Once Upon A Time In The West…


Another Time In The West. He was the blacksmith and all called him Smithy because of it, but the actual name given to him by his mother, in the bedroom, in the first hour after his birth was Adrian Eamon Donnegy Burns, the Adrian Eamon Donnegy being logged and settled a whole week before his father arrived back from work on the far prairies, so it was settled and done. His father, William Addison Burns, had known an Adrian back from being a child where it had been spelled Adrienne and had belonged to a girl, so he was less than comfortable with that aspect, and in fact would have preferred his son a ‘William,’ to more fully carry his blood further. But it was settled by then, and it was Adrian Eamon Donnegy Burns and there were some as chucked his chin and called him little Ade, and he kept it as Ade till he travelled to and opened up shop in Bodie, California, and became known as Smithy and joined with the name to the extent that on forms of any sort he signed himself as Smithy Eamon Donnegy Burns, making it as good as his name in fact as well as deed.

He worked with metal the way good men at law worked with words and best of accountants worked with figures, in an easy way, comfortable and sure, and such was the casual rightness of his movements and motions, and the gracious respect he showed to every aspect of his occupation, that it was an odd day when he would not notice some soul, stopped in their tracks to watch awhile and admire his work. Belying his outward peace and assurance, Smithy was, from time to time, a man visited by a dark horse, an animal that appeared as flesh in his dreams, and during the waking hours, on the times it descended, as a black cloud, turning his world into a dark place without hope or purpose. The animal appeared irregularly, in its own time, and its periods of attendance varied between days and weeks, and during the times it was with him, he countered its force with a deeper concentration and regard for his work, and sometimes this helped and sometimes not. It was something never mentioned as, even in communities as mindless of suffering and free of reserve as the place called Bodie, frailties of mind and spirit were shunned and unspokenly abhorred.

Bodie was not a good place. Shootings were a common event, with the bell tower of the fire house tolling the age of each and every fatality as they were lowered to their rest, and sometimes the tolling went on apace and sometimes not, with the shortest ring being for a poor shot soul of thirteen years; that one for young Harry Reid who’d taken to the streets with his father’s holster and pistol, the way a young man sometimes will, without thought of consequences. And it was a drunken Andrew Bridey who did for him, calling for the young Harry Reid to draw his pistol or face the consequences. Of course to Harry Reid it was a game, as it had been just a game to strap on the colt and swagger down the street like a full-blown desperado from Deadwood or beyond, looking left and right to see if folk were noting the new badman in their midst. Drunken Andrew Bridey noticed him and took his swagger as a direct and personal affront and had ‘called him out’ as the term was deployed, and Harry Reid had stood blank and puzzle-faced as Bridey drew his pistol and fired a round that took the lad in the temple. And even though it was clear young Harry’s gun had never really left the holster, Bridey called ‘fair fight,’ and ‘an act of defence’ and Harry Reid was laid in a coffin twice as long as his own shot self, there being little time between these events to fashion a custom-built. When the Plague hit, the custom of the fire bell tolling was abandoned as the constant ringing could no longer be sustained with sanity, and the town council decreed, by voice and on paper, a full and final stop to tolling the ages of the dead and it was never resumed.

So Smithy Burns would beat out his wheel rims and horse’s shoes and stove handles and axe-heads and plough shears and adzes, and his work extended down as far as far the simple door hinge and the more intricate lock key, and on to practically anything broken and made of metal. You could conduct a choir with the rhythm of his hammer and interspaced, but still rhythmic, hissings of glowing metal in the slack-tub water trough, and the pumping of the bellows into the coals of the forge. And there was an unconscious rightness to the rhythm so that it was present through sickness and in health, through the worst-climate-out-of-doors of Bodie’s summers, to the frigid winters that even the presence of the forge could often not accommodate comfortably. Smithy Burns never married. Mary Julia Wright came to Bodie in the spring of 1876 to be the first proper school teacher with a proper training in the profession and to take over from Winifred McGuiness, the wife of the Charles McGuiness, the proprietor of Bodie General Stores & Hardware. Winifred was a keen but incompetent stand-in for the real thing, who knew very little about anything beyond her own domain, but enthusiastically passed on to her assortment of pupils, dubious facts and stories of times and histories as they fancifully formed in her head and, more often than not, when asked a question outside her field of understanding, would make up some answer to suit.

