Wagon Road - Cover

Wagon Road

by Wendell Jackson

Copyright© 2019 by Wendell Jackson

Western Story: Western

Tags: Drama   Western  

The stage rolled along, sending a trailing dust cloud that hung long in the air. The passengers covering their faces with handkerchiefs filtering the air. Young Tom Patterson would have done the same, except he didn’t own a handkerchief, or any rags except what he was wearing.

He was on his way to find an uncle, bearing the news his mother had died. He’d never met this uncle, but figured he had a right to know. Over the years, he’d sent money to help out.

Tom worked on the river, loading and unloading ships that sailed the up Columbia river and docked in Portland. Lumber was one of the exports, but Tom was hired to carry other goods aboard the ships. He was careful to stay clear of water front businesses that were known to have shanghaied men and sent their drunken bodies to sea, where they woke to find themselves on ships, sailing to the far corners of the oceans.

What he earned barely paid the rent and with little left over for food. The money that came ever so often from the uncle, helped pay doctor bills. Tom’s mother suffered from what the doctor said was consumption. The coughing spells and the bloody rags she used to cover her mouth, made up Tom’s memories of her last two years. When she died, the landlord gathered her belongings and burnt everything except the family bible. He explained that he was fearful of contagion, and now that she was gone, he wanted Tom gone too.

There wasn’t money for a head stone, but there wouldn’t be anyone visiting her grave. So, it didn’t matter. Her last request was for Tom to carry the family bible to her brother. He was the last member of the family, other than Tom. The good book contained all the births, deaths and marriages, going back some seventy years. Also tucked between the pages was a letter for her brother. Tom didn’t know what message the letter contained, but he was tasked with delivering it.

Tom lost his father several years ago, in a bar fight. They never learned the whole story, just that he was drinking with some friends and a fight broke out. The result was that after it was over, James Patterson was laying on the floor dead.

Tom was several pounds under weight from skipping meals, but hoped that a good paying job in the gold fields would provide enough money to live well. That was where he was heading, to the gold fields near Canyon City. The same area his uncle was said to live. From reading the newspapers second hand, he understood that the gold field was a rich one. So, he was hoping for a job, working the claims.

The lady sitting across from him, was looking out the window at a buckboard traveling ahead. The added trail of floating dust, was evident of the wagon on the road. She was glad that they would soon over take the wagon and be free from breathing the air born dirt. The lady pulled her head back in, being careful of her hair and flowered hat. She gave Tom a friendly smile before covering her nose with the handkerchief. She was older, a woman in her forties. Still attractive, and well dressed. From an earlier conversation, Tom learned she was a business woman with holdings in Canyon City. Her name Scarlet O’Brian was in keeping with her red hair.

The one other passenger was a lean man, that looked to be late thirties. On the seat beside him, he kept a hard leather case. Always with a hand touching it. Tom had a passing curiosity about the leather case. It had to be important the way he kept a protective hand on it. The other hand held a handkerchief over his nose too. He’d traveled the road before, and assured Tom, once in the Ochoco mountains the road would be less dusty. Things weren’t as dry in the mountains.

The dust clouds were worse because of the unusually dry summer. The fall rains hadn’t come yet, and when they did, the dust would be replaced by mud. The stage driver, preferred dust to the mud. Dust could be wiped off, but mud thrown up by the wheels took a lot of cleaning.

Tom felt the stage swing to the right as they over took and passed the buckboard with its two passengers. When they came along side, the young lady quickly held a handkerchief to her face, the same as those in the stagecoach. Tom was hardly able to glimpse the girl before she covered her face, and saw she was fairly good looking. A dark complected young woman with raven black hair, from what he could see under her bonnet. The man holding the reins was much older. Dark complected too, with a thin trimmed moustache. A grim serious expression, on his face. Tom went back to viewing the girl, until they were lost from his vision in the rising dust. He could tell she was slim of figure, but not much else.

“I bet next time they won’t let the stage pass”, Scarlet laughingly stated.

“We will be at the next post soon”, the man commented. “Mrs. Trinten is the best cook this side of the Cascades.”

“You’ve been here before?” Scarlet asked.

“Yes Madam” as he lifted his bowler hat, slightly tipping it to Miss Scarlet. “Fredric Wallace at your service.

