Western Short Story
The Freighters' Return Engagement
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Earl Friscoe and Buckeye Davidson were freighters for a long time and had weathered a few storms along the way, but the one they endured on the Shiloh Two road from Friscoe’s hometown of Mesa Cappo was the only one they went back to and spent time on; all the other losses were written off as part of the big gamble from the beginning.

There was something different about this one.

On this particular trip the partners were hauling cans of peaches and cans of pears for the Shiloh Two General Store, among other things, and a few wooden barrels of whiskey for Miles Redding at the Lost Mine Saloon, Shiloh Two’s finest. The cans of fruit, favorites of cowpunchers on the trail and, of course, the chuck wagon cooks, were picked up at a rail stop, delivered there from Louisiana and other good-growth land that lived on water from the Mississippi River and moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The whiskey, as with all earlier pick-ups, had come from an Old Crow House distillery at Carson Wells. Bourbon or rye, whatever it was brought out as, came in rugged barrels made of white oak, declared best for the product for man’s best taste, and the barrels took a man as strong as Davidson to handle on road transport.

Earl Friscoe, with some minor schooling to his credit and experience in selling services and supplies, was the brains behind the partnership, and Buckeye Davidson, without a day of schooling to his credit but long service on horseback or with the reins of a wagon team in his hands, was the muscle, the meat, the true shot, the best punch, and one of the most fearless men that Friscoe had ever met.

At the moment, Davidson was healthy, as he’d term it, with the whip for the horses, urging them up an incline in the road that pointed the way to Shiloh Two.

Friscoe, tapping his pal on the shoulder, said, “Don’t kill the poor critters, Buck, ‘cause they gotta get us home tonight. Even you ain’t goin’ to pull this load home in place of Blackie up there workin’ his tail off. That’s a horse, man. He’d be one hellish creature in the corral, I can bet.” He shook his head in admiration of the big black horse leading the team of four, part Percheron, part Clydesdale.

“Hell, I wasn’t thinkin’ any about none a that, ‘ceptin’ I ain’t likin’ it too much when we gotta slow down where we could get caught too easy by them maraudin’ ones been raisin’ all kinds a trouble out here.”

He had no sooner gotten that mouthful out of his mouth than the yelling started behind them, and more than a dozen riders in all kinds of costume and gear, saying they were a band of renegades, white, Mexican and possibly Indian, out to get the freighters’ load. They were a scurvy looking lot, a few were bare-headed, hats on others as different as their garb, and a variety of weapons in their hands as they pursued the wagon down the road toward Shiloh Two.

Friscoe, with an instant change of caution, said excitedly, “You can hit them critters now, Buck, and get them movin’. Ain’t no good standin’ still for these kind comin’ on us.”

“These horses been pullin’ us for a spell now, Earl, and maybe I ain’t gonna get enough outta them. Any ideas.” He snapped the whip again behind the ears of the lead horse and yelled at him “Go, Blackie. Go, boy. Git a move on, ‘cause they’s comin’ closer.”

He turned to Friscoe and said, “Yah didn’t answer me, Earl. You got any idea. I’m fresh outta that stuff.” He snapped the whip again.

“Yep,” Friscoe said, and grabbed the reins from Davidson’s hands. “You lay out that unloading plank and hang it off the tail gate and let go a barrel of that good whiskey of Miles’s down the ramp of it and see if it slows them down any. Do it so maybe the barrel don’t break. Maybe we can get them bozos stoppin’ long enough to get drunk’n skunks.”

“Miles be mad as hell at the store we lose a barrel of his whiskey,” Davidson said, as he stooped into the back of the wagon.

“Buck, if we lose the whole load he’ll be madder than Katey Diamond the time we hung her clothes way up in the tree down at the creek. Boy, oh boy, that’s some mad. Best let go the barrel when we hit that narrow run up there ahead of us. The loose barrel humpin’ on its own might scare a few of them mounts if it goes bouncin’ around and rollin’ crazy like a drunk on the way through.”

