Western Short Story
His name was Roscoe Drummond, a rugged, quick-spirited veteran of the Great War that lay in shambles at his feet as he prepared to take off his uniform. The sounds of war had almost disappeared from the air about him, though he had been wounded twice on the very last day of the war. Blood now crusted on his uniform as he sprawled in the hay of a barn, ready to don some clothes he had already stripped from a clothesline when the second stray round hit him. The shot had been meant for the man who was now stretched out in the barnyard. The dead man’s pleas had not been heeded by his killers, their thinking the war would go on forever, as if war was their due, war was their passion.
All of it was a sign, he believed, a sign that would send him on a mission for the remainder of his life.
In the barn where he had hidden from the search party that killed the barn owner, his mind fixed the mission in his life even as he heard screaming from the farmhouse. Drummond did not change into the farmer’s clothes, but hustled his best to get to the house as the screams of women continued.
The two soldiers in the house, with the utmost terror in their hearts, had frightened a mother and daughter out of their wits, and had tied them up in one room. Bound on committing their next crime, in the same uniform that Drummond wore, which infuriated him, he shot both men on the spot, freed the women, and buried the husband and the two soldiers. He told the women not to mention the soldiers to anyone. In some of the farmer’s clothes he departed, on a horse given to him by the farmer’s widow, the ravages of the war behind him, the wide open west waiting on the far horizon.
A month later, and a month past a wagon train send-off station in Missouri, Drummond cleared the top of a hill, hurrying to investigate rapid gunfire ahead of him on the trail. A lone Conestoga wagon was circled by five men firing at will into the body of the wagon. With dead aim, his rifle over the remnants of a blow-down on top of the hill, he dropped two riders from the saddle and wounded a horse that limped away with the rider jumping off to hide behind a rock. When the roadside brigands started returning his fire, a fusillade of shots came from the wagon and two of the robbers fled on horseback. The third man raised his hands in surrender and stepped out from behind the rock. He was shot dead on the spot with one round from the wagon.
A woman, of perhaps thirty years of age, in a calico dress, stepped down from the wagon, the rifle still in her hands, gunpowder fumes seeping from the barrel. A boy of ten years stepped down with her, and then a smaller girl. It was evident the three of them were stunned. The children were clutching at the woman’s person.
The woman shouted uphill at Drummond, “He killed my husband, the children’s father. I saw him do it, that man there.” She pointed at the man she had just killed, sprawled on the ground, final movements at turmoil in his body.”
Drummond, riding down, said, “What are you doing out here. Where’s the wagon train.”
“We had to stop to fix a wheel. My husband said something was done to the wheel and the others left. Said we could catch up to them.”
“What kind of wagon master would do that?” Drummond said.
“My husband said he had no right to do it. Nobody else said a word, like they knew something was coming along the way. It was as if they felt the whole trip was going to be dismal, a failure. I thought such folk would have better spirit.”
Drummond marveled at her stand. “You bound on continuing your trip?”
“Yes, we are. We have relatives waiting on us in Texas. My brother went on a head a few months ago. He just got out of the Army of the Republic. He was a major in the war. His name was Diction.”
“Larry Diction?” said a surprised Drummond stepping down from the saddle. “I knew a Larry Diction from Marblehead, outside of Boston, from a sailing family. That can’t be him, can it, a sailor heading west?”
“That’s him. I think the President sent him on some special mission. He would not say a word about it. How do you know him?”
“He was in my regiment in the army. He was a good soldier. If the president picked him, he was a good judge of character. I met him twice, both times near Shiloh.” Carrying explanations further, he said, “My name is Roscoe Drummond, at your service, Ma’am.”
“Where are you bound, Mr. Drummond? My name is Mrs. Peter Preble, once Laura Diction, of Marblehead.”
“Well, my first mission is to get you caught up with the wagon train,” and then he said, which brought a wide smile to her face, “to ask that wagon master why he left you folks out her on the trail. So, let’s get that wheel fixed and do some catching up. Though I’m afraid we’ll have to take care of the burying right here.”
The woman was aghast, when she asked, “In the same ground?”
