Western Short Story
The Wagon Master
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

His voice owned every conversation, and thus every demand, so response came to be an expected result, in plain talk, jaw talk, business at hand. Alton Breed was addressed as “Albi”, which came with his branding iron, LB, every chance he could use it, on every unbranded, wild, loose, found critter found anyplace. Unbranded became his property sooner than later, and meant horses, cattle, donkeys, and you name it if it hasn’t got a name.

He was partial to unmarried, widowed, divorced women of beauty, the kind that stood tall, had their own demands, and had a voice in the wagon-fold, meaning women and children who might emulate her, listen to her, copy her style. At the moment there was one such woman that Albi took his hat off to in every discussion. And at the moment also, she was in love with Albi, the whole six and a half feet of him, the way he moved, rode, gave orders to men he was responsible for and to, every last one of them. Some of them were as handsome as him, but were not the master of a wagon train moving west against all odds found on the trail; outlaws, wild Indians wanting all, peaceful Indians who wanted trade, stragglers found along the way, spirits broken, waiting for men like Albi to give them a lift up from the soiled earth they found themselves locked onto. Albi, without his iron, could mold such men into a new posture, new stance.

And they all knew it down to the last man on the wagon train, the last straggler found bitter and broken beside the near=ruins of his life. The latest pick-up was beaten, bent and broken, sitting beside a dead donkey, each soon to be eaten up by the wild, right down to the bone. When asked his name, he replied, “I think they called me Witch Henry,” at which Albi named him anew as Which Henry or Henry Who. Both names stuck to the split character of a man found near death itself.

The rest of the wagon folk enjoyed inserting a new spirit back into the man in any and all manners they could, an unwritten law of the wagon master; which might have said, “We condemn no man to his last ride.” That quick belief rode with all wagoner members clear over the next rise and beyond, and often turned a small conversation onto the man they fully believed would deliver them to trail’s end come hell or high water, busted wheels, now and then a horse or burro to be “separated from life” when the tough times came.

Which did come, in the shadows of one morning when a dozen armed bandits popped out of the last shadows with guns leveled at the wagon. Their big man up front, obviously their commander, with a burly mustache and a message that said he had not washed in weeks, spoke first to advise the whole train, “We won’t kill any of you if you give us what we want and need, and what we need and want is food, ammunition and a few women to come and ride with us for a while, to see the excitement, the real excitement of the West.”

That unknown man had adopted the manners of a king, but was no way a king or even kingly, but a bigger mouth than any in his crew of retards and pick-ups from dreadful remains of men on the loose, on the lam.

He tried to make it a grand invitation to any adventurous ladies in the group, at which point Albi rode right up to the speaker, face to face, eye to eye, and said, “I’m the man you want to talk to. I am the quickest, most accurate gun hand you ever will see in any of your raids and you, sire, proud man on a horse, with the big voice ahead of the others, will be short directly before I drop a few others out of their saddles, at which activity some of my men already with rifles aimed at you from under canvas on several wagons, all of them dead shots with the newest rifles, the grand automatics that I note none of your men are equipped with, being behind the times out here on your own.”

The level of Albi’s voice, the tone of it, carried promise and a terrible ending in it for the bandits. It jerked their leader upright in another twist, which was a diversion move to reach for his sidearm, and Albi, loathe to kill, killed, including the bandit leader and several of his men before an onslaught of wagon riflemen knocked several more out of their saddles, amidst a hullabaloo they had never foreseen, not that moment of ever.

A ringing of cries rose from two points, the yelps of joy and success from the wagon train and the dying cries of at least half the road raiders.

Albi’s pistols, still smoking, still steady in is hands, were leveled at the remnants, as he said, “We will spare the rest of you if you drop your weapons now, and accept from us one shovel to start digging graves for your dead comrades, because we will not leave any man, good, bad, or merely indecent to the mouth of the wild.”

He waved his pistols at them, and to a man they dropped their weapons, and started digging graves. It took a few hours to do as requested. Then Albi said, “We here will let you go now with your own horses and no weapons unless any of you want to join us., come under my command and our rules.”

The silence was deafening, from both parties, until one bandit spoke up and said, “I’d follow you to the Gates of Hell, mister, if you’d let me. You’re a leader of men. I’d be a fool not to give myself another chance, a chance at a new life.”

Albi. That response, roared out, “Widow Jepson, please step forward and tell us if you would accept this man to share your wagon?”

A strong looking woman, lithe and tall, with blonde hair at the edges of her bonnet, came down off her wagon seat, looked at the man, asked him, “Will you do your best to help me and share my wagon with my husband gone just two months now?”

The bandit, docile, humble, took off his sombrero, held it in both hands, and said, “I would do it with the utmost pleasure, Ma’am.” He released a smile of relief while looking at her, the dare in her eyes full of the unknown, as she said, “Mr. Albi will have to join us in our venture, make us a pair. Do you still abide, sir, whatever is your name?” Her hands were on her shapely hips as if drawing a response from the man in the mystery that all women employ for overpowering men in most situations twixt the heart and all the parts.

A re-arrangement in life sat on the table like a game of cards was being played, and the former bandit said, “I am Bud Bradley, once of Moncton, Canada, in the Great North where truth is the sole voice.”

Even in his bravado but still dumbfounded, the onetime bandit said again, “Yes, Ma’am,” and it was done.

Albi’s wagon train made destination with a few more testy incidents, but a clean sweep with all occupants, road trail folks of every single degree one can imagine crossing the whole continent. It has been said that he led one more wagon train before he found his eternal dream on the side of a small hill in Colorado looking out on the wide and rich grass and up onto the mountains of snow that somedays looked like they would sweep downhill, the whole mass of a mountain, and take everything in its rush that lay in the way.

His porch, wide as his house and loaded with chairs, which must be admitted, were there for occasional visitors, like Bud Bradley’s party of five with wife and three sons who came twice a year, it seemed forever, to say hello. Those visits lasted until the last time when they found Albi, Alton Breed, asleep in his chair, never to wake up again, but a new journey already in the works.