Spokes in the Wheel

by G. M. Atwater

Notes/Comments: This fic is in response to Lady Angel's challenge of Nov 8, 2000, to "write a fic about the seven WITHOUT using any of the seven." We are to write from an outside point of view, AND we can't let them directly speak. Gee, thank you, ma'am... :-) I'm not sure if this entirely meets the criteria Lady Angel had in mind, but it was the best I can do, and you all can tell me if this works!


They shot Dan. They shot Dan. Damn remarkable how the brain locks onto a single thing, especially when it was me, that they shot next.

I've ridden as shotgun messenger for the stage company for over a year now, and until today, the worst I ever had to face was a wheel horse down in his harness, who tried to kick my head off when I went to help. Dan and I almost always rode the same sixty-five-mile route, him holding the lines and me holding a 10-gauge coach gun. Back on my daddy's place in west Texas, we owned a single-shot 12-gauge, and I got pretty good at picking off prairie hens on the wing. Since then, though, heck, I'd only fired this thing a dozen times, and that was just at tin cans back behind the home station. Reckon I got used to holding it across my lap, about like a girl would hold her rag doll. Comfort, but no practical use.

Most of my hours were spent rocking along on the hurricane deck of a Concord coach, watching New Mexico roll by. I love its broad, gaunt hills and sky like the roof of heaven, and valleys big enough to whoop a yell all the way to forever. That, and listening to Dan. The man had held the ribbons of a six-horse team for over twenty years, and he had stories like you wouldn't believe. Most were of California, all night fandangos and vaqueros who roped bears, bandits and train wrecks, lost mines and overnight riches. He had a fine voice, too, rich in its tone and mellow as brown gravy.

Then here's a smiling, sunny Sunday of an October afternoon, when we slant down a sandy bank, jiggle across a dry wash, and Dan yells the horses into the pull up the other side. Right then, a stranger's voice booms out.

"HOLD!" it cried.

It's one thing to know the dangers, on account of being told, but it's a whole 'nother thing, when the dangers point a loaded Colt's revolver at your face. Hell, I didn't half think. Quick as a sneeze, I snapped that Greener to my shoulder and let the first barrel roar. Dan bumped into me, and I jerked the second trigger into the air, and the slam of the gun on my arm told me for sure I'd missed. Something whacked me in the thigh, and the fact I was holding an empty gun clutched panic in my throat.

That voice yelled from somewhere, "HOLD, damn you! I say hold up!"

Dan pulled off me, I felt him leaning away, felt the coach joggling to a soggy stop, in the sand of that embankment. Frantically I fumbled to break the gun open, get shells from my pocket, but then something hard jabbed the wind right out of my ribs.

"Boy, I'll cut you in half."

I looked down to the Winchester stuffed in my left side, and followed its black length to a brown coat, grey hat, and a red paisley neckerchief that hid all but the wet sheen of a man's eyes. Funny, I always thought a stage coach robber would somehow look more dangerous. This fellow just looked like an ordinary laborer with a dust rag over his mouth.

"Throw down the gun, and then throw down the box."

There were four of them. One at the horses' heads, blocking them with his horse, a pistol held naked on his lap. One watched from horseback, up on the bank to the far side, also holding a pistol. A third pistoleer sat his horse up and behind my left shoulder, but when I tried to get a better look, the rifle of the first robber damned near separated my ribs.

"One," he said.

My empty shotgun bounced off the near wheel and down, before he ever got to two. That was the most peculiar five minutes of my life. Felt like I'd floated off somewhere outside my head, watching me drag the heavy strongbox out from under the seat and heave it, thump, to the sand below. I watched the passengers climb out, four of them, three men and a woman likely someone's mama. Their faces looked doughy with shock, their movements stiff and jerky. They were good people. I should have been able to do something. My ears were packed full of roaring cotton, as I watched two of the robbers dismount and first go through the passengers, then the rear boot, pulling out the mail bags. Slick as a banker counting change. Reckon they'd done this before, and just that quick, they were back in the saddle.