And it happened that, in the late Spring of 1876, Smithy was struck by Mary Julia Wright’s poise and inner beauty, as he saw it, and became sorely smitten, and his working rhythm was thrown to perilous listings and his thoughts to an aimless drifting on the tides and currents of a full blown and distracting passion. He imagined he could see beneath her sharp features and bony angularity; could prairie-ferret through, beyond her straight-backed rigidity and high-nosed projection of critical disapproval towards anything less serious than death, or a wholly mortal sin. Smithy fell in love and, as often as not with that all too delicate of human emotions, love was accompanied by a pain and despair which, in their turn, called forth the dark horse, and it pranced and reared itself in the pain of his unrealised yearnings. And it was an entire year before shrivelling indifference withered the love to the point where his rhythm and focus could return and his thoughts could once more align with the every-day of Bodie and its surrounds and the attendances of his dark horse became less frequent and severe.

And then Mary Julia Wright left and never returned, and she claimed it was Bodie’s reckless morals and total abandonment of anything embracing God and goodness, a state that had so poisoned her soul she could not stay another week, lest all her own goodness become so tainted as to preclude any redemption, and her entry to heaven be barred for all future time. But, as I said, a love forever unrequited must surely wither and her leaving was, in the end, of mere passing interest to Smithy and his hammers and tongs and glowing forge.

There were fifteen brothels in Bodie, all of varying degrees of cleanliness, both of premises and personnel, and when, in the July of 1878, one such establishment, Maggie McLachlan’s, began parading the offerings naked before prospective clients to more fully stimulate their imaginings of delights to come, and loosen their grubby hold the $3.50 fee, which, as the sign explained, included the town’s brothel tax of 15%, the success was such that all other establishments were forced to follow suit, lest they see their own business walk down the road to Maggie’s. But Smithy never sought out these establishments as his only vices were grog and some rolling tobacco, and his only excesses, if indeed excesses they were, were limited to a Friday evening hot tub in the bathhouse behind the Golden Dollar Hotel where Mrs Sho Wong, the proprietor, would scrub his back with a soft bristled brush for an extra twenty-five cents, and an occasional fifty cents on red, or sometimes black, depending on his mood, at the roulette table.

Smithy had rooms above his forge and augmented his income from a livery, abutting his blacksmith shop, affording board and feed for up to, and often including, eight horses at any one time. Smithy had a way with horses and with kind hand and gentle talk, could quiet the most irritable or excited beast, returning it to a placid calm. Once, he’d saved young Jack Kincade from a certain trampling and possible death after his horse was spooked by a snake, a rattler, that had somehow made its way into town. The ten year old had been thrown to the ground and rendered dizzy and unfocused by the fall and such was the horse’s crazed fear and agitation, no soul around dared approach. But Smithy, from right the other end of the town’s main business thoroughfare, had whistled; once to gain the maddened beast’s attention, then a second time, in a different tone, long and low, pitched to induce a rational calm, and then a third to indicate to the beast that all was well, and to trot down to Smithy for a pat and an apple, quickly picked just moments before from the apple tree beside the stables. Smithy knew fire and metal and horses and handled all with a quiet calm and strength that, when asserted over troublesome situations or eruptions, could often act like an oil on troubled waters.

There was an incident once, in the bar of the Lady Belle hotel, on a frozen Friday evening one bone-cold Bodie December. Jake McGairy, quarrelsome from drink, had pulled a pistol on another patron, Charles McGuiness from Bodie General Stores & Hardware, accusing him of cheating at the cards in particular, and expanding to a litany of other grievances accumulated over a number of recent months, including a hardware pricing policy he termed an extortion over folks without recourse, fixing his weighing scales so a half pound of nails was more like a quarter, and smiling at his wife. Jake, a right-handed man, carried his pistol in reverse, on his left hip, and he had his hand across his stomach and the piece out and cocked and aimed at Charles McGuiness’ chest when Smithy, from a nearby table said, ‘Put it down Jake and be done with it,’ and Jake had turned to look at him and Smithy had patted the chair beside him and said, ‘Come and sit and I’ll buy you a whisky and retell the time I called out Bad Billy Hatchet from Omaha and got away with my life still in one piece.’ And mad, drunk Jake had eventually done just that and, true to his word, Smithy bought mad Jake a whisky and he told Jim the barman to leave the bottle as the story of the calling-out of Bad Billy Hatchet from Omaha was not one to be rushed, or have points overlooked or abbreviated. And when Jake had sat, calmer, with just the lingerings of a hostile eye towards Charles McGuiness, Smithy silently and without fuss withdrew his own pistol from under the table, drawn earlier as a precaution, should things turn bad and a firefight ensue. It was a nice turn and the sound of talk resumed and Thin McLarren struck up a lively song of the times on the piano. But later in the evening, in the street, Jake came upon Charles McGuiness, not entirely by accident, and shot him through the heart and two weeks latter was publicly hanged, to further extend the tragedy to a second unfortunate life.