“I run a saloon in Canyon City. Can’t say as I’ve seen you before.” A smile backed her words.

“Probably not Madam. I’m not a drinking man myself.” He returned the smile and tapped the leather case beside him, “This is my sample case. I’m a salesman of sorts.”

“I didn’t think you were a preacher, but maybe a mortician?” Scarlet was having some fun, with the man.

“Oh no.” He shook his head. “No, Not a preacher, never that. I’m a gun dealer, a title that I’m well known for.”

“I’m sure you will do a lot of business in Canyon City. It’s pretty rowdy there these days.” She sighed a little, adding “LodeStone is getting that way too.” “I didn’t think there was any mining short of Canyon City. “There’s ore deposits all over this country. Just not that much color, except for Canyon City. Looking at Tom, she asked. “Is that where you’re going?”

“Yes Mam, I mean No Mam, I have an uncle near Indian Creek Meadows.” Tom wasn’t following the conversation that close. He was wondering how he would find this Indian Creek Meadows, and how to get there.

“I haven’t heard of any strikes there?” Scarlet shook her head slightly, “He must not be a miner.”

“Well, last word I heard from him, he was. I’m just delivering a family item, and then I’ll be going on to Canyon City. Probably get a job working one of the claims.”

“Well they do hire some men.” Starlet confided to the young man. “Most are Placer claims. The hard rock mines are the one’s doing most of the hiring now. Not everyone takes to working the mine shafts.”

“Don’t know much about my Uncles claim, except that he’s been living on it for a number of years.”

“If he’s not in Canyon City, then it must be a hard rock claim. There’s a number of them in the surrounding hills.”

A resounding Whoa from the driver brought the stage to a stop. Fredrick, beaming with joy, announced that they were indeed at the stage post. From the building they were stopped at, a tall lean man came out to open the stage door and place a foot stool on the ground. Miss Scarlet was the first off and Thanked Mr. Trinten for his hand as she stepped down.

“My Pleasure Miss O’Brian.” He used her last name. “Good to see you again. Have a Good Trip?”

“Yes, I was able to pick up plenty of material. Now all I need is a few dress makers, to go with it.@ She said as she went into the Station which served as an Inn.

“You folks go right in. Mrs. Trinten will be serving supper.” Sam Cotting announced from the driver’s seat as passengers stepped down from the stage. “We leave at daylight, so eat and rest. Tomorrow is another long day for those going on to Canyon City.”

Tom looked around at the small town of Lodestone. He saw a building with a sign, saying it was a trading post. A scattering of cabins and small houses, lined the road with a few set back from the others. One of the buildings they passed looked like a small school house with an iron angle ringer. The town didn’t have much business, as the streets were quiet and empty of people.

Inside the Station Post, the passengers were being seated around a long table. Several locals joined them as it was dinner time for them too. A sign on a cross beam, stated that the meals didn’t come with the stage fare, they were separate and had to be paid for. A tin cup sat on the table for the deposit of coins.

Tom looked at the price, and fumbled with the coins in his pocket. Trying to decide whether to pay for a meal or hold off another day. The spread laid out on the table was tempting, but he figured to hold off, as the price of a bed for the night was about all he had.

Sam came through the door, leaving the care of the horses in Jesse Trinten’s capable hands. He was hungry and eager to get at the large plate set at the head of the table for him. He noticed Tom standing to the side looking hesitant, and surmised what was going on in the young man’s mind.

“You can spend the night, sitting by the fire there.” Sam nodded towards the fire place and the several chairs in a half circle before it. “No cost for that.”

Tom nodded a thank you, and stepped forward putting the coins in the cup and then taking a seat at the table. Hanna Trinten moved around the table, pouring coffee into the cups. Pausing by Tom, she urged him to help himself to whatever he wanted, but stating to leave room for desert as there was apple pie. Sam mentioned that he hoped there was enough for him too. She just smiled and said there was a large piece set aside just for him.

There was long arm reaching as the guests grabbed rolls and extra slices of ham. Sam sitting at the far end, slapped a slice of meat in a roll and took a big bite. A contended smile on his face as he chewed. Tom scooped two spoons of mash potatoes and a generous amount of gravy. Some sort of meat patties, looked good and he took a large one.