Davidson ran a rope around the end of the unloading plank thick as his wrist and hung it off the back end of the wagon after knotting the top end down. The plank bounced a bit but hung in place. He estimated where the wagon was compared to the drop-off point, picked up a barrel with brute effort and swung it sideways on the peak of the bouncing plank. As the wagon ran into the squeeze in the road, he let the barrel slide over the tip of the plank and roll down the plank.

Husky Davidson, his eyes lit with glee, a guttural laugh making him feel good, watched as the whiskey barrel hit the ground in a bouncing roll, grazed one hoof of a horse that fell immediately, tossing the rider to the side of the road, and swerving in its travel as it appeared to take aim on others of the gang. To a man the gang drew tight reins and stopped in place, all squeezed into the narrow part of the road.

The barrel of whiskey did not break. The tossed man screamed, “It’s a keg of whiskey. A whole keg of whiskey.” He yelled halleluiahs enough for the whole gang of them, all gathering swiftly about the barrel, which had finally stopped, intact, on the side of the road.

The two freighters were long gone around the next bend in a matter of minutes. Another mile down the road, sure that they weren’t being pursued any longer, Friscoe pulled the wagon off the road and drove it into a small canyon.

“What’re ya doin’, Earl?” Davidson said, all lit up trying to figure out his partners next planned move. He was sure one was already in place.

“Here’s what we do, Buck. We hide the wagon best we can, take the gear off the horses, wait until them critters back there somewhere get good and drunk, and get our stuff back.”

“How we do that, Earl?” Davidson felt like scratching his head, but didn’t.

“We ride back, slow like, listenin’ to drunk sounds, like maybe in an hour or two. They ain’t goin’ to carry that barrel anyplace, so’s they’ll drink as much as the can, carry some off, hide some, but get good an drunk in between all that. “It’s somethin’ you’d a come up with, Buck, you give it a bit more pausin’.”

A few hours later, the two mounted bareback on the two horses, did not hear the drunken noise first, but saw the glimmer of flames against a canyon wall well off the trail.

Friscoe laid it all out for Davidson. “We gotta get rid of their horses, get as many of their rifles and guns we can, scatter them bozos from here to kingdom come, and get our barrel, whatever’s left of it. But them hoot owls ain’t made even a big dent in that stuff yet. We’ll wait a bit while they get real nasty to one another like they always does.”

It went as planned, the noise heavier, a few minor squabbles, a few punches thrown, more whiskey poured and drunk. One member of the gang, mad as he could be when posted as a guard, was easy pickings for Davidson an hour later, knocking him into forever with one punch.

The whole crew was deep in sleep, snoring enough to scare away the ghosts. Their rifles and odd side arms were quickly gathered up by the two freighters and hidden among the rocks. The horses, all but two, were allowed to wander out of the canyon. The barrel of whiskey, not even dented as Friscoe had thought, was rolled by Davidson out of the canyon on a slight incline that did not take much energy on his part. He rolled it behind a big rock.

The two partners rode the two captured horses back to the wagon, leading Blackie and his mate by the reins. The pair was hitched back up to the wagon that was driven to where the barrel was loaded back onto the wagon into its same old spot.

The reclamation of their barrel of whiskey had not taken more than six hours after the plot was planned.

The Friscoe-Davidson Freight Co. wagon rode into town, their load almost intact, just enough Old Crow House whiskey siphoned off to get a dozen men drunk enough to fall asleep clean through a sweep of their goods.

At The Lost Mine Saloon that evening, amid the uproarious tales of the two freighters about their escapade, and a constant barrage of comments and questions from the sheriff and Redding of the saloon and Quince of the general store, the sheriff said, “What’d you do with all their weapons? I hate to see them fellas get armed up again in a hurry. Those are the kind you don’t hand their guns right back to them after they’ve been caught nappin’.”

Davidson said, “Tucked into that mess of brush about a half mile this side of the last grade. I think they would have tried to get their horses back before they went lookin’ for guns. Stuff might still be there, but if they found them horses, coulda found them guns.”

Redding said, “You boys did a great job. Drinks on the house, of course, ‘cause I’m glad you got through that mess and brought my stuff too. Blackie do his thing?”

“He’s pure animal, Miles. Pure animal. Not many like him hereabouts.” Friscoe kept nodding his head and everybody knew how much he loved the big black.

