Writers Contest Entry: Stage Craft

Today we present for your entertainment the first entry received for the Writers Forum 2020 Short Story Contest. Since the contest judges are supposed to be judging the entries without knowing who wrote them, the author’s names will be withheld until after the winner selection. After the winners have been chosen, all authors will be identified, and the top three stories will be re-posted. The contest is only open to Writers Forum members. Click here for the complete contest rules.

wagon wheels

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Stage Craft


Writers Forum Member #1

Sheesh. What does the old geezer want now, Matt thought as he trudged reluctantly for the third time that day out to his uncle’s workshop, almost tripping along the flagstone path that led up from the house. And just when I was getting the hang of Level 9 on that awesome new video game Mom sent me.

Fourteen-year-old boys weren’t supposed to be at the beck and call of any old relative that agreed to put them up for the summer, Matt grumbled to himself. It didn’t matter that Mom was off enjoying herself on a honeymoon after marrying that banker who had been hanging around the house for the past year-and-a-half. Matt was much more interested in mastering the finer points of his new X-Box game player than helping out his Mom’s oldest brother, Ken Moss.

Oh, Uncle Ken was an OK guy, Matt allowed. For someone who was retired, anyway. But there was never much of anything fun to do in Butte, Montana. He’d already seen the huge open pit mine twice. At least the part that hadn’t filled in with toxic wastewater poisonous to birds. And the open-air museum was way too dusty and crowded with summer tourists to really explore the way he wanted to.

Why couldn’t Mom have sent me to Disneyland or someplace fun for a change, Matt muttered to himself as he pushed aside a heavy wooden door partially blocking the workshop’s entrance. Every time Matt caught a glimpse of this place, his mind filled with wonder. This was no ordinary workshop. Built almost entirely of recycled barn siding, the shed where his uncle spent most of each day could easily have swallowed up several three-bedroom houses and still leave room to shoehorn in a detached garage or two.

Scents of tanned leather, glue, burning coals, hot metal, wood shavings and varnish filled Matt’s nose even before he had fully drawn his first breath.

“There you are,’’ Uncle Ken hollered at Matt from across a dimly lighted space piled high with large wooden wheels, some of them missing a few spokes.

“I need you to do some research for me on the computer upstairs,’’ the old man continued as Matt’s eyes adjusted from bright sunlight to the semi-darkened room.

“The spokes on these wagon wheels are splintering whenever they use my coaches for a TV commercial. I’ve got to replace every one of the spokes on these wheels,’’ the older man said as he brushed a thin shock of gray hair out of his eyes.

“I reckon our Montana prairie dog holes, rocks and gullies are taking their toll every time they drive my Concords over open country at full gallop,’’ his thin-faced uncle continued to grumble to no one in particular and anyone within earshot.

“I’ve got to find a way to build these wheels stronger on my replica stagecoaches or Wells Fargo Bank will stop buying ‘em.  The first three coaches I built for them are relegated to parade duty until I fix the wheel spoke problem,’’ Ken said by way of further explanation to his nephew, who was just beginning to catch on.

If you ask me, I think the sawmills are selling me their culls,’’ Ken continued even before Matt could respond. “So, if there is a place back east that could make spokes for me from better quality wood stock, it would save me time and effort. I need you to find me that supplier, and I need it pronto! Do you think you might put those computer skills of yours to work and do that for me, lad?’’

“I dunno, Uncle Ken,’’ Matt responded, somewhat surprised yet pleased that his uncle was finally asking him to do something more important than simply fetch a glass of iced tea or a clean packet of shop towels from the house.

“I guess I could do a Google search on wooden coach wheels and see if anyone makes spokes for them,’’ Matt gulped. “Would that help?’’

“Sure thing, Matt. That’d be just what the doctor ordered,’’ his uncle said as he stooped to inspect a wagon wheel that he was repairing.

“Er, Unk, I think I might need just a bit more information from you before I start,’’ Matt said following a few seconds hesitation. He did not want to distract the 67-year-old who was obviously concentrating hard on something.

“I mean, like, what kind of stagecoaches are you making? How big are the wheels? And what kind of wood do you want the spokes made from?’’ Matt blurted out, his mind spinning with all sorts of other intriguing questions that he desperately wanted to ask.

“Whoa, boy, whoa!’’ his uncle said, straightening back up while reaching for the ever-present glass of iced tea that Matt had refilled not more than a half-hour before.

“I guess I do owe you that much,’’ Uncle Ken said, clinking the ice in his now-empty glass as a smile crossed his tanned and weathered face. He seemed pleased that his request for some research had finally sparked Matt’s imagination.

Ken took a few seconds, as if he was silently gauging just how much information Matt’s young mind could absorb.

Recently retired as a building contractor, Ken knew a thing or two about handling young men who were eager to learn the construction trade. But it had been some time since he had tangled with someone as young and seemingly disinterested as Matt.