Conversation around the table came to a halt as everyone dug into the food. Some were lacking table manners, but managed to eat without offending anyone too seriously.

Tom was faintly aware of the buckboard arriving outside the door. Only looking up when the man entered with the young woman remaining outside, brushing the dust from her clothing before coming in. Instantly all eyes, including Toms, fell upon the girl. Without the kerchief held to her face, she was a real beauty.

“You’re in time to set down to supper.” Hanna motioned toward the far end of the table. “There’s room down there.”

The young woman thanked her with a slight French accent. The man walked briskly to the first open seat and sat down, while the woman took the next chair. Tom noticed the man wore double holstered Colt revolvers. After taking a quick look at the colts, Tom diverted his eyes back to his meal.

Jesse stepped through the door next after taking care of the team, and getting them settled in the stable. He took a seat down at the far end across from the girl. Hanna asked if the two arrivals were spending the night. Getting an affirmative grunt form the man, she left to ready another room.

When the eating slowed, as diners sated their hunger, Scarlet started a conversation with Mr. Wallace. Asking if the end of the civil war didn’t hurt business. Stating that everyone seemed to armed.

“Yes, armed but not with the newest achievement in manufacturing.” Fredrick Wallace was eager to talk business. “The brass cartridge has brought about a tremendous retooling of the industry.” He took another bite of food, and after several chews continued with his spiel. “All the cap and ball revolvers are basically obsolete. There are many blacksmiths making a good living, boring out the chambers for insertion of the cartridge. For instance, this gentleman,” he nodded towards the man packing the two colts, “has the modified revolver. The cap nipples have been removed and the cylinder bored for the brass cartridge. It’s one way of avoiding the expense of a new revolver.” One of the locals directing his attention to the revolvers, asked the man if there was any advantage to the brass cartridge. The man they came to know as John Kerns, paused for a moment before deciding to answer. “Some,” he said, pulling one from its holster and setting it on the table before him. “Easy to load, and reload. Just pull the cylinder aside and dump the empties out, and shove the next ones in. I’ve heard that there is no un-intended firing of the other cylinders.” He referred to the dangerous flash back that sometimes had the effect of setting off the other loaded chambers in the old cap and ball revolvers. An event that destroyed the gun and usually the hand holding it.

“And the loads don’t draw dampness.” Kerns added. “I save the brass and reload my own. Yes, it’s a vast improvement.” Fredrick proudly confirmed. “The removal of the seating arm, cuts down on weight.”

“You must make a good living, selling guns.” The local man said to Fredrick. “You ever think about the ones that end up in the hands of outlaws and renegades?”

“Ah, the moral question.” Fredrick leaned back in his chair. “The outlaw already has arms. He doesn’t commit his crime without weapons. Makes no difference what kind he uses if his victim is unprepared. The brass cartridge has the effect of giving an honest man a ready response. He can be sure of a gun ready to fire, at a moment’s notice. The suns going down.” Sam stood up and pointed to the round table in the side room. “I like a few hands of poker before turning in. If any of you gentlemen care to join me.”

Sam and four others sat at the table, with a kerosene lamp overhead. The rest of the room was lit by the fire place. Tom tossed a couple chunks of fire wood on the dying coals, bringing the flames back and adding more light for the card players. Besides Sam the other players were John Kerns and Jesse Trinten. Two of the Townsmen joined them, bringing a total of five at the table. Jesse introduced the new men to the others as they sat down for an evening of cards.

William Holder and Lucas Springer both eager for some card playing brought out a bottle of whiskey. Hanna, didn’t like card playing or whiskey drinking, but since so many travelers loved both of what she referred to as a Sin, she turned a blind eye to the goings on. Jesse, loved the game, maybe not the whiskey, but cards were the only excitement he enjoyed at the stage post.

While the men folk indulged in poker, Hanna cleared the table and put up the remains of the meal. Leftover’s that wouldn’t keep, she threw to the pigs out back.

The girl seeing Hanna heating water on the kitchen stove, offered to help.

Only if you’re bored.” Hanna joked, but handed her an apron. “Here, I don’t want you getting anything on your lovely dress.”

