Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Bergund Columnard, from Shropshire, England, was reflecting on the trail he had used getting to this place in the absolute middle of nowhere in Hell and hoped to be outbound from there. He was, fact up front, in the Southwestern part of the United States, and bound by hot sands; lots of sand every which way he could see.
It was Columnard’s second year of travel, 1873, after landing in Boston pointing his nose west after arrival, and after a sweep of local interests. Every once in a while, on the move, he allowed himself a bit of memory of the old country, how pieces kept sticking to him, and new memories coming along with those instant reflections, all wanting to be known again. It was as simple as that, wanting to be known again… as if he were the sole reservoir of Shropshire memories.
First off, he was a student of many corners and turns of the world, in and out of the classrooms, and then, second, he was a traveler, toting classroom knowledge with him, hungry for the next view just on or over the horizon, how its impact might knock him silly some days, explosive with joy, satisfaction, a new class of wonder working him into a newest frenzy.
Never-the-less, he loved the old history that had made the journey with him, all the way to this very damnable spot in the ass-end of a desert. He’d come out of Shropshire long after his studies were done at the knee of his grandfather, getting to know all the data of Shropshire being established during the division of Saxon Mercia into shires back in the 10th century. It was first mentioned in 1006 when, after the Norman Conquest, it experienced significant development, following favorable granting of some principal estates of the county to the most eminent of the Norman lords, and that included the horror who was Lord Hurlbert the Hungry, stabbed by a tree limb fallen onto his tent in a storm; the story being his son hung the first local he saw with an ax in his hands, perhaps the actual harbinger of the Shropshire Lad by the poet/writer A. E. Housman who was yet to write his words about young men and old life.
The Coalbrookdale area of his county was designated "the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution," due to significant technological developments that happened there, specifically construction of the first Iron Bridge which crossed the River Severn in Shropshire. Opened in 1781, the bridge was the first major one in the world to be made of cast iron. Bridges, since then, have continued the longer spans and the higher rises within many parts of the world
The stories his grandfather told him about the bridge were magnificent memories from a man who worked as part of the labor force erecting the bridge, the first of the ironworkers soon to span the world, almost 100 years before Bergund was born.
Two further days of hellish travel, his horse dead behind him beside a wind-swept dune, he peaked another high dune and spotted the gift of a tree line, sparse at first, but thickening with closer sight. He found water, a small camp of miners on the move, managed to buy a horse, and continue his travels.
He didn’t know where he was headed, except for one miner’s advising him, “Due northwest is a town called Peak’s Bend, not big, but can be a new starting point to wherever, and a sure exit from Hell, take it from me.” He thought there was a double-twist of humor in the miner’s expression, but held back his laughter.
Peak’s Bend proved to be a godsend for Bergund, with his telling stories to small groups of folks, finding a lovely-looking widow whose husband had fallen dead on the trail a few months earlier and her needing a new second driver for her wagon. They coupled well and were on the trail further northwest a week later.
The train was composed of Conestoga wagons, Prairie Schooners, and a few odd vessels of the road, and they measured from 13 feet to 24-26 feet long at the bottom of the box, stood just over 3 feet off the ground and had wheels about 3 ½ feet in diameter. They were lumbering giants.
Myrna Lafferty was her name, Irish to the bone, comely, warm as a southwest breeze, shapely new denims just produced by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss announcing her conscious comfort, her saying to him after little deliberation, “As soon as I heard you weaving your stories, I knew you were the man for me. My poor grandfather, in the ground back in Tipperary, schooled us on stories that mesmerized us, their contents coming better than lessons. Taught us well. Made us love the languages he was able to use, whatever they were.
She’d murmured the word “love” like it was a promise or a potion on hand. It was merely days later that the wagon master, Jed Hayes, noticed the way Bergund walked about, chest puffed a bit, congenial to all parties, a smile on his face, his world turned around. The wagon master merely nodded, a questionable wagon for the on-going journey was now squared away and in good hands.
Besides his story telling, familiarity with music and poetry, a bit of play acting, Bergund carried the ideas of the new industrial technology that had bloomed from various succeeding levels of the Abraham Darby family, ingenious Quakers back home in Shropshire. They discovered the making of cast iron, with which the first iron bridge ever made crossed its 200-foot span over the Severn River back home in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire. He knew the old mixtures, properties, functions and features as they stayed with him: softening blocks of iron and steel under great heat, (like the great leather bellows set to blowing by a water-fed cogged wheel near as big as a house that he had seen at America’s first iron works in Saugus, just north of his port of entry at Boston.) That’s where he saw the raw materials and chemicals added to raise carbon levels to aid in the mix of iron, carbon, silicon, sulphur and manganese, limestone and coke (carbon) at great heat; the heat necessary to melt down ingredients, generated by forcing air into or onto a furnace-like fire bed.
He had stated that at some point of their journey, the wagon train members would be shown, and allowed to participate to a degree, in the making of some objects of cast iron, to last forever, as he promised,” Forever.” He’d not told anyone that he saw a use for the trophy swords some travelers favored as souvenirs of the war that almost ruined a nation’s dream, as well as some other useless articles people carried in their wagons.
