told the girl to look seductive, but she just turned away.

“Twenty pounds!” cried James Slater, a man who came to these auctions just to buy girls and send them back home.

“Slater is just wasting a good virgin!” shouted a veteran in the back. “Twenty-ten!”

Finally, Jack McMurty offered forty pounds of gold. This was by far the highest bid I had heard for a bride. I would be able to retire on my 50% commission and live out my life in absolute comfort. But I wanted more. I wanted somebody to bid higher. The yard was silent until a meek old merchant in the back yelled out for forty-two. McMurty broke a bottle over the man’s head and offered forty-three. Nobody dared to challenge him.

“Is that it?” I shouted. “Do I have forty-four? This might be the last true beauty you’ll ever see out here! Nobody? Forty-three, sold to Mr. Jack McMurty!”

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye and turned in time to see the girl make a grab for my rifle. We had had some feisty ones before, but nothing like this. I pushed her and managed to tear the rifle from her hands and point it at her face.

“What the hell d’ya think you’re doing?” I bellowed, my finger on the trigger.

“Don’t you know me? Look at me! Look at me! You’re nothing of a man!” I looked at her; there was something familiar in the way she spoke, something like my mother scolding me when I was a boy. But she wasn’t my mother. McMurty pointed his gun at her.

“Get up”, he growled.

“Is this what you want?” she shouted. “You’ll let him take your sister?”

“My sister?” I barked. “You ain’t my sister. She’s back East on the farm.”

“The farm? Do you know what happened to the farm? The bank took it! Grandpa died, so there was nobody to work it! Do you know what Mother and I do now? We’re housemaids! We used to have land! We used to be proud! But you left!”

I didn’t want to believe it. I thought the past was behind me and I was free. Why was this woman telling lies?

“I heard the rumor last year”, she screamed, “that you had taken this devil’s job, out here in the godless country. I couldn’t believe it. So I came out here to prove it was a lie. When you put me put me up on the auction block, it was the worst moment of my life!”

Then I saw it. Around her neck was a thin silver chain with a small silver pony. The memories came back--my grandfather gave my sister this pony on her sixth birthday and she treasured it. She wore it wherever she went, and it gave her a shiny glow like gold under a river. Now the pony seemed alive and threatening. I imagined my sister riding on its back with a lasso, trying to throw it over my neck. The auction stage, the audience, my sister and the pony were racing around me in an ever-tighter circle. I could see the pony’s head flicking towards the east, beckoning me to go back home. The pony was just a devil, trying to trick me into going back. The next thing I knew her hands were on the rifle and we were fighting to reach the trigger. The rifle went off.

I heard a roar from the crowd and felt the huge mass of Jack McMurty crash into me. “You shot her foot!” he screamed. “She ain’t worth any amount of gold, now!” He held me down, shouting and spitting into my face. This is what it would’ve been like for her, living with this repulsive heap of fat flesh and dark beard, this man who had no friends in the world but the entire world as enemies. I could see Jack McMurty suffocating my sister, engulfing her with his bigness. I wanted her to be free like me, to take her pony and ride farther west, to Australia or Japan or China. Ride over the wide Pacific. I shot at the heap of flesh on top of me until I had used all my bullets. The heap slid off to the side, a mass of blood and bone.

Then I saw my sister lying to the side with a blood-soaked boot. I realized that I had done that, I had maimed her. She couldn’t ride across the ocean with a foot like that. It was my job, my duty to nurse her back to health, my job to take care of her, my job to return home and get the farm back. There were so many jobs, so many obligations. They were weighing me down, closing in around me, and strangling me. I looked at my sister, threw her the rifle, and ran, ran, ran.

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