Copyright 2004 Tom "Forty Rod" Taylor
Henry Helstrom was an unimposing man by almost any standard. Barely five feet and five inches tall, he weighed only one hundred thirty eight unimpressive pounds. Henry had a weak chin, sallow complexion, pale blue eyes and, practically colorless wispy blonde hair. There was nothing masculine about Henry Helstrom; but then again, there was nothing feminine about him either. Henry Helstrom was, in his own eyes, a nothing, a nobody…, a zero.
Henry ran the only bookshop in Agate, and as the proprietor of such a well-liked and necessary establishment, was treated with courtesy and a degree of respect by the townsfolk in general. He was a soft-spoken, scholarly little man, a source of ready information for the town’s children and adults alike. He could be counted upon to donate money or books to civic events and the local church. Though Henry Helstrom was a citizen of Agate, he was scarcely known and pretty much overlooked by all.
Henry had two dreams, and only two. He wanted to be considered a man, an equal, by the citizens of Agate. He also wanted a kind word, a friendly glance, any recognition at all from Darlene Allen, the schoolteacher. Henry Helsrom, at thirty-four years of age, had two dreams. Only two.
He also had a ‘hobby’, known to no one. Over the years he had taken in varied merchandise in trade for his books. Most had been sold or traded off to acquire more books for the store. Over the years he had kept a very few of the things he had accepted in trade. Some had been kept for his own use. He had, for instance a fine Winchester carbine, nearly new. He also had taken in trade and kept a Remington revolver, a fine gun with fancy handles and a rare five and a half inch barrel. Both guns fired the same forty-four caliber cartridge. The revolver came from a man who said it “didn’t feel right” and had gone back to the more familiar Colt. Henry thought the big pistol felt “just right”. Even the cartridge belt and holster that the man had worn fit him perfectly.
Henry Helstrom’s hobby was to practice with these guns at every possible opportunity. He would strap on the six-shooter and, after carefully ensuring the gun was not loaded, practice drawing, aiming, and pulling the trigger. He sometimes went alone into the barren hills around Agate…a carefully guarded secret…and practiced with real ammunition. Henry Helstrom wanted badly to become proficient with his guns so that he would dare to wear them and not be laughed at by the “real men” of Agate. He pretended he was one of those men, play-acting roles in his own mind where he was, invariably, the hero.
One week every two months Henry closed down his shop, and boarded the stage to make a round trip to buy books for his store. He travelled from Agate to Walkerville, Cooley Junction, Paris, Lemont City, spending a day or two in each place, and finally returning again to Agate. He bought and traded books with other merchants, with ranchers, teachers, and the occasional cowboy, farmer or others he happened to meet. He always took his guns along, hidden in the large trunk he took along to carry the books. He never let anyone know he had them with him, would have been embarrassed beyond imagining had anyone known, and if asked, could not have begun to explain his reason for bringing them along.
On the longest leg of the round trip journey was a way station, known only as Palmer’s. No one seemed to know who Palmer had been or why the strange place had been named for him. The original building had apparently been made from poles and sticks interwoven and plastered over with a mixture of mud and grass. Added later were sections of adobe bricks or native stone crudely mortared together, small logs dragged down from the hills, and a few random planks from who knew where.
A former Army sergeant named Mort Robinson ran Palmer’s. Mort was a tough-as-nails man who was only as friendly as was required by his position. In spite of this he kept the place as clean and neat as circumstances allowed, put out plain and simple, but strangely good food, and made the accommodations acceptable. Truth be known, he was a lonely man, kept company only by the books he obtained from Henry. The shared interest never blossomed into true friendship, mostly because the two men were so radically different in every other way.
On one of the round trips that Henry Helstrom made, an incident occurred that would forever change things for both of these men. Palmer’s sat in a small basin among the surrounding hills, with a canyon to the north, and narrow, rocky passes at the east and southwest ends. The stage road went from east to west through the basin, and the canyon going northwards to who-knew-where was thought to be too rocky and steep for travel. It was from this rocky and steep canyon that trouble came to Palmer’s.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays a stage from the east met a stage from the west at Palmer’s. Usually, if both stages were on schedule, this occurred at about eleven in the morning. The drivers of both stages would arrange a longer than ordinary stop here to exchange information, change to fresh teams, to eat, and to let the passengers stretch a bit. This Wednesday was no different.
The eastbound stage was fifteen minutes behind the westbound stage when it pulled into Palmer’s. It was immediately apparent that something was very wrong when no one was outside to meet the incoming stage. The driver stepped back onto the roof of the coach and handed Henry’s trunk down, knowing that the little man would be staying the night and would go on the next day to Lemont. Clay Barnes, the driver, grabbed the big chest and, with Henry holding on to the other end, hauled it inside. The other two passengers on the stage hurried inside as well. When Henry Helstrom put his end of the trunk down and looked around he found eight other people in the big room. One, he was amazed to find, was Darlene Allen.
