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Short Story
Wagon Wheels
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Nicky Consolo, from horseback, was studying the situation down below on a valley road, and was only three days from jail in Valley High where he'd been tried and found innocent of murder. The verdict, we all know, never moves as fast as news of the charge, and he was prepared for the differences ahead.

Perhaps his intersession here would hasten such a reaction, another form of aiding and abetting the way some wheels spin about in this world of hurried decisions, no matter who or what stands in the way of a common sense look at circumstances . A sheet hung on the line gets blown every which way, an old adage says.

Rider on Horseback

From his turn on the mountain trail, he'd seen the stagecoach twisted to one side with one broken wheel, and the driver and his shotgun companion and four passengers, milling about the scene, not fully aware of the full predicament. He wasn't sure if other passengers were still in the coach, They were bound for Caldon Station, more than 20 miles away of rough terrain, and it was doubtful if they'd finish this leg before dark even if help was already on the way ... perhaps another passing rider gone ahead seeking help.

Not a nice pickle to be caught up in, he realized.

He'd also spotted a broken-down and abandoned coach, an hour earlier, a mile or so off the main trail, two wheels broken, but two still whole. No body remains were visible and he assumed the cause had happened sometime in a distant past and had been left in place to linger until final dust encompassed the incident, would bury it from knowledge of any sort, an incident not seen may not have happened.

One of those wheels, his mind settled on him, could be retrieved from that old site, he was sure, but he'd need help.

He decided he'd gamble despite the worries and headed downhill. About a half mile from the coach he saw a pink kerchief waving at him. It had to be a woman's kerchief.

His interest heightened, a difference in the making, and visible, a step up from the presentation of a dream, or an idle thought brought on by the rhythms in a saddle.

A young woman greeted him as he rode up, her face sparkling, a smile of relief and surprise warming him instantly. There's nothing like beauty in motion, he thought, first thinking of a horse at a dead run, then an arrow in flight, like an eagle zeroing in on a target, and a mountain lion, a wolf, or any meat eater, just before a leap, poised in the art of a hunt. These were natural actions and reactions to him, demanding scrutiny, possession to the depth of each image.

Keepers, he thought, the good keepers.

Surprise at the gallery of images she had freed for him, the others mostly standing about uselessly, except for the shotgun rider who had not yet dropped his rifle from immediate attention, but who had kept it level in his hands, as if his finger was on the trigger already.

Two figures, thus, from the group caught up in the middle of nowhere, demanded his attention, though he realized what he looked like to the members of this collection of folk, good or bad; a lone rider in the middle of a trail, coming from what-in-heaven, to where's-he-going-next, and alone at that.

Lone riders, many people of the roads, ways and byways of mountainous trails, wide open prairies, and all elsewheres, carried stigmas via initial judgments, guesswork, early impressions that somehow keep working in one's brain as if posted there by truth, fact, the physical proof of clear-sightedness.

But none so clear when in the midst of hurry.

Consolo decided he'd have to keep an eye on the shotgun rider, wondering what he had in mind, what he might even know about him, a lone cowboy just freed from jail, any and all trails available for travel.

"Hell!' he muttered to himself, "I'll be damned sure to keep my best eye on her, beauty of beauties." She was returning a smile, the study of a gaze fixed on him, an immodest interest in him at that, a lone cowboy on the trail, and just let out of jail. Some folks would begin their considerations on one plane quicker than others.

That, he decided, had to be kept at attention too.

He said to the driver, named Earl Hannaby, "I saw a wreck of a wagon back off the trail with at least one wheel I could salvage with some help, like one man and a pair of horses off this team. Looks like it's the best we can do right now." He looked around for support of his plan.

Hannaby said, "Good idea, son, but who are you? Whatcha doin' alone out here? Where ya headed?" He was speaking for all of them, of course, routine but necessary for stagecoach drivers, like the captain of a ship.

Consolo replied, "Nick Consolo's my name. I'm just looking for the next job, and it looks to me I found it. You got two lady passengers that can't help and three men who could, one of them being your shotgun. You tell me who and I'll get it goin'."

"Okay, son," the driver said in a quick study. "I'm not much with a rifle, so my shotgun has to stay here, for the ladies' sakes. You take that gent who's the bigger of the other two, and the first pair of horses off the team and hightail it to get that wheel. That's the best idea we have, Get it goin'."

Even as he spoke, his hand reached out and pushed the shotgun down from its level position in the hands of his front seat helper. That companion, by name Max Harding, was a thin, wiry gent with eyes old as Methuselah, an outfit of clothes never washed or cleaned since being donned, and a sharp looking, brand new black Stetson topping his head, just as if an older one most recently had been blown away in a storm or, even likely, shot clean off his head by a keen shooter. The man brought a history with him, carried it.

