Catching a Wagon to the Stars
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Jocko Digby, CSA Vet of the Civil War, at 53 still with the keenest sniper's eye, counted the small list of gifts he could give to his lone daughter's wedding. Laura's mother would have done a better job than him, but lost herself inside a fire. Now it was necessary to create a gift, raise a gift, find a gift, make a gift ... but he was short on all points of that argument, down and out of silver. no dust in a locket-sized bag, "not even any coin for the tinklin'," as he shook a hand in an empty pocket.

British-made, hexagonal-bored Whitworth with a telegraphic sightBritish-made, hexagonal-bored Whitworth with a telegraphic sight

"Have a beer," he said to himself. knowing it would not be so private, for he was known as an early celebrator, then muttered, "How to make something out of a flat nothing is the puzzle of the day, the puzzle of the year."

He'd not be able to make a puddle matter in the middle of a desert, his hands and mind lost in ineptness, that barren mind still talking to him as he looked out past the rim of the town, Duke Frazier's fence line running straight as a ruler across the wide grass, as though he owned everything in sight ... which he practically did.

"Get me latched into some kind of shootin' contest and I'll skunk the lot of 'em, the whole damned lot of 'em."

Laura's face that morning in the little cabin past the edge of town, and abutting Duke Frazier's large holding, was a sight to remember, a glow on her face the same way Molly'd greet each day regardless of what she knew was in store for her ... more work in Frazier's store, the man who owned, as was said of him, "He damned near owns every stick and stone and fence and rail and cow in the area. The man can damned well afford to lose a chunk of hisself if'n he had to, long as it was on the straight and narrow."

That phrase was about to stick in his mind.

Laura's smile, Jocko knew, was a cover-up, a pretense, for he figured she knew little if anything in the way of a present was to come her way this day. There was a guarantee somebody could bet on with a whole lot of certainty. "Winner take all!" He snuck a few looks at her, but never saw a giveaway, or a sign of it. Molly's daughter she was, every ounce and pound of her, every smile, every single smile through days which had turned out to be endless at times.

Those few words of his own spoken most immediately had backed him into his own corner. "Things that straight and narrow can't be let alone to be themselves. Got to be an edge for a gent like me, 'cause nobody in town's got a daughter like what Molly give me."

The internal argument began to find edges and reasons and rights for the cause. "I won't be able to lose. I can't lose. So I have to fix the odds my way." And he had lost his last horse in a card game that was probably fixed from the word go.

Jocko Digby switched his view down between two buildings and saw 3 poles of Frazier's fence line. They stood straight, tall and thick as beams and carried two beads of slim wire at this point, fitting Frazier's decree, "I'll have no thorny wire near the children of town. No barbed wire near the kids."

Jocko knew it had swung the whole town right into Frazier's camp."Hook, line and sinker," he might have said if it had dawned on him.

But other ideas were on the flow in his mind, all leading up to his ability to buy Laura something for her birthday. "It's got to be quick. It's got to be clean. It's what I gotta win."

Then he thought again of the beer and empty pockets and Molly in the fire and him drunk somewhere in an alley.

There were a few odd things at the cabin he could sell, knowing some folks, especially some women folks, would buy anything from him, "Left alone with a beautiful daughter after that horrible fire."

He found a silver belt buckle, a mirror, a spoon with "maybe" some silver in it, and sold them to three ladies gathered outside the general store. The one thing he would not sell, besides Laura, was his rifle, a British-made, hexagonal-bored Whitworth with a telegraphic sight, and for him had provided power enough to drop targets at longer ranges than any other weapon he had tried in the war. This one he had brought home with him, home then being any place far to the west of long battle scenes against the Union army forces. He had knocked officers plumb off their horses under the most striking of conditions because of the smack and power of its ammunition, his eye as keen as any eye, celebrated he was as a sniper.

"Enough for a few beers for the day and some plannin'," he promised himself.

Walking toward the saloon, which happened not to belong to Frazier, he looked down between the two buildings at Frazier's fence line he had looked at earlier in the day, before the need for a beer sank in on him. His steps stopped, a single idea gripped him, and he was elated, a series of images, confrontations, up-front dares, and exceptional gambles to be undertaken.

A few actors he had seen in some traveling shows, and each one had learned his lines well, might well have the small drama completely memorized so that each could play any part in the usual three character dramas of such traveling shows. Each one was an expert in their own way, and their use of language, the tone of voice, their framed talk, lead audiences where they, the actors, wanted those audiences to go, lead them by the nose through plots think and thin.

It grabbed him again, the whole set of images, the imagined voices, the trickery of such voices, the false paths of audiences.

"Whither thou goest?" one of them once said on a stage set off by a length of canvas across three wagons lined up aside each other in a forgotten town on his way here, to this place, to this time. They spoke loudly, their voices crossing the town road, finding listeners on porches, on balconies, some even sitting horse-back, or holding a team of horses in the main road in order to hear the speakers and not intrude on the small and only occasional drama at hand.