“There’s only this ground, Ma’am. It’ll have to do.”
With the wheel fixed, the burying all done for the dead, words said over each grave at Drummond’s insistence, the wagon caught up with the wagon train the next evening. Drummond lit into the wagon master, letting all his anger come into play.
The wagon master was not at all apologetic. “If you dally for one wagon, you dally for all. It’s not fair to the others.”
“You didn’t think of leaving one man or two with them, with a woman and two children and only her husband to watch over them?”
“I didn’t even consider it. I’ve lead four trains over this same ground and that’s how I’ve done it. If you want to ride with us, you’ll have to do what I say. I am the wagon master. I go by the name of Chesapeake Jaynes, from Baltimore originally.”
“Well, Chesapeake,” Drummond said, “I had to kill two men back there who I’m sure messed up the wagon so it’d break down after it left the station, and Mrs. Preble had to shoot the man who killed her husband. That’s a pretty poor start for a family, and for this train. I’ll pass on the job opportunity and move on ahead by myself. But I believe that’s not the end of those men. Two of them rode off after three of them were killed. I’m betting they’ll come after you again, but with more bodies. There’s something here that they want, I’m thinking. Five men against one man are pretty good odds, like someone was looking for a solid edge on success.”
“What could that be?”
“I have no idea,” Drummond said, “but I think you’ll find out. It might well be the Preble wagon was a special target from the start.” He proceeded to tell the Jaynes about Mrs. Preble’s brother. “He’s now out in Texas on a mission of sorts, from what she says. From the President, maybe. It’s intriguing from the first thought, politics being what it is, the war being over, all the west out there beyond us like a piece of land come up when the tide went out and no flag on it.”
He looked at Jaynes and added, “Of course you know this is between me and you and no other soul in creation, or I’ll come down on you worse than you’ve ever felt. That’s a scared promise, from me to you. Take it serious, Chesapeake.”
He climbed into the saddle, nodded at the wagon master, and repeated his words, “I’ll be out front on my own. Watch the ground as you go. Never can tell what’s out there. Do you have a good scout ahead?”
“Good as they get. He can smell injuns and hyenas if they’re in the way. Let him know who you are, you bounden to go on alone. He calls himself Herbie Sawyer and he’s about big enough to ride a pony in the first place, but he’s got hawk’s eyes and rabbit ears and can shoot the cover of a can of peaches at a hundred yards.” He smiled for the first time and said, “More or less.”
“I’ll say hello to Herbie for you, Chesapeake,” Drummond promised as he headed his horse down-range towards a wide expanse of grass, and a river with fast running water at the end of the grass and a range of mountains on the northern edge of the prairie.
Drummond reflected on a lot of things he had seen in the late part of the day; the sun sat on the peaks of the mountain as if they were on fire, and a breeze carried the smell of water to every head of stock in the wagon train, causing a bit of unrest. That stock included horses, mules, a few oxen, and a few dairy cows almost as precious as the horses. In addition, there were some chicks newly hatched, more eggs on hand, a few bunnies in cages, and a dozen roosters that made dawn as clear as possible. Drummond admired the extent of the promise the wagon people carried with them, to enrich the life at the end of the journey.
As he rode along ahead of the wagon train, alert to all movement, he kept thinking about Preble’s mission, what it meant, and where life was taking him … his wounds all healed, newer clothes fitting properly, and a new saddle most likely to be under him for as long as he rode a horse.
After an hour’s ride ahead, in a small copse of cottonwoods off to the side of the trail, he saw a slight movement, and slipped into a shallow swale, and approached the copse from the rear. Even before he was there, he caught sight of the wagon train scout sitting his saddle, eyes on the trail where he had been. The scout swung easily in his saddle and greeted Drummond. “I saw you slip down in that wadi and knew you were coming in behind me, Mister. You have good intentions or not? His rifle was trained on Drummond.
“Chesapeake Jaynes asked me to say hello, Herbie. Name’s Roscoe Drummond. Said not to miss you ‘cause you wouldn’t miss me. You see anything of a couple or more hombres obviously out for no good except their own? I’m sure they’ll be along this trail somewhere with only their interests at heart.”
