Western Short Story
New to Town
Scott Harris


Nolan Cauthen wanted to live in a place where he and his family could have a fresh start. Nolan had left Pennsylvania months ago with his wife, Nerissa, and their two children, Oscar, age four, and Hattie, just over a year. Their home, their jobs, and their family and friends were all left behind, and both Nolan and Nerissa knew it was likely they would never see any of them again.

While the decision to leave had been shared by Nerissa and Nolan and had, in fact, originally been Nerissa’s idea, the actual leaving had still been hard, and more than once on the trip, Nerissa had fallen asleep on Nolan’s chest, quiet tears streaming down her face.

Like many, even most, of those heading west in the wagon trains, Nolan wasn’t running from something, but toward something: opportunity. And until he heard about Dry Springs, he thought that opportunity was going to be in California.

The trip had been hard. They had gotten a later start than they had hoped, but the wagon master, Robert Grant, wouldn't leave until they had enough wagons signed up to make the trip profitable and as safe as possible. The more men the better to help defend the wagon train if they were attacked by Indians. The weather was rougher heading through Missouri and Kansas than anyone had expected, so they were delayed again. Now that they were in the Colorado Territory and the Rocky Mountains loomed ahead, there was growing concern throughout the wagons that they might not make it over mountains before the winter snows hit. They had all heard terrible stories about wagon trains getting snowed in, somewhere on a mountain pass, for the winter. If that happened, starvation, frostbite or freezing to death were painfully realistic scenarios.

Wagon Train

Just last week, they woke to see Indians on the hillside behind them. The wagons were already circled, and the men immediately took defensive positions, suddenly very thankful Grant had insisted on having plenty of wagons—and men—and also insisted they circle up every night.

Horses were pulled into the center of the circle, and the women and children were told to climb into the wagons and lay flat, as the thickly wooded sides would likely offer the most protection possible.

Nolan had watched with pride as Nerissa made sure the children were lying down and even covered with the pots and pans they planned to use when they opened their own restaurant. Nerissa then picked up a rifle, turned and faced the Indians. Nolan started to say something but quickly realized nothing he could say would stop Nerissa from doing everything she could to protect her family. It was not the first time Nolan had taken a moment and given thanks he had found Nerissa.

Grant watched through his brass looking glass as the Indians rode away. Either they were scared off by the number of armed men, and Nerissa, or they simply weren’t in the mood to attack that morning. But Nolan had yet to shake the feeling in his stomach from that morning, knew he didn’t want to go through that again and certainly didn’t want to risk his family again.

So, when two days previously the wagon train was visited by a lone rider who had heard about and then shared over that night’s campfire what happened at Dry Springs—how the town had stood up for itself, hired a Sheriff and started a school—Nolan and Nerissa quickly decided that Dry Springs was a town where they could plant roots. It was only a three-day ride across relatively safe territory, and the weather looked to be good.

They had stayed up in their wagon most of that night, talking about what they wanted out of life, and they decided they could find it, or build it, in Dry Springs. They made plans to leave in the morning. Once they told the wagon master of their plans, word traveled fast through the other wagons, and soon two other families made the decision to join them.

Like many of the families in the wagon train, Shawn and Kim Dixon were looking for independence. Shawn was almost fifty years old and had worked his entire life for other people. He was a blacksmith, and a good one, but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life working for someone else.

When Shawn’s boss decided it was time to buy all new tools for the shop, Shawn and Kim bought the old tools that Shawn was familiar with and loved, and they made plans to leave. Shawn also bought all the tools necessary to be a gunsmith, which he had been during the Civil War when he fought with the Philadelphia Brigade, Seventy-First Pennsylvania Volunteers.

With almost the very last of their savings, they bought a wagon, mules and supplies; paid Grant; and headed west, toward California. They were scared, had very little cash money left, didn’t know a soul in the wagon train or in California, and had never been happier.

Reverend Matt Lavender and his beautiful wife, Stacy, saw no reason to go any farther than Dry Springs. Stacy just needed a place where she could have a home and friends, and now that it was no longer going to be Ohio, it could just as easily be Dry Springs as California. Reverend Matt needed a place where he could build a church and help people with the word of God.

Reverend Matt’s Sunday sermons, which he continued to give on the trip west, were almost as good as the harmonica he played every night after dinner at the campfire—and about equally well attended. And so, this last morning when everyone was together, even though it wasn’t Sunday, Matt held one last sermon for the wagon train. Everyone came, even those who hadn’t joined before on Sundays. Reverend Matt talked about how it didn’t matter if one lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, California or Dry Springs, the power of God came from inside each individual, from prayer and faith.

They all knew those breaking away from the main wagon train and heading for Dry Springs and those continuing to California would likely never see each other again, and they had grown close on the trail. Both groups also knew they would be less safe for having split up, and that weighed on everyone’s minds. Their individual fears were lessened by the power of prayer and the power of the group. They prayed for each other, and they prayed for themselves.