Consolo knew there was a story in front of him, just like he carried a story himself: each of them to come out in some telling moment, the way stories come out of the past around campfires, or sitting at a bar in a saloon, or between prisoners behind steel bars of a small town jail in small towns in the middle of everywhere in the West where folks had stopped to catch their breaths.

Loneliness loosens tongues for strange company at odd situations. It was a given for all men of the saddle..

Consolo and one passenger, a fairly rugged-looking man who announced his name as Breck Bjorstum, after spelling it out, said on the way from one accident site to another, "That shotgun gent told me you're an escaped bandit, maybe a murderer, but I think you're also the salvation for all of us. We could be killed out here in the darkness tonight. This is our best chance."  

He was riding one of the wagon's lead pair of horses, Consolo, holding a rein on the second animal, gave a quick reply, "I was tried and found innocent. The charge was trumped up. It's done, as far as I'm concerned, done, finished. They now have the guilty party in the cell I was in."

Bjorstum, shaking his head, said, "Strange things happen wherever we go. Sometimes there's justice on the scene and sometimes it never shows its head. But take it from me, I'd keep my eye on that shotgun ride if I was you. I wouldn't trust him cutting up a pie in even pieces."

At the site of the wagon remains, the two men, somewhat at a comfort with each other, managed to wrestle one wheel free and mount it on one of the wagon horses. They were back at the crippled wagon before dark, Bjorstum advising Consolo once more, "Don't forget what I said about that sidewinder shotgun. He ain't to be trusted for a minute of your life. That's what it'll come done to, I can feel it." It was like he had reached out and patted Consolo on the back.

With Consolo and the driver doing much of the work, the spare wheel was mounted in place. All looked well and they were ready to proceed to Caldon Station, 20 miles down the trail.

Consolo caught the slight turn in Bjorstum's head and went to his side, Bjorstum saying, "Those two have been whispering, the driver and the sleazy shotgun, planning to jump you and tie you up before we get going. All they're talking about is the reward money. They're damned serious. I'd hightail it if I was you."

He looked down at Consolo's pistol sitting in his holster. "You sure it's loaded, Nick? Can I see it?"

It was the first time he had called Consolo by name, and it found a quick roost in Consolo's mind, but he had earlier unloaded the weapon, a serious and nervous twitch working on him, like a calm before a storm, his mind at work. Something was out of place in everything in the immediate surroundings. Luck good or bad was on hand, circumstances up for grabs, the fair and beautiful girl with the pink kerchief staying her distance, he thought, as if being leery of him.

Doubts had come into place from too much comfort, him remembering his father's words from the last day they had spoken, "When things look like it's going to be roses forever, it's time to know it ain't."

Bjorstum, in a rapid move, yelled at the same instance, "I got his gun, boys. He hasn't got a gun. Get that rope and tie him up, and I want my fair share of the reward. He told me some cock and bull story of being cleared and we all know he's running from the law. That's why he's all alone out here, a murderer on the loose, you can bet your last dollar on that. Said he ain't been in a town since he left Valley High and there's a couple of places off the trail he probably ducked away from just getting here."

He waved the pistol again, a man in charge. "We got him now, boys and girls." His eyes fell on the young beauty; her smile came back at him, wide open, a shift declared in her sympathies, her best wiles working overtime, chance and choice for her clearer than ever before.

Nick Consolo measured all of them, male and female, passengers and coachmen, the lot standing in front of him; Max Harding with a loaded rifle, Breck Bjorstum waving an empty pistol the way a deranged man might wave it, with no target in mind, but any moving thing being a possible target.

The supposed outlaw on the run moved inches at a time, getting nearer to the rifle with each move, Harding not at all worried by the threat seeing the pistol, in desperate moments, being aimed at the outlaw, from an angle and distance nearly impossible to miss.

He leaped, as Consolo leaped, the rifle leaving his hands, his finger almost caught on the trigger guard, the loaded rifle in the hands of the lone cowboy on the loose. He screamed at Bjorstum still holding the pistol, "Shoot him! For god's sake shoot him! He'll kill us all and leave us where we fall!"

Bjorstum, sudden control in his hands, a superior smile of vengeance and greed marking his face, squeezed the trigger ... on the empty pistol, squeezed it again and again, only to realize he was now, in this moment of acclaim and reward, at the other end of a bullet, his heart about to burst, Consolo aiming the rifle directly at him. His quick look at the young lady, saying what his mind knew, what she now knew, what he really was, nothing more than a treacherous and greedy coward.

Nick Consolo set everything straight, how the finish of this leg of their journey was due, Harding's rifle unloaded and cast aside, his own pistol reloaded, mounted his horse once more, said to all of them, "I was cleared of that crime in Valley High. I did get released. I am on my own now."

As he rode away from the group still standing stiff in place, he swore he could almost feel in one hand, his gun hand. the cold steel bars of the Valley High jail cell.


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