He went to the saloon and as soon as he stepped in the door he heard Frazier say, "That gent was the best shot I ever saw." It must have been the end of a series of shooting stories.

The whole saloon was primed, including Frazier, thought Jocko, Then he said, "You ain't seen any shootin; yet. Like shootin' needles out of a gnat's eye."

Frazier laughed loud and long and finished by saying, "A toast to the Confederate sniper we all know about and screwing up the eye of a needle and a gnat's eye."

"Hell," Jocko replied, "I don't even know what a gnat is, but I can shoot the hell out of any man in here." He aimed along a pointed finger right at Frazier, who jumped out of shooting sight like an acrobat, still laughing at Jocko.

Jocko could feel the images begin to turn to the real thing. He walked to the door, looked down the main road to where the road turned to the right just before 7 or 8 visible poles of a Frazier fence line, cattle on the other side like an affront to the town itself.

Back to the bar he moved, spun about and said to Frazier, "I bet I could shoot down two of your fence wires right from the main road here near the saloon so they won't hold any cattle."

Everybody laughed, but loudest was Frazier.

Frazier, in turn, went to the saloon door and looked down the dusty road to where his fence line was struck across the edge of town,

He came back to the bar, looked all about, into sundry faces and sundry eyes and said, "You mean to tell me, even with your old sniper's rifle, you can shoot the two wires off my fence line so the cattle can't get through where those wires hold my cattle in place?"

"Yep, but only on a bet," responded Jocko.

Frazier, still laughing amid a joke of jokes, smiled anew and said, "What the hell you get to bet with, Jocko?"

"My little cabin and I'll even throw in my rifle I brought home from the war."

"What would have to be put up, my friend? What would someone like me have to wager on such a bet?"

"Oh, that'd be beyond anybody wantin' to bet, Duke. Don't you think? '

Frazier said, "Like what? Name it." His fist slammed down on the bar.

Jocko offered, "Only 100 cows, 100 acres to raise the cattle on, and a team of horses of my choice. I know that's too much for you, Duke. We can just forget it, if you want. Say it's done and over. Forget it. Say I'm a Gone Goslin'. I can take it."

"When?" Frazier was pushing.

"If I can borrow a horse, I'll go get my weapon. I've got it hid."

"By all means, my man, take my horse. Right out in front in his usual place." His smile was prairie-wide. Most saloon smiles were wide at that moment.

To a close observer, only the bartender was slowly shaking his head, but not fast enough to cause questions.

Jocko Digby was back in 20 minutes with his British-made, hexagonal-bored Whitworth sniper rifle with a telegraphic sight in place. To most observers he did not look a bit ferocious, or even really dangerous.

"Now let's get this straight," Frazier started to say, but Jocko cut him off.

"I'll kneel in the dust of the main street outside and with three rounds will disconnect the non-barbed wire in your fence so that your cattle can escape. Is that simple enough for you?"

Frazier, not at a loss for a wide grin, said, "It's your call, Mister Hawkeye."

The grin expanded

The bartender slowly shook his head, but not one person in the saloon noticed the movement, as though, for the first time in this day, for many days, he was not there.

With a small bandolier of ammunition in place, Jocko Digby exited the saloon, moved into the dust of the road through the center of town. A pause caught at him and some thought he was about to back out of the deal. He looked down the street again, saw where the road turned to the right, saw the poles in Frazier's fence beyond the turn.

He also saw an image, a mile wide smile, a Molly smile, on the face of his daughter, as she stood watching him from the doorway of the general store.

He could not have been happier. He was glad he had not taken a drink. He heard the hush as the entire town went into an absolute silence.

With a very deliberate move, he loaded his weapon, brushed the telescopic sight with the tail of his dirty shirt as though it made no difference at all in the coming activities.

When he went to his knees in the dust of the main road even Duke Frazier had a moment's pity for him, but it did not last that full moment.

Others say it was near funereal, those moments, until the former Confederate sniper spun on his heel and knee and looked directly down alongside the saloon, where he had looked earlier at 3 fence poles of Duke Frazier's cattle fence, this group of poles at least 3 times closer than those at the end of town..

Duke Frazier, amazed by this turn of the event, was about to shout aloud, but Jocko Digby drew an eye on the middle pole of the three, squeezed off the trigger and saw the pole burst apart from the thunderous blast of the round tearing the pole in half, so that the upper half hung in the air, suspended by two wires connected to the other two poles.

Duke Frazier, aghast, looked at the bartender who looked back at him and offered a simple nod of his own.

The other two shots did as expected, two poles blown to bits by the thunderous shots and the opening in the fence line was as predicted by Jocko Digby who knew he was about to ride on a new kind of wagon and Laura'd have more presents than she could handle.

Molly finally had her way with things.