Separate and apart from his livery’s charges, Smithy’s own horse was a grey mare, a creature of calm and intelligence which, through some means unique and unfathomable to any animal science of the time, could attune itself to Smithy’s moods, and during periods of darkest despair would, when possible, remain close and, during pauses in the blacksmith’s hammerings, push nose to shoulder in a gentle nudge to remind the man he was there and close. It was a singular form of empathy that built a solid bond and each one offered the other a respect and affection and trust of a strength rarely found in solely human contacts.

The bonding extended itself to a respect for all dumb creatures and when one afternoon a grubby and belligerent man took to beating his horse, fallen to the ground and still in the traces of its wagon, Smithy and the town’s one veterinary, Charles Olderman, whose premises sided Smithy’s, came out to intervene. They had no legal authority and their presence was merely one of concerned citizenry, but the horse’s assailant turned his torrent of abuse to the intervening pair and when they approached to attempt physical restraint, pulled a pistol and threatened them with shooting. The horse, already sick and unsteady with the equine Poll Evil, died in the stocks as a result of the bloody beating that ripped flesh from bone, reddening the ground around it. Its stiffening remains were unceremoniously dragged the length of the main thoroughfare to the town’s knackery by Cory Mulligan’s draft horse, leaving a deep gouge in the dirt, and the dead beast’s owner took himself, red faced and ready for a brawl, to the Lady Belle and settled himself to drinking beer and staring down patrons with the point to incite the fighting his inner rage demanded. And it was sometime during the same night that the man was come upon in the alley beside the hotel by a person unknown and was himself beaten and stripped naked and wrist-tied to a hitching rail. And around his neck was hung a sign, written in ink with a bold brush, saying, ‘I am a vile soul upon the earth, for such as I am a cruel sinner and tormenter of frail and defenceless animal flesh.’ And he was left in place that morning by all and sundry who came upon him, and he stayed left there until noon, when he was cut free by the proprietor of the business before which he was bound, on account of his effect on trade, and that evening, wrongly suspecting the blacksmith as the perpetrator of his humiliation, slit the throat of Smithy’s grey mare, leaving it to crumple and fall and bleed out its life blood onto the livery’s straw covered floor.

And such was Smithy’s rage and torment, that he trailed the man on his escape from Bodie and tracked him for two days, coming upon him on the second evening, cooking beans and coffee over a fire. And after surprising and subduing him, he tied a rope around his quarry’s ankle, with the other end about the man’s horse and he slapped the beast into a startled gallop and the mans screams echoed through the fading evening light for some time. Smithy followed when the crying stopped and found the pair and loosed the body, now more like meat, and released the beast which, in the end, followed him at a distance, back to Bodie, where it was reclaimed by Cory Mulligan, from whom it had been stolen.

And for quite some time Smithy mourned his poor dead mare and the mourning brought with it his other horse which was black as pitch and reared and stamped amongst his misery and for the first time in his life he closed down business and took to whisky which became his constant companion. And when he’d finally had done and stopped the drinking and reopened his shop and livery, he was a colder man and his rhythm at the forge had changed and was dull and mechanical and souls stopped pausing as they passed to admire his work. He lasted most of a year and a half after that, but then he succumbed to the drink again and one night slung a rope over a livery beam and from a barrel he dropped himself down and hanged himself, to be found next morning by Tom Planter, a travelling salesman, called in for his horse. And it was the newly appointed sheriff, on his first official act, who was called to cut him down and, uncertain of proper procedures for such an incident, was happy to pass responsibility to the undertakers. And through the town of Bodie the whispering declared it was a sad thing indeed and the question as to what would drive a man to such despair, rippled briefly. But in the end, from all who’d known him through his years in Bodie, five came to stand beside as he was lowered, and it was John Kincade, the father of Jack Kincade, the boy who’s soul Smithy had saved from the snake-spooked horse, who, out of feelings of debt, arranged the head stone which read, ‘Smithy,’ then underneath, ‘Adrian Eamon Donnegy Burns,’ and because nobody knew exactly when he was born, the third and final line read, ‘Died 12 March 1882.’

And it was decided by the few who’d cared enough to be involved, that his cause of death be overlooked and his remains accorded the dignity of burial under consecrated and sanctified earth, and not the pit where, those dead by their own hand, were less formally despatched. And life went on and eventually Bodie itself died of morbid decline when the gold mining that had sustained it became unprofitable and the mines fell to bankruptcy. The last inhabitants packed up in 1940, driving away in crank-started cars and piled up, open-trayed trucks, and few looked back with any degree of fondness, and none with any remembrance of the blacksmith, died some seventy years previous of a despair and overcoming sadness caused by the sad and heartless killing of his horse.