Western Short Story
Michael Delahanty Hansen, scrounger, miner, laborer, dreamer, had taken his wagon and team off the dusty road for a meal break and a decent night’s sleep. It had been a long tough journey for him and the team. In a thickly wooded area he found an old campsite and unhitched his team from the wagon, gave them water, and tied them to a line near the fire. He’d let no preying animal near them. He went to sleep in the bed of the empty wagon, under a few blankets. His whole load had been delivered, as stated by the freight agent, to Hattie Comersford at her ranch and he was on his way back to Crossed Roads, deadheading or empty, to find another load.
He hoped to sleep well. It had been a long day, one attempted holdup he had thwarted with his new automatic rifle, an Indian scare that was not too daunting, one wheel needing minor repair; problems he had encountered almost daily in his way of life.
During the night a rare rain came, a torrent of it, and he ended up under the wagon, on a couple of planks he could arrange across the axles. This arrangement he had managed before, but only once, rain a rarity in that clime. Yet Mother Nature rarely caught Hansen with his pants down, as he believed any and all things could happen to any man.
In the morning, damp but not soaked, Hansen was about to start a quick breakfast with old coffee and a hard biscuit, when he heard sounds, mostly curses, coming from the road. He saddled his riding horse and rode a ways to see what was going on. When the voices became louder, Hansen hung back out of sight. He could see the dusty road beyond the campsite was now a morass of mud and near quick sand for any travelers on the road to or from Wilburville. A number of small torrents ran across the road and found lower spots.
In the side of the road he saw a minor tragedy. A wagon, its rear axle broken, one front wheel collapsed under the weight of its load, sat in a mess of mud like a ship just before it sank from sight. Two men were arguing, with each other as well as with the elements.
“I told you, Kirby, we shouldn’t have come on this road. No shortcut is worth all these problems. We might not see another wagon for days. What the hell good will our load be? It’ll be worth nothing.”
“Harry, if it hadn’t rained we would have beat the other guys to Wilburville. We could have set up and sold out, the whole load gone in a few days. It would have been a snap and you know it. Them miners got to be thirsty as hell for a good draft.”
Hansen, for the moment privy to business talk among partners, hung back until he heard the whole bit. Then, after more curses and more arguments, all the hopeless business spelled out for him, he rode out and said to two well-dressed men, “Morning, gents. Can I be of any help?”
One of the men, the older one by a good number of years, said, “I’m Kirby Smith. You and your horse can’t be much help to us. Me and Harry here were on our way with seven barrels of beer, going to the mining camp at Wilburville. We know the suds would have sold well, right from the wagon if need be, but the damned wagon broke down and we’ve lost our whole investment.”
With his recent pay-off under his belt, Hansen said, “What’s it worth, the whole load?”
“What difference does it make?” Harry, the younger man said, a snap in his voice.
“I just wondered what a good price would be.”
“It’s no good out here. How’d you figure to get your money back?”
Hansen said, “I guess I might set up right here on the road. Hit the travelers coming by. They all want to move the dust out of their craw.”
“We ain’t seen anybody in two or three hours,” Harry said.
Smith, the older man, jumped in and said, “But it’s early yet. What would you offer, if you could?” The doubt of that possibility ran across his face as he looked at Hansen, dressed for the freighter’s haul, denim all over and worn to a near frazzle, his shirt looking as if it had not known sudsy water since heaven knows when, the derby on his head designating him like he was a character in a stage play back in St. Louis. He looked to be a perfect counterpart to the broken down wagon.
“I asked what it’s worth.” Hansen ducked and looked beneath the wagon at the broken axle and then touched the front wheel he knew was beyond repair. His head shook with unpronounced doubt of salvation. He looked up to speak with a hopeless look on his face.
“Five dollars a barrel,” Smith said.
Hansen came right back. “I’ll give you two and a half dollars.” He was trying to figure out how many nickel drinks he could get out of a barrel. He wondered what he could use for mugs. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. He had heard it all before, and remembered some lost chances to break his mold.
“That’s hardly worth our while for this venture,” Smith said. He had no expression on his face and Hansen knew he had seen his type in the same kind of circumstance.
“You could lose the whole thing,” he said. “Now it’s gone down to two dollars a barrel.” He’d been here before, in the same kind of spot, and had never gained an inch on anything. The lost chances could mount again. Maybe this one would be different. “It’s going to change again unless you hurry.”
“Two dollars and it’s yours,” Kirby Smith said.
“Throw in the wagon. You can have the team to ride off on.”
“It’s a deal.” The smile rode wide across Smith’s face. The younger man scowled, but bit his tongue on the first harsh word he wanted to say. He looked at the decrepit wagon and a half smile started at his mouth, and was shut down in a hurry.
Swearing he could hear the sour word coming from the younger man, Hansen set about as if he was going to start a new business right there on the road to Wilburville. He looked up the road and down the road and saw nobody. No riders, no stagecoaches, no wagons.
The two men looked too, saw nothing, mounted the two horses of the team and rode off. Hansen watched them as they moved down the road, looking back now and then, not believing their bad fortune or their good fortune, depending on which pair of glasses they were looking through. Then, in a gallop, he was off to his campsite and his own wagon, which he soon had backed up to the beer wagon. With freighter’s knowledge he managed to roll the barrels onto his wagon. Two good wheels he pulled off the broken down wagon and a yoke that looked quite serviceable and loaded them on top of the beer barrels. He felt like a businessman about in the world and for the first time in his life being his own boss.
It was well before noon when Hansen got his wagon rolling, not toward Wilburville, but south to Hadley Springs, a new town he had been in just a year earlier. They would welcome a new venture; he could already see a sign that would say in the boldest letters, a slogan that would run for a more than a century through this half of the nation, “Home of Hansen Beer, Best in the West.” Even at a nickel a glass he’d get rich.
Later that evening, in an empty storefront, the dispensing of “Hansen’s Beer, Best in the West” began its long run into western lore and into modern day advertisements, with its recipe of secret ingredients said to be locked in a safe in another town in the mountains, never to be revealed to this day.