The man with the Winchester and paisley scarf backed his horse for a few steps, then wagged his weapon at us. "You all git, now. Git movin'!"

Dan fumbled the lines next to me, moved a bit slow, but his voice rang out with his usual command; "UP, boys!" and the horses all hit their collars.

Pulling like that was cruel work, digging uphill in deep sand, with umpty-hundred pounds of dead weight dragging back on them. Yet those mustangs knew the master's voice, and slowly we jolted and jerked into motion, and pulled away on the road, once more. Felt almighty strange, me leaving that shotgun on the road, along with every damned thing I had been entrusted to protect. In the box and mails had been a little more than four thousand dollars' total worth, but most of all, I had failed a trust. Five minutes later, Dan started leaning into me again, and then he leaned back, but only to pull the team down to a jogging trot.

"Morgan," he said, and his voice seemed squeezed out of him. "Best you take the lines."

Had he slapped me upside the head, I could have been no more shocked. My fingers took hold the thick leather, like grabbing parts to a machine I'd never seen before, but my attention was all on that good man. I hadn't even heard the robbers shoot, but now he was sinking down in his seat, with grey in his bearded face and apology in those honest eyes.

"Take us home, son."

Then he simply went boneless, jiggling there and slowly sliding off the seat, down into the front boot under me, and my fist in his coat couldn't stop him. Only when I scooted over to his seat did the hurt bite down, and I nearly puked over the side. God help us. I was shot, too.

The way my stomach drove itself into my throat and my left thigh felt thick and burning, no way I was going to check how bad. Thoughts skittered through my head about bleeding to death, but I had to at least try to get these poor people safe. Thus I drove us on in, me shaking down to the bones, and the horses feeling my uncertainty in the reins. No two of them pulled together, without Dan to keep them lined out, but I kept us moving at a gentle trot. Kept us rolling towards the town miles ahead, whilst Dan Dupres, the best whip California or the territories ever knew, bled out and died, beneath my feet.

Crimson sunset glared me square in the eyes, by the time we rolled the last mile into town. Dan would have brought us in like a Roman chariot race, but I was just too sick and too afeared of wrecking us, amongst all those folks and traffic. People on the sidewalks started to stop and stare, when the stage rumbled in at no more than a jigging walk. There was one man I wanted to see, amongst the jostling crowd of hats and shoulders that gathered, below. The woman on the stage was crying out loud, now, strange voices asking questions. Me, I just looked to a tall figure with a flat black hat and dark clothes, stepping off the walk. Closest thing to law we have in these parts, and I was ever so glad to look down into his sharp, pale eyes, and hand the whole mess over to him.

"We were held up," I said, and then my voice wobbled all off its track. "They shot Dan. I think he's - I think they -."

Larabee, his name was, Chris Larabee, known as a bad man with a gun, but upright in his ways, and fearsome in his protection of this town. He stepped onto the wheel just long enough to see Dan crumpled under my feet, then dropped down and hollered a ringing shout for Nathan. My brain remembered to stomp my right foot onto the brake, and tie off the lines. The sunset blazed in great strokes of scarlet and gold, so intense the sky itself burned green. Yet the blue shadows in the streets seemed to swell and wrap thickly around my head, and I clung fast to the padded leather of my seat. In no time, their darky healer had climbed onto the off wheel, reaching into the front boot and feeling past Dan's collar. I knew the answer before he looked up, a world of sadness in his fine, dark eyes. Then he frowned and asked if I was all right.

I shook my head, and the whole world took a slow, giddy spin around me. "No," I said. "I believe I am shot."

Don't remember much else, strong hands taking hold of me, strong arms lifting me down, and voices saying things like watch his head, watch his leg. I just felt so sick, so puny, and then they laid me on the board walk and at last I saw it, blood poured black down the hip of my left pants leg. My vision tunneled to a hot, humming fog, but even so, I saw men fetch Dan down. That couldn't be him. Arms a-dangle and his head flopped back and his mouth foolishly dropped open. Just a glimpse of that, before living bodies hid him from me. Sometimes man can only stand so much sick and hurt, and that undid me. I felt no shame when they packed me off, crying like a kid and not giving a damn who saw it.