“That’s why I’m sitting in here, Roscoe, ‘cause I seen six riders skirting us back there, keeping off a good measure from the wagons but not seeing me, from where I’ve been sitting. Seen them a couple or more times and them keeping out of sight like they was trying to find a good spot to say hello in their own way. One of them’s always practicing his fast draw, which ain’t too good yet, like he’s anxious to meet Mr. Death.”
“Well, Herbie, for putting information aside, what’s he look like?”
“That’s easy, Roscoe. Can pick him out from here if I saw them now. Wears a funny hat you don’t see this way. Like a opera hat or a hat Abe would have wore. Black and tall, like the neck on a wood stove.”
Drummond told Sawyer his suspicions about the men and the president sending Larry Diction on a special assignment out to the far west. “I think it’s all connected somehow. There’s something in the Preble wagon or in one of the wagons of the train that they want, or what they were sent for. I don’t believe for one minute they want to get rich or even comfortable with what they could take from the train. Let’s wait until it gets a little darker and walk in on them softly before they walk in on the wagon or charge like Indians not afraid of the dark.”
“That’s a good idea, Roscoe. You kinda think like I do. Let’s get some rest. We’ll toss fingers for first watch.” Herbie won the first watch and Roscoe Drummond was asleep in minutes, his horse watered and rubbed down, his saddle sitting on the ground, sweet pillow of dreams.
Two hours later, Sawyer woke Drummond easily, a finger touching him after he spoke his name. “Roscoe, there’s two of them coming in on us from opposite sides. I went right out in front when you went to sleep, through high grass and sat like a rabbit waiting. They’re coming straight in from each side, there and there, “and he pointed out the two directions. “You take him and I’ll take him,” he said, “and if we do it without any noise, I’d real appreciate it.” Then he added, “Tall Hat’s not with them.”
Drummond nodded and smiled and slipped off into the grass, their two horses sitting still as trained pups.
Sawyer said he clubbed his man from behind, when he and his prisoner came into camp, and Drummond had his man gagged with a kerchief and his hands bound with a twist of wire he carried in a pocket. He’d fished with the wire, snared a few rabbits, tied up three different prisoners of war, once even using it as a tourniquet. Now he had a private prisoner trussed tight and sure, and a bit of pain with a single twist of the wire.
“Here’s what we do, Herbie,” Drummond said. “Don’t let them look into each other’s face as we question them. Keep the gag on your man while I question my prisoner, for one of them has to tell us what’s going on.”
It did not take many questions or many twists of the wire before the man answered questions about their mission.
“Some big landowner in Texas, I don’t know his name, none of us do, sent us for a document the president is sending about Texas. We’re looking for the man who is carrying it, name of Diction. That’s all I know except we were promised a thousand a piece to get it. There’s ten of us all told. Now I suppose I don’t get a dime of it.”
“You get nothing, man. Diction’s been in Texas for more than a month and he’s using a different name. Probably walked right by you and your pals on the way. So you and your gang best head back that way. We’ll let you go now, without your weapons. You can walk out. We’ll keep your horses for a while and leave them tied up and easy enough to find tomorrow. Don’t come looking for us, for we’ve had five men of our own spotting you all the time. Some of us are sitting almost on top of your pals now. Best tell them to cut and run.”
The two men, less weapons, horses, gags, and the trusty piece of wire, walked away from the copse of trees, heading across the prairie.
Sawyer, smiling like a bandit himself who had just tricked somebody out of their wealth, said, “Roscoe, you got a ton of tricks. I don’t think those folks will try us on again, us and our own gang.” He laughed heartily as they headed away from the copse, the prairie dark, a westerly wind soft as a woman’s breath on their cheeks, and the stars glittering in spatial comfort.
Drummond played a vital role in two more escapades involving the safety of the wagon train crossing half of Texas, in league with Chesapeake Jaynes and Herbie Sawyer.
Never was he very far from Laura Preble and her two children during that time. He would make a habit of it once she set up her living arrangements, he promised himself, and would eventually meet her brother again and find out what the real plans were for Texas.