Western Short Story
The Wagon Master
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Stall Pillings, man of the world, had allowed it to happen; a woman had gotten under his skin, and the discoverable joy was his gain. Astride his horse, motionless, he stared onto the high ground and wondered how it happened. Then another mysterious awareness took place; she had been as sly and as furtive as Indians and that thought brought him straight up in the saddle, to his senses, on full alert.

It was at an abrupt realization where he found himself, and the real wagon master took over as he shucked off the woman in his mind.

But he didn’t throw her far.

Wagon Train Image

He sat his horse on the skyline, a brazen silhouette to three braves sitting their ponies bareback, at the dip in a wadi, who uphill watched him with solemn curiosity. They were only 200 yards away.

Looking over his right shoulder, Stall Pillings, wagon master, imagination still aglow, made a circling counter-clockwise motion with his right hand, as if giving appropriate directions to unseen riders. Then, he did the same with his left hand, a sweeping clockwise motion, yet full of order and demand. The braves looked around, saw nothing, heard nothing, and stayed where they were.

Pillings, responsible for the 25 wagons behind him on the trail, made the same signs again, this time accompanied by a sense of agitation, setting his horse on two hind legs, front legs pawing the air, the bold, black, beautiful animal under him making an awesome figure on the skyline. With this added commotion, the Indians broke and rode their ponies straight back down the wadi, as if they were escaping a pincer movement sure to catch them in its claws.

Stall Pillings smiled and said aloud to no one but his horse, “We got ‘em again, Sugartap, they keep playin’ games, they keep getting’ fooled.” The grin on his face was sincere rather than celebratory, and he managed to survey the rising land and horizon all about, leaving nothing to chance or slack attitude; not even the woman appearing in his mind as much sylph as apparition. Yet he marveled that he could almost count her many qualities, the armories such a woman as Clara Coburn carried west to vitalize the land.

Pillings was a broad-faced, broad-shouldered, stony-chinned, 36-year old man who looked as rugged and as dependable as his horse that he called Mountain-Big in conversation, but Sugartap sotto voice when they were by themselves, a whisper of respect. For close to eight years he had lead wagon trains across the new land, now becoming old and readily recognizable land to him. He fortified that fact with an unsaid pronouncement … the peak to his left was a familiar marker to him, as well as the wadi the Indians had just fled through. The huge tree, alone on a small rise, as if positioned by a provident god, made him smile.

Again, he spoke softly to his horse, “Well, Sugartap, been here and saw that, ain’t we?

Quickly, before the wind might shift in the open, he again thought of Clara Coburn back at the wagon train, as alive as any woman he had ever lead west, alive because she had literally crawled under his skin and stayed there, inviting, distancing, summoning, separating, joining them together in odd and comfortable moments of loneliness and magic. All his dreams were set either on her or the injuns looping around them the way they had a few times in his commission as wagon master. He’d escape one to get to the other; she was his lucky piece every time out, fair destiny he might have said but hadn’t yet conjured up that description.

Now, as he rode back toward the train moving up behind him, dust rising, the line jagged, the outriders unseen but abreast of him at least, he thought again of her, how she moved about during an evening stop, taking away a shadow from the campfire, letting her grace flow like a teasing breeze coming off the sweetness of an earlier green hill or a span of prairie grass so green it could blind a man with hope.

He could hear the rustle of her skirts, the sweet swish of them, imagine what they covered, and saw the lines that only imagination can give rise to, the measurements of desire. When she swished her arms about, as if thrusting outward, reaching, he caught the angles she projected. She was alive and gorgeous and beautiful and she had crawled under his skin like an adder could, just as sly, just as mean, just as potent. Love, he finally realized, had never entered his mind. Out here, on the wild and wooly plains, Indians, hardly strangers on every trip, though now getting thin in their reserves, still carried the ultimate threat, the ultimate distraction.

But, of all the people he had lead west, the hundreds of them now in California or Nevada or Texas, she was the ultimate prize, the favored one, the charge he must protect at all costs.

He never realized he had fallen in love. It had never happened to him. But it was here, in the saddle with him, rolled up in his night blanket, at the back of his mind and in the core of his chest.

Rebel Clausen, an outrider and scout nonpareil, hailed him from a safe distance.

“Yo, Stall.” His hand was waving at the same time, from a far turn in the trail, safe for quick hailing, sudden appearance. In five minutes he rode up to Pillings and said, “We got a party of 16 back in there a ways,” as he nodded toward the area he had ridden in from. “They’re painted, but only got four rifles I could see. They look kind of serious themselves but really don’t appear that way to me. One a them’s the same buck we saw last time through here, the one with one arm longer than the other, the one we had a game of tryin’ to come up with a name for.”

Pillings smiled. “Ain’t he the one we settled One Two Short on?” They both laughed, and then Pillings said, “We also thought he was dead that time too.”