“What in hell is goin’ on, Mort”, asked Barnes?
“Injuns hit us just as the first stage rolled in. Davy is dead and two passengers are hurt. So’s Glen.”
“Dammit, Mort, why didn’t you fire a shot or somethin’ to warn us? Maybe we could’a kept on goin’.”
Mort Robinson looked sick. “No, you couldn’t. They blocked the pass after this stage got here. If I’da warned you, you’da tried to get through or turn back. Either way was a death trap for you. I hadda let you come on in.”
One of the passengers, a well-dressed man of fifty or so shouted at the station keeper, “What are you going to do about this? I have a schedule to keep, and I haven’t the time to sit around here in the middle of nowhere talking about Indians and who should have done what.”
Mort looked coldly at the man. “You can leave, mister. There ain’t nobody keepin’ you here. If you decide to go, I’ll even try to find whatever’s left of you after this is over and scrape some dirt over you. If you stay here, though, you shut the hell up an’ help us figger a way out of this mess.”
“You can’t talk to me that way. My lawyers will be…” Mort hit him, knocking him unconscious. He stood looking down at the man as he rubbed his knuckles.
“Shouldn’t a mentioned lawyers”, he muttered.
Over the next twenty minutes they talked, made and discarded plans, and watched. The man that Mort had knocked out recovered, apologized for his outburst, and went to sit near a window. Occasionally a shot was fired their direction and several arrows found their way to the walls of the ramshackle station. Twice the men inside fired at targets seen or suspected.
Suddenly there was a flurry of shots and the defenders fired back at a half dozen Apache rushing the front of the station. When it was over a horse was dead and one more man was wounded.
“They’ll keep picking away until dark, then they’ll rush us. Can’t see us lasting much past that”, said Clay.
A woman with a little girl beside her quietly asked Mort, “Sir? What will become of my daughter and me?”
The big station agent looked bleak. “Ma’am, I won’t let neither of you be took, I promise.”
Her eyes brimming, the woman turned away and went to sit quietly in a corner, holding her daughter closely by her side. Darlene Allen went to sit beside her, to comfort her. Henry saw Miss Allen slip a pistol from her purse and hide it near her leg. The other woman also found a gun in her carper bag and placed it nearby. Even the loud-mouthed man produced a small break top revolver and held it in his hand. Henry Helstrom pulled his trunk into a corner and sat down on it. He realized he was sweating and his hands shook. He understood this was because he was a coward, not one of the heroes of his fantasies, and certainly not adequate to be a player in this real-life drama. He dared not guess what Miss Allen would think of him.
Another man was hit, shot in the forehead by a bullet that found a way through the many openings in the walls of the station. He was dead before he fell.
Time dragged on with occasional shots being fired at them.
“Why d’you suppose they hit the station. They never did before, an’ I can’t think of anything on either stage that they’d want bad enough to jump two at once.”
Clay Barnes was clearly puzzled, and he was right. The Indians never went after small targets like this on purpose. Oh, sure, they’d hit a target of opportunity whenever they thought they could get away with it, but Palmer’s was a different matter. First, there was nothing here of any great value if you discounted the food and some small trade goods that Mort kept on hand. Too, there was the fact that Mort and most of the people who stopped there were all seasoned frontiersmen and even the women were used to a hard life. They would certainly fight if attacked.
“I been thinkin’ on that,” Mort said. “They ain’t after the coaches, Clay. There’s a couple’a freight wagons due in here later on. Got somethin’ for the Army down at the fort. Look at it from the Apaches’ side. This pocket ain’t much bigger than what two coaches and two of those big freight wagons would fill up. They get ‘em all in here at once an’ nothin’ could maneuver around to get out. We’d be boxed in an’ couldn’t move. Nope. I figure they want whatever’s on them wagons.”
There was a sudden wild commotion and Barnes looked out across they yard. “Dammit, they snuck in here close an’ killed the rest of the horses. Looks like they shot ‘em full of arrows.”
Time passed slowly. The freight wagons were due in under an hour, maybe sooner.
“Here they come”, shouted the well-dressed gent. He fired a shot, then another. Barnes fired several quick shots, and Mort got a shot off. In the quiet after the shooting, Henry Helstrom silently opened the trunk and pulled the gun belt out and put it around his hips, snugging it down just right. He quickly loaded the Remington and, as an after though pushed a round into the sixth chamber to completely fill the gun. He then took the Winchester carbine from the trunk, removed the blanket from around it and loaded it fully as well. He briskly worked the lever and put one last cartridge into the magazine. No one noticed him until Mort heard the rifle being levered. He looked over his shoulder at Henry and walked back to where the shopkeeper had re-seated himself on the trunk.