Noting the girl’s accent, Hanna asked where she was from. The girl laughed, because so many people she’d met thought she was some sort of foreigner. “French Prairie,” she said, “Its south of Portland.”

“They speak French there?” Hanna asked.

“Yes, and several other languages. I speak French, some German, Chinook and other native tongues.”

How did you learn so many?” Hanna marveled at the girl’s ability.

“Easy, English was the hard one, with so many words that say the same but meaning different things.” The conversation continued while they washed and dried the dishes.

Hanna and the girl soon finished work in the kitchen and there Hanna learned the girls name. After being complemented on her wardrobe. Phebe Lafollette confessed that she’d made the dress herself. A talent her mother handed down. Her mother being full blood Kalowa, married a French trapper and like so many others, settled on French Prairie. There she lived with Francois Lafollette, until he died.

Unable to cope with the loss, her mother took to drink. The only name she ever went by was Indian for Singing Bird. It was appropriate as she loved imitating birds and singing in the white man’s church. Phebe herself sang and played a guitar. A talent appreciated everywhere in the West. A singing session in the evenings was often followed after the kitchen duties were done, and the family and others gathered before turning in for the night. It had been that way for Phebe’s family, until her father’s death. After that Singing Bird, drank herself into an alcoholic blur.

That was how John Kerns found her and continued to feed her whiskey. Using her to make money in the local saloons, so drunk she didn’t know the number of men who used her. While she was bringing in the money, John gambled the evenings playing cards. During this time, Phebe stayed at friends, afraid to spend a night under the same roof with John Kerns.

After her mother’s death, Phebe had enough of French Prairie and bundled up her dress making materials and headed for Canyon City where the news of plenty of money was the lure. John Kerns insisted on coming along, providing the buckboard and assumed protection. With so many rolls of fabric, taking the stage wasn’t practical. So, Phebe accepted Kerns offer of the buck board to carry all her luggage and dress materials. That was how she now found herself in Lodestone, traveling with a man she disliked and blamed for her mother’s death. Once they arrived at Canyon City, she planned on ridding herself of John Kerns.

For a man that made his living playing cards, John Kerns was losing. The evening had been a good one for Jesse, as he took several large hands. The other winners were the two local men, which caused John to suspect them all of cheating. He watched the dealing closely as each card was passed across the table. He was sure there was cheating going on, but couldn’t catch it.

Finally picking up his cards, he was pleased to see that he held a very good hand. A full house, Aces over queens. It was as a dream hand, and he was dealt it without drawing a single card. The discard pile grew as the others drew a card or two to strengthen their hands. Sam drew one, as did the two locals. Jesse drew two and examined his hand, before placing his bet. Sam called and so did the other two. John saw that if he wanted to win anything, he had to bet big. Pushing his money to the center of the table, John brought out his money belt and laid it on the pile of cash.

“That’s a lot of money, you trying to buy the pot.” Sam didn’t like the large raise.

“No limits on raises. That’s my bet. Cover it or the pots mine.”

Well, just wait.” Jesse said looking at his cards again, then calling Hanna over. “This is my hand, and you can see the size of the pot. I got some money it, but the raise Mr. Kerns just made is more than I have.”

So?” Hanna replied after looking at his cards.

“Well, I want to call, but I don’t have enough at the table. Will you back my hand?

“Jesse, you know I don’t know a thing about cards.”

“Well, it’s a very good hand. Mr. Kerns there is trying to buy it by betting so much we can’t match it.”

“So, your wanting my money to play your hand out?” Hanna gave him a stern look.

“That’s right. I wouldn’t be asking otherwise.”

“What if he raises again?”

“He can’t, not unless I raise him, or somebody else does.”

Both the two locals said about the same time that they were folding, and wouldn’t be raising. Sam also tossed his cards into the middle of the table, indicating he was folding too.

“Okay, I don’t suppose I’d ever hear the end of it, if I don’t.” Hanna went into her bed room and shortly came out with a sack filled with her savings. Setting it down in front of Jesse. “You have to do it. I won’t.” Jesse opened the sack and counted out the right amount for the pot. Once he was done and everyone agreed it was the right amount. He laid down his cards as John Kerns laid down his. The color drained from Johns face as he saw his full house beaten by a seven high straight flush. Jesse reached to pull in the pot he’d just won, when John, uncontrolled, drew a revolver and fired. Sam, sitting next to John saw the quick hand go for the holstered gun and leaped to grab the Arm. He only spoiled the aim as the shot went off. The gun was knocked out of Johns hand and went sliding across the floor, but the damage had been done.