“I ain’t thinkin’, Stall, that they really want to spread the paint. I’m thinkin’ they want to trade. Give us some fresh meat for blankets or such. Maybe a couple of cookin’ pans. It was like they knowed I was up there lookin’ down on them, tryin’ to figure them out. I think a few tin pots ‘n’ pans is better than lead makin’ the rounds.” They both laughed again at word choice, keenly aware of each other’s outlook and appreciation.

“They’ll do the announcement. I already seen three of them and figure they recognized me from before, like I wanted them not to forget me.”

“They ain’t none a them foregttin’ that fight, Stall. We stood tall that day, all us.”

They turned and rode back down the trail, comfortable in the knowledge that neither element had fully surprised the other.

As he rode along Stall Pillings measured Clara Coburn again, from every angle, and Clausen knew the boss man was at reveries of a sort. He saw it on his face. He had seen that look back at the wagon train the night before, when it seemed like Clara and Stall were off in a world by themselves, and right in the middle of camp.

“How we handle this, Stall? We don’t ride out on ‘em with a flag, but we ought to draw in their interest. Make ‘em look at the easy side.”

“if they make the first move a peaceful one, we can do easy-like. If it’s otherwise, we’ll just do what we did last time… give ‘em a show of power. We have the men and the guns.”

Clausen said, “We have damned good shooters with some of women. I seen that Clara Coburn knock the eyes off a target back down the trail, at that river stop we had. Real keen with a rifle she is.” Then he added his qualifier with a question; “She spoke for?”

“Damned well better be, from where I sit.”

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than they heard the gunshots back down the trail.

Pillings yelled at Clausen. “We been suckered. They set us up. Let us sit out here like dummies while they was behind us all the time.”

They rode back raising dust, to more gunfire, smoke, lots of yelling. As they came in sight of the circled wagons, they saw one brave dragging a woman behind his horse with a rope. Stallings, with a rifle shot from the saddle, dropped the horse out from under the brave. Another brave stopped his horse to grab the rope and the woman looped the long rope around the front legs of his horse. All three ended in a pile.

Pillings said to Clausen, “That’s gotta be Clara. I’ll take care of her. You scatter them braves back on that side.” He pointed to five or six braves clustered behind a blow-down and firing into the circle of wagons. Another group were firing from a quarter circle away, careful to not be shooting at their kind. “I get Clara loose, we’ll take that group up there. Stovall should be coming in from that side he heard the shooting. Them in the circle seem to have enough shooters at work.”

They rode off in different directions, Pillings screaming at Clara, “Keep, that rope tight, girl. Don’t let him run off with you. I got the injun he makes any move.

The brave, young and husky, leaped at Clara Coburn with a knife in his hand. The sun shot an arrowed reflection from its long blade as he grabbed Clara and held her tightly, one arm around her waist. He had her upright and the knife against her throat. He had a gleam of self-satisfaction in his eyes as he looked at Pillings bearing down on him.

“Don’t let go that rope, Clara,” Pillings yelled as he dismounted and laid the rifle across the saddle. “Hold real tight. I got that buckaroo in my sights. You’re my woman, not his.” He didn’t know how he dared say it, but it leaped out of him with the deepest conviction. Without hesitation, the only way he could guarantee his statement, Stall Pillings shot one eye out of the brave’s head. The blood spurted all over Clara Coburn, the horse stumbled as it rose up, and she whipped the rope off her body. The Indian was down and dead, his blood all over her clothes, but she held the rope tightly in both hands, the horse’s legs still trussed.

Admiration and relief flooded Stall Pillings as he held her close, said “Mine” in her ear, and lifted her astride the horse. Her smile was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen, blood or no blood. Her pale green eyes were staring at him, seeing what he was, what he had become. She sighed one time, as deep as feeling, and squeezed the rope still clutched in her hands. It made Pillings smile himself, and he loosened the rope and threw it over the back of the horse.

From the far side of the wagon, more gunfire erupted and Pillings saw his other outrider pouring lead into the second group of Indians who were scattering. Clausen was slamming repeated rounds into the first group behind the blow-down. They too galloped off on their ponies as both Pillings and Stovall, the second outrider, poured additional rounds into their midst.

It was over in a hurry, the fire power from the three outside riders, combined with the inner circle shooters, was too much for the Indians

In a sudden instant all went nearly quiet. A child cried lightly, frightened. A woman said, “Hush now.” A man, shot in the leg, grunted, then cursed, then realized his luck and grunted again, this time not as harshly, not as convincingly. He pointed out his wound to a woman who reached out to him.

When the wagon train moved off, Clara Coburn had moved her clothes and gear into Stall Pillings wagon in slow and considered movements. Nobody stared at her while she did so, nor did she care.

One Two Short was never seen again.

At the end of that long journey, in a quiet valley in California, the Pillings family, soon five strong, had finally settled down on their own piece of land, snug against one stream and a fair mountain at their backs. Sometimes they took a trip to look at the Pacific, to see ocean-borne wonders and magnificent sailing ships under the spread of canvas other than that which covered the wagons of the plains, but they always went back to the valley with the stream rushing beside them, the mountain at their backs, and trees nearly as big as the mountain itself.