There were seven men who upheld the law in this country, and three of them came up to the healer's room, while he doctored on me. The first was Chris Larabee, fair-complected but dark in his dress, like a tall slice of the growing night outside. With him came a cat-slouching, long-haired young man in a buckskin coat, Vin Tanner, with the oddity of half a Winchester strapped to his leg. Seconds after them burst a kid in a bowler hat, dark brows and wide eyes framing his whole face with something between shock and excitement. JD Dunne, the youngest of the peacekeepers, maybe four, five years younger than me. I braced for him to bust out in all kinds of questions, but he didn't, merely settled himself back, whilst his leader did the talking.

First Larabee asked Nathan about me, and the healer repeated what he'd told me, that the bullet had taken a sharp bite of muscle, but blood loss and a lot of soreness was all that really ailed me. Then it was time for questions, and Larabee didn't mince words, which I was glad for. There was still too much feeling swelling in me, for fancy talk, and I appreciated the flat, businesslike tone of his inquiry. When a man's got to talk about his worst failure, it's better if he can keep it as simple as stripping paint.

As best I could, I described the four robbers, what they wore, how the one had talked, the horses they rode. The only man I could swear to was the feller who stuck the rifle in my ribs. Hat colors and horse colors were about all I could clearly give. I apologized until Larabee said my name, Morgan, he said, and then he leaned over my bed with this bit of a smile and told me, son, you did good. No shame in being outnumbered and out-gunned.

That kind of soothed a rough spot in me, that quiet voice calling me son, a man like him taking the time to do it. However, Tanner got tight around the mouth and growled something about a lack of moonlight, and tracking, and my belly knotted up again. First light, that's what Larabee said, and Tanner gave a stiff nod. Looking at me, lamp light caught the blue in his eyes, and I almost expected them to reflect the light back, like a wild critter. Tanner shifted, then took smooth steps to me and stood over me, studying me studying him. He was not a man given to many words, everyone knew that about Vin Tanner, and yet right there he seemed to say something with just his eyes. A softness was suddenly in his face, and then he made a small nod. A promise.

Things became way too tight in my chest, then, but I nodded back and closed my eyes. Nathan wanted to finish up, and I listened to their boots scuff in their leaving. They would make it right. Dan Dupres deserved as much.


Larabee and his men took care of things right fine. He promised me that Dan was being cared for respectfully. JD took care of wiring news of the robbery to my employers. Larabee himself got me a ground floor room at the hotel, and had them bring me dinner there, all on the stage company tab. Plans were being laid to pursue the robbers at sunup. Farther down the line, another stage was being dispatched to carry my passengers, and what was left of my cargo, on to their proper destinations. Outside my papered walls, all the right things were being done . . . while I was being left behind, washed up on a rented bed, like a stick on a riverbank.

Sleep did not much care for my company that night, as it left for other business, hourly. Each time, I awoke with invisible jaws clamping deep into my left thigh, hurt that thrilled from heel to hip with every restless movement. Nor did lying still seem much of an option, as the body demanded that it try to move out from under the pain. When I did sleep, it was in godawful fragments that left me fuzzy-headed and sticky-mouthed. When I lay awake, I tried not to see Dan slumping grey-faced under my feet, flopping boneless in the arms of strangers. Any minute now, I'd hear his big feet clumping in the hall, and I could get up and open the door and tell him whatever fool thing came to mind - but I never would. Not ever again. The rough-hewn, sterling goodness of that man had been yanked right out of this world, and the hole was bigger than I could stand to look into.