The smoke cleared, revealing Jesse laying back in his chair, blood running down the right side of his cheek. Sam and the townsman, Lucas Holder, held John from doing anything more. The other local man, removed the remaining revolver from John. Hanna came rushing to the table, grasping Jesse in her arms.

At first it looked like Jesse was dead, but slowly he turned his head and moaned. The bullet had creased the side of his head, knocking him unconscious.

With her husband’s blood soaking her blouse and hands, Hanna looked towards John Kerns.

“Get him out of here,” she shouted, “before I kill him.”

While the others held John who had quit struggling, realizing he couldn’t get loose from the men holding him. Sam went out making sure the buckboard was hitched and ready. Rather than kill him, they were turning him out.

Plebe seeing Sam bring the buckboard around, stated that she was not leaving with Kerns. “Take my things off the wagon. I’m not going with him.”

Sam nodded, and began unloading the wagon. At first, he just set everything on the ground, then asked Tom who had stepped out to witness the events, to move the baggage inside. Kerns was brought out, still being held by his arms. They unloaded Kerns revolvers and shoved them into his holsters. A threat that if he wanted to live, he wouldn’t try to reload them anywhere near the Stage Post. Kerns protested several times that he’d been cheated, that he’d won the hand. It didn’t do him any good, as they tossed him on the wagon and slapped the horses into action. He could be heard threatening to kill them all as he left, adding they hadn’t heard the last of him.

Everyone filed back into the Station after the wagon faded into the night. Hanna was holding a folded piece of linen against Jesse’s bleeding head. Sam moved close to look at the wound, but Hanna shook her head, she wasn’t about to remove the compress. For all she knew it was the only thing keeping Jesse alive.

The Station quieted down after Kerns was run out. Sam finally got Hanna to release her grip and examined the wound. It needed stitches, which Sam talked her into doing. Several held Jesse while Hanna sewed the wound shut. Jesse was still out of it, and didn’t know what was going on.

After Hanna was done, he shortly opened his eyes for a moment and said his head hurt. They couldn’t tell if Jesse knew what had happened or if he was just responding to his pain.

After the suturing was completed, Hanna washed the blood out of his hair and off his face and neck. Jesse lay still, his eyes closed. Only the rising and falling of his chest, was proof that he was still alive.

Sam asked if he was asleep, which Hanna responded that she thought so. With help, she moved Jesse to their bed and removed his boots and trousers for the night. He was laying quiet now, no longer moaning. It gave Hanna some hope that come morning he might be his old self again.

The stage passengers went to their rooms, and Tom settled in one of the comfortable chairs by the fire place. The events had tired everyone, and the Station was soon quiet. The only sound the rest of the night was the popping coals of the fireplace.

The next morning Tom woke to find Sam standing outside the open door, talking to a couple riders. Sam thanked the men, then came back in closing the door.

“We got a problem, young man.” he said to Tom, then turned to Hanna who was working on putting out a breakfast for the stage passengers. “Those men came across the buckboard just outside of town. The horses missing along with John Kerns and his guns. Looks like he took the horses and rode off.”

“Where did he go?” Hanna didn’t like the idea of the man being anywhere in the area.

“Well, they didn’t come across anyone on the ride here.” He referred to the men that found the wagon. “So, he either took to the hills or doubled back west, which I doubt. So, he can be anywhere along the way to Canyon City. Probably waiting for the stage to come through and shoot it up.” Hanna angrily concluded.

“Well, I can hire a shotgun.” Sam referring to a man riding along with the weapon for protection. “That might put him off from doing anything to the Stage.”

“What about Phebe?” Hanna worried.

“He threatened revenge on all of us. I don’t think there’s any love lost between the two of them. Well I don’t have much time to think about it. Got to get Rolling.” Sam took a seat and held out a cup as Hanna poured hot coffee in it.

Tom feeling the call of nature, excused himself and went to visit the house out back. He reminded himself that he needed to get directions for the way to Indian Creek Meadows.

