My great-grandfather drove a team of two through the dawn-grey streets of Kansas City, sitting high behind the rumps of the horses, reins laced between callused fingers. The big bays plodded over the cobbles—clip-clop, clip-clop. I imagine the horses were bays, or rather that is how my mind sees them in the early morning light, before the sun has cleared the horizon. I have no real memory of Harry Smart’s horses. I have no memory of Harry Smart. I was five decades unborn and he about to die. The year was Nineteen-eighteen.
Harry Smart, a teamster, drove a bakery wagon. He carted trays of fresh-baked bread through the quiet city streets. A young wife and baby girl at home, he did not answer the call to foreign wars, did not follow Black Jack Pershing to the Western Front. Machine guns did not spit lead over the top of his muddy trench, nor did artillery rain down death from above.
The death that stalked Harry Smart was quiet and patient. His death crept unseen behind the wagon, slid unnoticed past road apples steaming in the morning coolness. No one heard death’s stealthy tread beneath the tattoo of the horses’ hooves.
Working folks needed bread to eat, foreign war or no, influenza or no. The ovens waited for no man, nor for any tardy team of horses. Empty bellies needed filling. There was a war on and work to do. Stockyards had to be manned, pigs slaughtered and cattle, meat packed, locomotives stoked. Seamstresses went off to sew collars and teachers to teach children. Go warily and safe, My Darlings, cotton white across your lovely mouths. And remember to come home to hearth at the end of this day.
And so to answer the need, Harry Smart and his horses made their daily rounds. They delivered loaves and rolls to corner grocers, restaurants, and blue-plate diners. Laden trays were exchanged for yesterday’s empties, hands shaken, and then the wagon moved on.
The horses knew the route as well as Harry Smart. They knew the places where a child might wait with an apple or a sugar cube held out on an outstretched palm. Then Harry would slack the reins, allow Babe or Queenie to lift with prehensile lips the offered treat, leaving in exchange a trace of thick slobber. The child would laugh, wipe a slick hand against denim overalls, wave up at Harry. He returned the wave, clucked his tongue, shook the reins, and the wagon moved on.
Harry Smart might have survived the bloody fields of Flanders. The battles for the trenches cut down one hundred and sixteen thousand of the Americans that answered the call to Europe’s war. They were planted in rows beneath white headstones and red poppies.
The silent killer that followed my great-grandfather’s bakery wagon scythed down six times as many victims as the machine guns over the trenches. Before the Armistice of Nineteen-eighteen, before bells rang out across the world, Harry Smart was dead.
Perhaps he shook the wrong hand at a grocery store, or was too close to a virulent sneeze, a deadly cough. By whatever ingress, the Spanish Flu virus took him. One day he was a healthy husband, father, and teamster. The next, he was bedridden with fever. By the third day he was coughing blood. And on the fourth, Harry Smart was no longer of this world.
I never met my great-grandfather, nor do I know if his horses were named Babe and Queenie. My grandmother became fatherless, and my great-grandmother a widow.
Harry Smart’s widow remarried in time. She became an Allen. She was still alive when I was a little boy in Maywood, an old suburb of Chicago. My memories of Great-grandmother Allen are of a stern old woman, rail-thin, and wearing a black dress.
Great-grandmother Allen, long-since widowed again, visited our family in Maywood. I do not remember how she made her way from Kansas City to Chicago, only that she did and that the memory of her is true and mine.
The old woman was tending to me and my little brother. My mother was a schoolteacher in those years and my father worked in an office in downtown Chicago. My brother and I were clamoring for something, perhaps an ice cream, and Great-grandmother Allen took us in hand.
She walked us under the shade of the overarching elm trees, three blocks up Van Buren to the arterial of Seventeenth Avenue. And there she was defeated.
Traffic whipped back and forth, up and down four busy lanes. My great-grandmother stood ramrod straight, our little boy hands clasped tight under the parchment skin of her own. Her grey head swiveled back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until she declared the street unsafe and led us back the way we came.
She died not many years after that. It was years after her death before I first heard the name of Harry Smart. More years passed, enough that I was older than my great-grandfather when he was taken by the Great Influenza. Curious about my own history, I began to learn it.
My great-grandfather’s grave is in a heritage cemetery in Kansas City. His graveyard is old and full. No more dead will be laid to their rest there.
I can and have found graves just like his, scattered throughout old cemeteries in small American towns. They are not rare, not hard to find. Look for the older section of the graveyard and wander amongst the headstones. Read the dates inscribed in granite, in sandstone, in marble: died Nineteen-eighteen, twenty years old; died Nineteen-nineteen, twenty-five years old. The healthy and the young, cut down in swaths like harvested wheat.
Held tight in my memory, Harry Smart drives a team of two draft horses through grey-dawn streets, sitting high and proud atop his bakery wagon. The leather reins are laced between his strong, calloused fingers. The big bays, Babe and Queenie, plod forever over the cobbles.
Marco Etheridge is a writer of fiction and CNF, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His scribbles have been featured in many lovely reviews and journals in Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: Coffin Bell, In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, Prime Number Magazine, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and The Metaworker, amongst many others. Marco’s novel “Breaking the Bundles” is available at fine online booksellers. His author website is: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/