The sheriff, Abner Baynes, an old timer in Shiloh Two, said, “We’ll take a look out that way tomorrow, but I’d best advise you boys to keep a sharp eye come your next trip.”

“We’ll bust them up again, Abe. They mighta learned already we ain’t their pickin’s.”
“Still,” Baynes added, “I’d look over my shoulder all the time. If there’s no quit in that gang, like nothing besides liquor gonna slow them down, I’d sure keep the peepers open. But I guess old Blackie’ll have something to do for the next trip. Sure is something to look at in the pasture and leadin’ the team, that horse.”

All of which set an edge in Friscoe, who slipped out for the gents’ and went directly to the livery where the team was stabled. He found the owner, Gus Bantry, sitting on a crate and said, “Gus, has anybody been askin’ about Blackie and the team, and me and Buck? Like, when are we goin’ on our next run?”

“Not yet they ain’t, Earl, but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open, and let you know anythin’ that comes up.”

“Thanks, Gus. It don’t hurt none to be knowin’ stuff like that. Me and Buck will be at Sally’s. She moved us into that cabin out back of her place ‘cause we’re getting’ more permanent by the day.”

“I’ll do that, Earl. You boys did a good job on them skunks. ‘Magine, walkin’ in on ‘em and robbin’ from them for a change. Lordie, I love that, and then the sheriff findin’ all them guns you boys hid down in the bushes. That was puddin’ on the pie far as I’m concerned.”

The knock came at the door of the cabin early in the morning two days later, Bantry doing the knocking. “I just had to tell you boys one gent’s been watchin’ me move around and exercise the horses for two days now. And anytime I walk Blackie out there, he scoots off and comes back with another gent. I seen ‘em both around a bit lately, but don’t know them. They watch me and Blackie like we was a pair of prizes at the fair. I think that’s payin’ attention that needs some payin’ attention to.” His smile was as wide as the brim on his hat.

“That’s great stuff, Gus. We’re gonna set some stuff up for them, me and Buck and the sheriff. It’s better to beat them with our game than try them at their game. We mighta been awful lucky that whiskey barrel wasn’t empty in the first place.”

The next morning, dawn barely with a grip on the day, Blackie and the team was hitched up to the canvas shrouded wagon by Bantry and a helper as it sat beside the livery. The team was a formidable looking team and Blackie looked like he could draw the wagon up the nearest mountain. He also looked like he could outlast the day itself.

When Friscoe and Davidson showed up, the two men bristled with pride at the sight of the team all hitched up and ready to go, and Blackie looking like a statue to horseflesh.

“Ain’t he the sight,” Friscoe said, and in an aside, said to Bantry, “That gent been around this mornin’, Gus?”

“Yup,” Bantry said. “He run off as soon as he saw me hitch the team to the wagon, then I saw him and another rider head out of town, goin’ east.”

“We’ll let you know how it goes, Gus, providin’ we can,” Frisco said as he mounted the wagon and took the reins, Davidson climbing up beside him like a man of the mountain.

Six miles out of Shiloh Two, in a tight twist in the road, five riders flashing handguns in the air ordered the freighters to stop the wagon.

One rider, masked, appearing to be the leader, said, “You boys think you’re pretty damned smart, but we come to get our guns back, all of them. Where’d you stash ‘em?”

“You wanted us should have sat on our thumbs while you robbed us?” Friscoe said. “Ain’t no sense at all in throwin’ good guns away.”

“Well, where are they?”

“We got ‘em all here, right in the wagon,” Friscoe said.

“Let’s have ‘em back then,” the bandit said.

“Alright,” Davidson said as he snapped back the canvas and a dozen rifle-armed men of a silent, horseless posse sat there in the bed of the wagon with their rifles pointed at the bandits. The sheriff stepped down from the wagon, his pistol aimed at the gang leader, and said, “You and all your boys best drop your guns right now.”

The soft thuds sounded in quick succession as gun belts hit the ground. The sheriff, after putting manacles on the gang members and five of his posse taking the bandits’ horses for the ride back to town, the others as guards aboard the wagon, said to the freighters, “You boys got some more stories to tell at the saloon tonight. This could get real interesting, you keep this up.”