The River Runs Deep – Episode 20

Sailesh Thakrar © Billy-Bob rode into town Illustration: Sailesh Thakrar

William – nobody had called him Billy-Bob in a long time – Robertson rode into town.

Unshaven and unkempt, he was hunched into the saddle, head bowed against the keen snow and wind cutting down from
the hills.

There was an old blanket around his shoulders and a battered hat pulled low over his downcast eyes.

Just another down-on-his-luck, no-account drifter coming from who-knew-where and heading no place in particular.

William hadn’t been back to Deep River since he’d joined the Union Army.

Approaching the Silver Dollar, he watched Wes Pearce emerging from the saloon’s swinging doors, a cheroot clamped in the side of his mouth.

The sheriff paused, eyeing him suspiciously.

“What brings you to Deep River, stranger?”

“Just passin’ through,” he mumbled.

“Keep right on going, y’hear?” Drawing on the cheroot, Pearce leaned a shoulder to the stoop-post. “This town’s no place for vagrants.”

Tapping a forefinger to the brim of his hat, William rode on along Main Street.

Dr Booth must have left town, he thought. His office had turned into a barber shop and bath house.

Whoever the new quack was, he had to be a better man than George Booth.

At first sight, Deep River didn’t look much changed.

“The Clarion” office, livery stable, Tyrell’s Hotel, Miss Adelaide’s store and the Savings and Loan looked like William remembered.

Then, following the bend round to the more respectable end of town, he saw it.

Leasowe Hall, the grandest place for miles.

It had carved columns, fancy lamps on each side of its doors and a big plaque telling the world the hall had been built by Captain Frank Leasowe, for the culture and entertainment of folks in Deep River.

William sat back in the saddle and stared. Leasowe had had a profitable war.

At the fork leading to Pipers Creek, William hesitated. He needed to face the Sinclairs and make peace.

Oh, he’d written to them a few times during the war and when it ended.

He should have kept in better touch. He should have come back to see them years ago.

He’d known they’d ask too many questions about what he was doing and where he was living, so he’d stayed away.

He didn’t want to lie to the family, but he could hardly tell them the plain truth.

Turning his back on the road leading home, William made for the waterfront.

Leasowe’s Transport and Supplies warehouses ran the length of the wharf.

A gang of men – most of them owned by Leasowe until the war – were hefting goods from the warehouses aboard one of the side-wheel steamers moored at the quayside.

She was westward bound, taking supplies out to the gold camps, frontier towns, US Army forts and all stops between.

Back along the wharf, another gang were hauling bales, sacks, crates and kegs ashore from vessels tied up alongside the dock.

William found out from an old-timer shouldering a barrel of jerky that Missouri Belle was due in the day after tomorrow, and that Andrew Sinclair still sailed with her.

Thanking the old man for his time, William followed the river before striking out across country and into the Overton Mining Company’s sprawling shanty town of miners’ dwellings.

Shacks, tents and make-do shelters were crammed into the narrow depression snaking between the workings.

An early shift was ending; men and women, boys and girls swarmed up above ground and scattered amongst the squalid shanties.

William made for the company store and joined a line of women waiting to buy provisions.

He watched them get their goods and pay for them with wooden tokens.

Overton’s paid wages in scrip. William understood about scrip.

His mother once told him a body could work their whole life at Overton’s and never once see cash money.

When he got to the counter, William bought coffee and rattled down cents and dimes to pay for it.

“Is the mine hiring, sir?”

The storekeeper shrugged, jerking his thumb in the direction of the mine office.

“Ask the boss – Mr Skinner.”

William took his coffee and went. He had no intention of stopping at the office or seeking work at Overton’s.

So Ty Skinner was still in charge, was he? That was interesting.

Riding on, he squinted up at the yellowish sky. It was already long past noon.

He needed to make camp somewhere, and the Underground Railroad’s old hideout at the Kirkstones would be the ideal place.

Taking a meandering trail through woodland, William glimpsed the old Delderfield place away beyond the snow-laden trees and could hardly believe his eyes.

To be continued…

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