The word “Forever,” captured everybody in the wagon train, even as the train grew, even as Bergund’s reputation grew.
But neither did he tell them that he was still searching for a method of generating sufficient heat to form casts; that’d be the ticket to the show!
Every time a topic or question of how and what and why came up on most any topic, Myrna’s new man was able to bring cause and reason into the mix of the conversation, the true mid-earth truth about such things. It was like that at night, under their wagon, when the stars, the moon, the very heavens, came to them as she exalted him for his ways with her ways, near the perfect couple as some of the women said of them.
Bergund was becoming the main wagon train attachment, which by then had grown to 33 wagons for the way north to Oregon. Some of the late additions came from other wagon trains that had begun in the south after the Civil War was over, with wagon master Jed Hayes on his third trip west. If he can do it, so can I, was often whispered out of his earshot.
Thus, in the early part of 1874, the wagon train left Peak’s Bend for a place in Oregon, with Jed Hayes advising everybody on the train that they might have to fend off Indian attacks, but also those from surprise raids by a group of well-armed, well-maintained, well-controlled gang of thieves bent on robbing a whole train of its better goods. “They like to steal one wagon, load it up, under gunpoint of course, with all attractive, expensive, salable goods they can carry off in one wagon, harder to track than two or more wagons taken by gun.”
The warning was not wasted on Bergund Columnard, shortly falling asleep under their wagon with Myrna Lafferty, her head on his shoulder, her arm across his chest, the stars off to the north sending signals he would never ignore, his mind working well after sleep in the carriage of dreams that returned in his wakeful hours.
It was not long before the show might be presented, the cast iron show, for which he needed a cause and a place to generate sufficient heat. All he had to do was to tell his idea to one or two fellow travelers, in a soft voice, and it would spread the length of the train.
One opportunity was his saying, “We ought to make poles, in small round sections of cast iron, perhaps about 8 feet long, upon which when assembled will someday fly our flag in that place where we settle down with our forever dreams.”
The word went the length of the wagon train and Bergund searched his dreams, saw the type of place he’d need, so when the cliffs at the edge of a mountain range almost spoke out to him, he knew the place again, the way it had come to him in a deep sleep and its dream carried far with him.
With help from others, he built with rocks a forge-like fireplace near the base of a cliff, including a hole at the back end of the fireplace by which he could pump air to brighten the fire, raise its heat level, melt iron and associated ingredients, which included the steel of 4 swords saved as souvenirs of the Great War, old iron pieces, coke, sulfur, phosphorus, and a few other raw materials he could find readily. From a rope slung overhead on a smooth ledge, he pulled and loosened the rope ends attached to a fan-like structure at the back of the forge. A new-world miracle in an old-world setting.
The flames flickered at impact, brightened, made quick promise of higher heat temperature.
After several tries, the materials melted and he poured the melt into sand bars for forming. The cast iron bars hardened into several pieces about 8-foot long, hard enough for “forever.”
When the bars were cooled, he had them slung under his wagon, lengthwise, to haul to the final destination; for him and the others, it was a victory in the middle of nowhere, a victory of knowledge over simplicity, new world coming atop the old world in the least of celebrations.
There were no Indian raids thereafter, but one afternoon, the aforementioned gang of thieves caught them all unaware, searched with drawn weapons all wagons and piled all their loot in the Lafferty-Columnard large wagon, ready for an early morning run for the bushes.
All train people were ordered to their sleep by the thieves; “None of you are hurt. And we’ve done our bit. You can go your way once we leave you. You have been very receptive to us. Now go to sleep.”
As it was, the chosen wagon was loaded to its brim with the loot, tied up with canvas at the tail end so nothing would fall out of the wagon. “Locked and loaded,” as it might be said!
In the deep of night, storyteller, traveler, student of the ways of the world, Bergund Columnard, with the help of a new love of his life, slung a length of cast iron, due someday supposedly for a flag pole element, across the bottom side of the wagon box, between the two rear wheels of their wagon. It fit loosely but silently into place.
Prior to dawn, Bergund cautioned other folks to be gun-ready in the morning when things “get rumpled a bit.”
“Up and at ‘em, everybody,” roared a bandit’s voice too early for morning. “We’re leaving with our new wagon, so just sit by. All is well.”
The voice yelled another order, “Okay, Smokey, get ‘em on the run. Hi ya, boy! Hi yah, boy! Hi yah!”
The Lafferty-Columnard wagon, a large Prairie Schooner, bigger than some plains’ houses, lunged forward with their teams’ initial draw and came to a noisy, metallic and deafening stop. The team could not budge the wagon another foot.
“Hi yah, I said! Hi yah!”
The wagon did not move, and wagon folks, now armed from secret sources, surrounded the band of bandits caught in a circle.
Bergund Columnard said, “It’s a stand-still, boys. You were fair as far as thievery goes, but that’s it. You all can go your way now just like we will. This wagon of ours is not going anyplace without us.”
“From the first word, I swear,” said Myrna Lafferty not much later, “I knew you were my new man.”
She hugged him.