“Well, I have a suggestion.” Scarlet came out of her room to join them. “It’s only a matter of time before Kerns gets the law on him, and he’s locked up or shot. Just have the girl wait out somewhere safe. It won’t be long, probably just a matter of a couple days. He can still be arrested for shooting Jesse.”

“Don’t think so. There are more renegades running in the hills. Outlaws, holding up miners and killing off anyone they cross.” Sam shook his head. “Hate to see a girl mixed up with the likes of him. “She’s not with him. I talked with her, and she want’s nothing to do with the SOB.”

“Scarlet raised her voice slightly. “I have an idea, that might be of help.”

“She can’t stay here, if that’s what you mean. This would be the first place he’s going to look.” Hanna pointed out.

“No telling what the son of a bitch will do.”

Sam was eager to get the teams hitched up and wanted to get the conversation over. “I’m behind schedule, so if I’m in any part of the plans, better hurry up and lay them out.”

“The boy, Tom. has an uncle somewhere around Indian Creek Meadows.” Scarlet said it like it was the answer to the problem.

“I know Indian Creek Meadows. Charles Prout has a cabin there.” Hanna stated.

“Oh, Well it’s a small world. Charles comes to my place to spend the winter.” Scarlet exclaimed. “He’s still there if I’m not mistaken.”

“Well that takes care of the boy, but what about the girl?” Sam figured Phebe might have a different view about spending a winter at the cabin. Because after the first deep snow, they would be there till spring.

“Well I have some friends that home stead on the Indian Creek trail.” She grinned. “She can stay with them. I’ll send a letter along explaining everything. They’re good people and will do anything for me. Once they see Phebe, I’m sure they will love her too.

“We’ll ask her.” Hanna replied. Which they did.

Phebe thought for a moment before answering. “If John doesn’t know where I am, then it would be safe, and no one here would be in any danger.

“You know the Snow is late this year. We could still have one hell of a snow fall. You might be snowed in for the whole winter.” Hanna cautioned.

“Come spring, I’ll have a place for you to set up business in Canyon City.” Scarlet told her.

Hanna added “We’ll have your things loaded on one of the freight wagons. It will all be waiting for you there.”

“What about the young man, I’m not thinking he’d want a woman on his hands.” Phebe was doubtful that he would be acceptable to the arrangement.

Where is he by the way.” Sam glanced around but didn’t see him.

“He’s using the privy.” Hanna told him. “When he comes back, I’ll ask him.”

At first Tom was delighted to learn of the trail to his uncle’s cabin, but the idea of taking Phebe along was a worry. He didn’t feel like he was capable of protecting her, since he didn’t own a gun.

Hanna sealed the deal with a small pouch of coins and a promise of fried chicken. It was the fried chicken that persuaded Tom to accept the job escorting Phebe to the Myers homestead. Sam wasn’t happy with delaying his departure while Tom’s chicken cooked in kitchen. When it was done and they were on the way, the aroma from the basket was pure torture to the other passengers that would love to sample the goods in the basket.

Tom remained oblivious to the looks sent his way. Only Phebe showed no interest in the basket of chicken. It miffed her, that Tom took on the job of escorting her to the Myers homestead for a basket of fried chicken. She didn’t like the idea of being only worth the price of a chicken.

When Sam again brought the horses to a halt, both Tom and Phebe were jostled awake. Still tired from last night’s events, neither one had gotten a full night’s sleep. The Stage wasn’t an easy place to nap, rolling over the twists and turns of the Ochoco road, but they had managed to do it.

Scarlet gently shook Phebe awake, where she had slumped against the woman’s soft shoulder. Phebe opened her eyes to see Tom being nudged by Fredrick Wallace’s elbow. Tom’s eyes snapped open from the not too gentle nudge.

“Time to leave.” Scarlet pointed to a path leading away from the road. “You’ll find the Myers to be good Christians. Very helpful to a weary traveler.” Tom got out first, then reached back to help Phebe step down. Sam tossed a bulging carpet bag to Tom almost before he was ready. The bag stuffed full, caused him to step backwards several steps when he caught it. Sam grinned at the half-awake Tom, then gently handed down a guitar case to Phebe.

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