I had to have faith in the men who watched this place. I remember when I first heard about the changes in town. Seven men, hired by Judge Travis to try and stuff a cork in boilin' hell. Somebody told me this burg got its start when some feller parked his wagon and three barrels of whiskey next to an old Butterfield stage stop. I don't know about that, but whiskey sure was the fuel that stoked her. Then a preacher came with a wagon train of folks, and they started building houses and such. Why, they even built themselves a little church, and had a bell sent out for it, clean from Pennsylvania. More folks stopped, and I reckon things were looking right rosy. But just 'cause you feed panther milk don't mean he quits eatin' meat. The saloons did a whole lot more business than that new church, and iniquity walked around right proud of itself. All sorts of hard cases and bad men drifted in, looking for liquor and trouble, and I reckon they found one and brought the other. Finally, one day the preacher just up and quit, and left his church for the pigeons, and his flock began to follow. Then their town marshal ran off, and Hell was in session. The stage company wouldn't even stop here. Now, these seven men kept their watch, and good folks walked the streets, and the company had even put in a ticket office here. Surely these men would do the right thing by Dan.

Somehow the dark hours passed, until at last I gave up on my bed. Putting a match to the lantern, I struggled into my britches, almost fell head-first on the floor over my boots, and got up. Standing up, I decided, was a better way to deal with feeling like hell. My watch read 6:00 a.m. First light would be within the hour. Hitching painfully down the hall like I had a wooden leg, I found the dining room open, but barely, coffee being the only thing hot. Me, the waiter and the cook were the only folks awake, it seemed. The griddle would take another fifteen minutes before it got hot enough to cook, the waiter said. Well, I had no where else to be, so I savored good coffee, and felt the little spare heart in my leg throb and throb and throb.

A tall figure went past the window, the clump of boots muffled beyond curtains and pine boards. Something about that brief shape seemed familiar, and I pushed myself vertical, limped to the door. October coldly slapped my cheeks as I peered outside. Down the walk he strode, a tall, shadowed figure in a brown coat and broad plainsman's hat, and I recognized Wilmington, one of the seven peacekeepers. What was he doing up at this hour? Another figure stepped from a lighted doorway to join him, lamplight briefly splashing on a round bowler hat, brown-clad shoulders, the kid, JD. They spoke, then turned as twin shadows to walk off down the dark street.

Then I remembered Larabee's words, first light. They were riding after the robbers at first light. Glancing at the sky, I saw only glittering stars, but I knew that grey dawn was not far away. The idea hit me right under the heart, near took the breath from me, but in that instant, it was the only right thing to do. I turned back to toss a coin for my coffee, then stretched my hitching stride into the cold darkness. Frost pinched at each breath I took, but the blood bounded in me, and I drove that aching leg of mine to help or be damned. A single lantern burned at the livery stable, and I pounded on the door with a heavy hand. Rumpled and cross, a hostler opened up, but the sight of money sweetened his humor.

"Something with a good walk and willing to travel," I said. "He don't gotta be fancy, just gentle and strong."

The hostler's sympathy came readily, when he realized who I was. Good man, that Dan Dupres, he said, while I just nodded and eyed the tall sorrel he drew from the corral. He was a lanky horse, light-moving but with kind eyes. It took all my patience to stand aside whilst the man got him brushed and saddled, even though it took only moments.

"They'll be ridin' out any minute," I said, and he nodded.

Smart man, he was, as he handed me the reins, then reappeared in an instant with a mounting block. Guess I hadn't disguised my limp as well as I'd hoped. Nor did he say anything, when I found myself sucking air through my teeth, as that leg took all my weight. I breathed again only when my seat rested firmly in the saddle. The horse shifted restively, but settled at a touch, ears flicking back towards me. He would do fine.

"Got a gun?" the hostler asked suddenly.

Heat flamed in my face, as I thought of the Greener back along the road. "No."

"Hold on."

The man went into his little office, clunked things around, then stepped back out with a long length of metal and wood in his hand. "Winchester '66," he said, as he held it up to me. "She's old, but shoots as sweet as spreadin' frosting."

With his kindness tightening my throat, his box of bullets sagging in my pocket, and his carbine heavy in my hand, I rode out into the frigid embrace of predawn. Now frosty greyness softened the sky, dimmed the stars. The horse jogged easily beneath me, a softly springing gait that jarred my leg to a sort of thumping ache that I could, by God, learn to live with.

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