When Matt was done, everyone lingered as long as they could, taking extra time to check their rigs and their animals. In addition to the mules that everyone had, Matt and Stacy had three dogs—Littlefoot, Gus and Monkey—and while they didn’t know exactly what kind of dogs they were, they did know that more than once the dogs had fought off the coyotes that would lurk around the horses at night.

The women openly cried as the men tried not to. But finally, they could stall no longer, and as the original group headed west, still bound for California, the smaller group headed south, toward Dry Springs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Midafternoon had become Ray Hinton’s favorite time of day. The store was rarely busy then, so Ray had taken to sitting out on the front deck of Hinton’s General Store, usually by himself, but ready for a nice conversation if someone wanted to sit down and talk. In addition to the time, he treated himself to a sarsaparilla and a cigar every afternoon. Ray had recently learned, or maybe been reminded, that there is much pleasure to be found in the little things, the small rituals, which is why it sometimes took him five minutes to light his cigar. He had even taken the fancy cigar cutter out of his glass case, deciding he’d rather use it than sell it.

Ray knew school was out for the day, because Huck, his grandson, and Tom had stopped by the store to say hello—and get a hard candy. He looked forward to the boys stopping by the store in between school and their work at the livery. Huck knew that once his work at the livery was done, he and Tom could play until dark, but then it was time to get home for chores, supper and homework. The boys’ afternoon visit and then leaving for the livery was his daily reminder that it was time to head to the deck.

Ray walked out front, stretched and took a look around town. It was quiet, with only a couple of people out walking. He set the bottle of sarsaparilla and the cigar on the table next to the rocking chair he’d put there last week. He slowly took his gun belt off and set it on the table as well, though within easy reach. Ray had taken to carrying a gun, deciding there was a better chance of not needing it if he was wearing it.

Ray’s mind drifted sixteen years back to when he had ridden into this little valley with his wife, Ellen, and his four-year-old daughter, Sophie. There’d been nothing here then, and Ray and his family only came because he and two of the other families had lost confidence in the wagon master’s ability to get them over the mountains and into California. Unwilling to take what they saw as a huge risk, the three families headed south, ahead of the winter and the Indians.

Ray never learned if the rest of the wagon train had made it safely to California, and it had been a while since his mind had wandered in that direction. He couldn’t even remember the names of the other two families who had helped start this town. Both had left Dry Springs as soon as the winter snows melted. One family headed back east, trading their dreams for the perceived safety of a city, and Ray and Ellen never heard from them again either. The other family headed north to Denver, promising to gather supplies and people and be back before summer.

They did arrange for supplies to be brought down and even talked some people into leaving Denver and settling in Dry Springs. However, unwilling to endure the work and hardships that are a necessary part of building a new town, they also sent their regrets that they wouldn’t be returning. For the first time in years, Ray wondered what had become of those two families. Had they made it safely to wherever they were going, and were they happy?

But his thoughts were interrupted as he saw dust rising up from the road behind the hill just outside of town. There was more dust than a single rider, even a couple of riders, would have made, so Ray knew that whoever was coming, there were a few of them.

He stood up, put out his cigar and strapped on his Colt 1851 Navy revolver. He leaned against the front railing, keeping his eyes toward the hill, and called for Huck and Tom to come back to the store. He told the boys to go inside, help themselves to another hard candy and stay there until he told them it was OK to come out. Huck started to protest, but a look from Ray let him know this was not the time for negotiations. Reluctantly, but obediently, the boys let themselves into the store and, after helping themselves to a hard candy, set up in front of the window so they could see what was happening.

It was only a few minutes before Ray saw three wagons crest the hill and head down toward town. Other than the supply wagon from Denver, which came every two to three months, they rarely saw a wagon in Dry Springs, so three at one time was a real surprise for Ray, as it would be to the rest of the town.

As the three wagons rolled up in front of his store, Ray relaxed. These visitors were families with friendly smiles and clearly packed to make a fresh start—somewhere. Ray noticed Lanny Thurman, the town banker who many called Thurm, and Will Blanchard walking toward the store and noticed Will had his gun strapped on as well.

Ray stepped off the porch, extended his hand to the first driver and said, “Hello.”

His hand was met with a firm grip. “Hello. I’m Matt, and this is my wife Stacy. Are we in Dry Springs?”

“Yes, you are,” said Will, as he walked up and offered his hand to Stacy, helping her down from the wagon.

Matt jumped down from the wagon, walked with Ray and Thurm to the second wagon, and introduced them to Nerissa and Nolan. Handshakes were shared all around, and the men learned that Nerissa and Nolan had two small children, both sleeping in the wagon, buried under blankets to ward off the cold.

