by Chief
RPAN #1 – Story 3 – Wagon wheels are easy enough to fix, people not so much.

Wagon wheels are easy enough to fix, people not so much. Loss and fear, trauma, all things people feel on the trails. The kind of wounds that last forever, but at least they aren’t the ones that get you killed. This’ll be my second wagon train from Westport to Santa Fe, my dozenth overall since I shipped over here in the summer of ’29. Was a smooth ride until we made it past Council Grove; that’s about when I started getting the gut feeling this might end up being my last.

Few days shy of Pawnee Rock, right at the head of the Arkansas River. Two out of my nine wagons have already been left behind. Two whole families up and gone in the middle of the night. No trace of them walking off, no hoof prints to blame on the Cheyenne tribes, no blood, nothing. Now I’ve got twenty-odd remaining men, women, and children fearing for their lives, and all I can do is tell them to keep close and keep their rifles loaded. A horizon full of dried old prairie brush and scalding red canyon rock is all we’ve got accompanying us out here on the banks of the Arkansas. Rocky, grassy plains and sun-baked ridges, the last trees we got to see alive were back in Missouri. Land flat enough to see for miles, dotted with plateau cliffs high enough to stake out any meandering caravans. No cover for the wagons; For me, that means another night on watch—another night of watching shadows and sage.

Walk-around was as expected. No noise other than shuffling homesteaders in their wagons, and the two men who volunteered to patrol with me kicking up dust. The last rays of orange and burning sun shoved off over the western plains a few hours ago, and now we wait for the darkness from the east to blanket us to sleep.

My mind is a whirl, running through the last few weeks of riding. Wildlife that should have been staying clear of the caravan, evenings surrounded by a heavy, foreboding mist that didn’t belong out here in the plains. A feeling in my bones that the earth itself doesn’t want us out here. I pick at a few loose eggshells and grounds from tonight’s trail coffee and spit them off into the brush. Things are too quiet tonight, can’t even hear the wind against the wagon canvas. Can’t hear the–

“Mister Hobbs! Mister Hobbs, come quick!” A man shrieks from one of the wagons. I’m there in a split, rifle drawn. I hiss through gritted teeth. Inside the back of one of the wagons sits one of my lost homesteaders, naked and deathly still. I rack my brain for their name but come up empty.

“What’s he doing here, how’d he get in here?” I growl, keeping my rifle trained.

“Just came flying through the flaps, Mister Hobbs, scared the hell out of us, hasn’t said a word since,” the outcrier sputters, turning away from me to console his wife.

I spit at the ground again before hoisting myself into the wagon, beckoning the intruder, who I still can’t quite recognize to sit down. They respond with a lurch in my direction, the first movement they’ve made since I pointed my rifle at them, and I flinch. Instinct tightens my fingers on my rifle’s trigger, and a shot rings out—splintering wagon wood and nothing else. Somehow, in the second I blinked, the man just disappeared into thin air.

Fate doesn’t give me time to understand or react. A thud rocks me on my feet, something big just tackled the side of the wagon. I hop out to scan the nearby carts and campground with my rifle, waving for the man and his wife to climb back inside their cart to safety. I whip around the corner of the cart, rifle at the ready,

Episode 1 Story