“Henry, d’you know how to use them guns?”
He looked into the eyes of the man sitting quietly on the trunk, nodded briefly, and said, “You’ll do fine, Henry. You’ll do just fine.”
The next rush was fiercer than the others, but was still driven back.
“The next one will be the big one. They know they have to get in here before those wagons start through that pass. Once they’re in the pass they’re gonna have to come on through. Watch close, folks. They’ll hit us any minute now.”
The attack came from the front, as the others had, sudden and fierce. At the rear was an abrupt crash and the woman with the little girl screamed as Darlene Allen fired. Henry turned to see an Indian, blood running from his arm grab her and raise a tomahawk to strike her down, then he felt something jolt his right hand. He glanced down and was surprised to see his gun, smoke pouring from the barrel, the hammer already back for another shot. He quickly looked back and saw the Indian fall away from the young woman, half of his face shot away.
Another warrior hurtled through the back door and Henry shot twice before that man fell too. Behind him he heard the sounds of battle, shots and yells and screams. He turned the pistol butt forward to the woman with the little girl, handed her a partially filled box of cartridges, and said simply, “Reload this, please.
Grabbing the carbine from the top of the trunk he fired, levered, fired again, and was struck a stunning blow to his chest. He staggered backward a step, then fired at a figure running at him through the smoke. From the corner of his eye he saw the woman aim and fire his big forty-four revolver, saw both women firing at the door, then he was struck in the leg and fell forward and down. He hit and rolled over, was hit again, and shot yet another Indian as the man was about to plunge a knife into Henry’s chest.
Struggling to his feet, Henry Helstrom fired again and began to reload the carbine from the cartridges in his belt. He took time to see the woman, still holding his pistol, covering him from behind and to the side. As he turned back to the door, a large Indian slammed into him, knocking him to the ground. The Apache fell over the top of him, stumbled to his feet and was shot by Darlene Allen and once more by Henry. As he started to fall, he and Henry exchange shots once again before the Apache fell dead atop the injured storekeeper. Strugglin’ to get from under the dead man, the last thing Henry Helstrom heard before he last consciousness was Mort’s bull roar voice yelling, “They’re takin’ off. Keep your eyes skinned. They might be back.”
“You tellin’ me that that little man in there kilt four or five of these Injuns hisself? Why, I’ve know him for years, an’ I just don’t believe it.” The voice belonged to Karl Glaser, the boss teamster. His voice cut through the haze of Henry’s unconsciousness and hurt his head.
“ Injuns hit us from the front, then come through the back door, Mort told the teamster. “I was hit, the business feller was hit, Clay was stabbed, an’ Henry stood there like a professional gunfighter, shootin’ an’ shootin’. That widow woman, Missus Womack, she shot one or two, an’ Miss Allen there got a couple, too. All together I counted eleven Injuns down back there. There was likely more. We got six or seven here at the front.”
Karl Glaser said, “Guess the Army’s gonna have to wait for these carbines a mite longer. We can hold this place until they send someone to find out why we’re late.” He paused and nodded toward the back room. “He gonna be alright?”
“That lady schoolteacher is lookin’ after him. He’s shot up some, but I think he’ll make it. I dunno, though. I allus figured him to be a bit frail. Guess it goes to show you never can tell.”
Miss Allen came out of the room where they had carried Henry. She announced, “Mister Helstrom will quite likely survive, but he’s gravely injured. He will take a lot of care, which I shall gladly provide.” She paused and looked very thoughtful. “He saved us all, you know. If he hadn’t begun shooting the instant they broke through that door, we all would have died.”
Karl Glaser shook his head in bewilderment. “Who woulda thought that little man would….”
Mort interrupted him brusquely. “Glaser, I just don’t know who you’re talkin’ about. There ain’t no little man in that room. Henry Hellstorm is about the biggest man I know. Just about the biggest!”
Miss Allen smiled at them all. “I must say I have to agree.”
As she turned back to Henry’s side, Mort stated firmly, “Hellstorm. Hell STORM. That ain’t rightly his name, y’know. It’s Helstrom, but I’m danged if Hellstorm don’t fit him to a T.”
In the tiny back room, shot to pieces but recovering, his hand held by a woman who liked him for what she had seen of him as a man, Henry Helstrom…Hellstorm…realized that he was also finally accepted as a man by men that he admired. His dreams, it appeared, had been realized.
As he drifted to sleep, Henry Helstrom smiled contentedly.