“Nephew, I’m building authentic replicas of the Abbott-Downing Company stagecoaches that were sold to the Wells Fargo Company in the mid-1800s. The factory in Concord, New Hampshire, shipped 30 of those coaches by train to Omaha, Nebraska, on April 15, 1868,’’ he said, pointing to a dimly lighted framed lithograph hanging on the wall above one of his several workbenches. On closer inspection, the artwork depicted a train of 14 flatcars loaded with red and yellow stagecoaches not too different from what his uncle was building in the work shed. Matt’s eyes widened as he noticed all around the dust-laden picture frame hung wood shaping hand tools of every variety and description. Matt hadn’t a clue as to what most of them were supposed to do or how they functioned.

“You see, even though those coaches were the strongest and most durable of the many types used to haul passengers, mail and freight in the heyday of the wild West, only 15 of the more than 3,700 that were built before the company disbanded in 1899 survived to exist today. And they are much too valuable to use in television commercials, movies and even parades,’’ Moss said, apparently launching into a speech that he must have made at countless civic clubs throughout western Montana.

“Now, I don’t want to bore you with too much information, but the last authentic Abbott-Downing Company stagecoach sold at auction in 2002. It fetched a price of $200,000 not including commissions to the auctioneer. And the danged thing ended up in some California museum,’’ Ken added. “I decided that if I was ever going to lay my hands on one like it, I would have to build it myself. When the bank fellers saw me drive my first replica into town some years back, why they bought it out from under me faster than you could say ‘Sold to the highest bidder,’ ” the old man continued his one-way discourse.

“My replicas are authentic copies down to the last nut and bolt, including those decorative metal curlicues on the running gear and the passenger compartment’s bent basswood siding,’’ Ken said with obvious pride. “It takes me two-and-a-half years to make each one of these 2,400-pound coaches. I do all the work myself and by hand. I even use the same construction methods that they used nearly 140 years ago.’’

“Wow,’’ Matt exclaimed, duly impressed but not really knowing what else to say to his uncle.

“Getting back to your immediate questions, the front wheels have a six-inch hub, spokes that are 22 inches long, and a two-inch wooden rim that is wrapped with another half-inch of steel. The back wheels have a 34-inch spoke, but are identical in all other respects. As far as what wood to use, I would think either oak or hickory would do, but I prefer oak as it takes moisture and dryness better than any wood I’ve seen. That’s probably why it was used so often in shipbuilding,’’ Ken said as he gently stroked the several days of beard stubble that always seemed to cover his otherwise pointed chin.

“You sure know a lot about wood and stuff, Uncle Ken,’’ Matt mused aloud as he turned to head back to the house and the task waiting on his uncle’s computer.

“If you can promise to find me a supplier that I can call during my lunch break, I’ll give you an uninterrupted hour to play that darn game of yours,’’ his uncle growled affectionately as he offered Matt an incentive for diligence.

“You’ve got yourself a deal,’’ the boy hollered in reply as his legs churned up the rock-lined path.

Matt’s face sported a large smile as he went about his assigned task for the remainder of that morning.

It took a few hours of sleuthing, but Matt was finally able to announce halfway through his uncle’s noon sandwich, “I’ve located the name of a sales agent for an Amish colony that manufactured spokes in various sizes for wooden wheels of all types and specifications.”

Uncle Ken spent nearly another half-hour talking with the sales agent, a Pennsylvania businessman who maintained a website and took orders since, Ken explained to Matt later, the Amish shun modern contrivances such as telephones and computers.

Ken seemed pleased as he hung up the phone, Matt noted.

“You did well, young man!’’ Uncle Ken said, a broad grin flashing across his face. “We’ll have two complete sets of replacement spokes in each size shipped to us early next week. And that means we are back on schedule,’’ the old man said, wrapping his left arm affectionately around the boy’s shoulders.

“Now, have you had enough or would you like to see what other jobs you can do for me this afternoon,’’ his uncle continued.

Matt gulped in surprise.

“Really? You’ld teach me how to build a stagecoach?’’ he asked incredulously.

“Well, maybe not all of it at once,’’ his uncle responded with a delighted laugh. “How about we tackle one job at a time until you get the hang of it before we jump to something else.’’

“Sure thing, Unk. Er, I mean, Uncle Ken. That sounds swell,’’ Matt said as the two walked out of the house side by side and almost in step.

The remaining weeks of summer flew by as Matt’s X-Box slowly gathered a patina of dust from disuse.

Matt first tackled the job of trimming think leather cowhides into belts three inches wide and a quarter-inch think. Those strips he helped his uncle glue and sew into two continuous belts, each one stretching several hundred feet. Working together, Matt and Ken then looped each long belt between two wooden braces to form a pair of sling-like structures. The braces attached in turn to each axle of the emerging stagecoach.