As the men started toward the last wagon, Huck and Tom couldn’t contain themselves any longer and burst out the door and onto the porch. Ray turned and smiled at the boys and introduced them—realizing that this was the first opportunity he’d had to officially introduce Huck as his grandson—as they all met Kim and Shawn.

Ray invited everyone to step onto the porch, or into the store, and offered up Huck and Tom to take care of the horses and rigs.

“Is there a hotel in town where we could all stay?” asked Matt.

Will pointed down main street at the Soft Beds Hotel and let them know to ask for Ansel Portis.

Nerissa asked Nolan to keep an eye on the kids, in case they woke up, and then joined Kim and Stacy inside the store. Huck and Tom walked the other two rigs down to the livery, taking care of the horses and storing the wagons. The men gathered on the porch. A few minutes of small talk followed while the three men from town and the three men from the wagons sized each other up.

After a few minutes, Thurm asked, “Where you heading?”

Matt, Shawn and Nolan looked quickly at each other, and Shawn answered, “Here.”

It was Ray, Thurm and Will’s turn to look at each other, and it seemed that everyone reached the same conclusion at the same time, as smiles broke out all around.

Ray heard Sophie’s voice coming from the store. She’d seen the activity in town and had walked down. He knew she’d be telling Nerissa, Kim and Stacy about Dry Springs from a woman’s point of view. Thurm, Will and Ray were excited about having three new families moving into town—especially when they learned they would now have a reverend, a blacksmith and a restaurant, all welcome additions to what now was a growing town.

Matt was just finishing up telling the men how and what they had heard about Dry Springs, and why they decided to leave the wagon train, when Sophie and the other women walked out of the store.

“Hi, Dad.” Sophie walked up to each of the men and introduced herself. “I’m taking the wagon and the ladies down to the Soft Beds and getting them set up. After the kids are settled in the hotel, can you send Huck down to get the horses and wagon?”

“Sure,” Ray said, “we can do that.”

Ray called Huck back from the livery and let him know to come down to the hotel after he was done with the first two wagons. Then, Ray suggested the men head down to the Dusty Rose for an afternoon drink, which, while out of the ordinary, would go a long way toward cutting the road dust in their throats.

The six men walked together down the street and into the otherwise empty saloon. Will set out a bottle, four glasses and a cup of coffee for himself. He started to hand Matt a cup of coffee, but Matt asked for a glass instead.

Will was surprised and, looking at Matt, said, “Sorry, I didn’t think you’d drink.”

Matt laughed and was soon joined by the others when he took the glass and said, “I’m a reverend, not a saint.”

As happens sometimes with good men, friendships were started that afternoon in the Dusty Rose. And across the street, the same thing was happening with the women.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For Sophie, the most exciting change of all, was that from the moment she walked into her dad’s store and first met Nerissa, Kim and Stacy, she’d started to establish friendships unlike any she’d ever had before. The three of them already were friends, having grown close on the trail, and it didn’t take long before all four were getting along famously. Nerissa, Kim and Stacy knew very little about living in a small town in the West, and Sophie was only too happy to teach them.

At the same time, for the first time in her life, Sophie had an opportunity to hear firsthand about what was happening in the rest of the country. The girls were as happy to share stories of their hometowns as they were stories about national politics, fashion or anything that Sophie wanted to know about. And they were eager to learn as much as they could about the challenges of living in Dry Springs, starting with how to prepare for the upcoming winter.

Since the three families were living at the Soft Beds until they settled in, Sophie had already twice visited them in the evening, after Nerissa put her kids down to sleep and Sophie made sure Huck had eaten and done his homework. She knew that when she wasn’t there, Huck stayed up later than he was supposed to, talking with her dad, who was something of a co-conspirator. She also knew her dad took Huck shooting some afternoons. But while she didn’t condone either, it was good for Huck—and her dad—to feel they were getting away with a couple of things, so she didn’t say anything.

Kim had two bottles of sherry that had made it all the way from Philadelphia, and all four of the girls enjoyed a small glass as they talked into the evenings about things important and silly. The men had already made a habit of meeting at the Dusty Rose for a drink most evenings. Nolan only went on the nights when Nerissa could watch Oscar and Hattie, but so far Matt and Shawn hadn’t missed a night.

Kim, Nerissa and Stacy rode into town as fast friends—friendships made, challenged and strengthened as they rode together across the country. When living in the West, it is important to be as self-sufficient as possible, since the challenges are frequent, and help is never guaranteed. But when possible, it is also good to have friends to rely upon. The girls had learned much about each other—and themselves—as they traveled across the prairies and overcame the inevitable challenges. They learned to share the work and their secrets and grew close as a result. Sophie was beginning to feel that she was a part of that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And so, with every evening spent together, every shared meal and glass of sherry, Sophie and the girls grew closer, and with every beer drank and story told, the men did the same. It is a story told thousands of times, spread out over hundreds of small Western towns and each and every time, it is an exciting new adventure.

~~~~~ The End ~~~~~



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