Ken explained that the soon-to-be completed passenger box would ride on the leather straps suspended between the front and rear axles that were separated by a central wooden beam.

Matt learned that before automobiles and trucks began sporting metal leaf springs, the leather thoroughbraces provided a smoother-riding suspension for the 17-passenger coaches.

“It probably made ‘em a bit seasick as the round-bottomed coach gently swayed back and forth on the leather straps, but it was better than bouncing around every time one of the wheels hit a rock, gully or clump of sage brush,’’ Ken said.

As his uncle talked, Matt pantomimed the actions of a distressed passenger.

For his next task, Matt tried his hands at bending four steel rods into the wheel rims needed to keep the wooden wheels from flying apart.

Sweat rolled off his forehead and down his back every time he forced one of the straight steel rods through a hand-cranked machine that ever so gradually bent it into a perfect circle just the right circumference to fit snugly over each of the coach’s wooden wheels.

Matt watched in wonderment as his uncle heated the matching ends of each steel rim until they glowed bright orange in the forge. Ken then pounded the two ends together on a large black anvil standing in one corner of the work shed that served as his blacksmith shop. The bond thus formed was almost undetectable, Matt noted with surprise as he splashed water on the glowing metal to help it cool.

No rivets or welding were allowed if everything was to be as authentic as the customers demanded their replica stagecoaches to be, Moss explained.

So absorbed in their tasks were the two men one afternoon that it took several moments to realize someone else was standing in the shop’s open doorway. Rays of late summer sun filtered through a woman’s long auburn hair.

“Mom,’’ Matt yelped as he dropped a pair of long metal tongs onto the dirt floor. Excitedly he ran for his mother’s outstretched arms.

It seemed as if it had been years since either he or his mother had embraced with real affection, but this time Matt thought it just felt right. Neither of them, it seemed, wanted the moment to end.

“Hi, Sis,’’ Uncle Ken finally said, breaking up the happy reunion. “Where’s Bruce?’’

“He’s back at the motel. He thought it would be best if I met Matt alone this time. The guys will have plenty of time later to get reacquainted,’’ Susan smiled as she quickly brushed Ken’s whiskered left cheek with her lips.

“I think he missed me,’’ she confided to her brother who was now holding her at arms length in both of his. Matt could almost feel their gaze as each now turned to look at him anew.

“I swear you’ve grown another six inches this summer,’’ Susan said as she absent-mindedly used one hand to smooth down patches of Matt’s hair that insisted on standing at full attention.

“Aw, Mom, maybe an inch at most,’’ Matt protested with an embarrassed laugh. “Come see what Uncle Ken and I have been doing all summer,’’ he added excitedly.

The three shared many happy moments as they admired a nearly completed stagecoach dominating once corner of the spacious work shed. Matt quickly clambered inside, showing his mother every facet of the coach’s gleaming black leather seat covers, the heavy fabric ceiling liner and rolled leather side curtains that Matt had helped his uncle sew and install.

It wasn’t until much later that evening, over supper at a nearby restaurant, that Susan was finally able to broach the subject of where Matt should spend the coming school year.

“Now, Matt. You know that Bruce and I would love to have you stay with us in Missoula.  You’ll be starting high school and Jefferson High is just down the street from the house that Bruce and I have bought east of town.  You’ll have your own room, of course,’’ she added almost perfunctorily.

Matt looked long and hard at his mother and then turned to look at his uncle. He took a large gulp of his soft drink, then asked imploringly, “Why can’t I just stay here?’’

“Uncle Ken needs my help in finishing the stagecoach, and he told me just last week he has orders for another two just as soon as we get this one ready to ship,’’ Matt quickly blurted out the sentence that he had been dying to say all afternoon.

“Ken,’’ Susan said, a serious tone overtaking her questioning voice. “Are you really willing and able to keep Matt on for the school year? This all seems so sudden. Have you two been cooking this plan up all summer long?’’

“Well, Sis. Now that you mention it, the topic did come up a few times and it seems to me that since Matt and I are getting along so wonderfully right now . . .’’ Ken’s response trailed off like an engine losing steam as he earnestly looked at his sister’s son.

“Matt is a big help to me on the several things that I have taught him so far. He’s a quick study and seems eager to learn. I mean, that is, it’s OK with me for Matt to stay if it is all right with you and Bruce. We thought, well, I guess I thought, mostly, that it might give you and Bruce more of a chance to set up housekeeping and get settled in on your new life together,’’ Ken continued.

“Mom, can I? Please,’’ Matt said with as much conviction as he could muster.

“I promise I’ll come visit you and Bruce for the holidays and Christmas. But Uncle Ken is teaching me all about the old West and Billy the Kid and all that.’’

“W-w-well, OK!’’ Susan finally stammered. “If that‘s what you both want, we can sure try it that way for a while.’’

Matt gave his mother a big thank-you hug as he and Ken traded knowing winks.

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