We tourists were standing around the fire ring in a clearing on a knoll above Loon Lake trading stories about riding in the horse-drawn covered wagons when gunshots rang out about a quarter mile away.
An odd pattern, several in a row, a pause, and then two more. That’s odd, I thought. It’s too early for hunting season. Too many shots for someone putting down a horse, too erratic for target shooting. The percussions sounded as if they had come from different guns, rifles or large-caliber pistols.
The trail boss, Jeff, looked concerned. He and one of the wranglers mounted up and rode out to investigate. Five minutes later, three more shots and then a volley of fire.
Hell bent for election, the wrangler galloped back alone. He leaped off his horse, slapped its croup, and ran to the other six wranglers. Jeff’s young son screamed, “Where’s my daddy?”
I thought, This was supposed to be a vacation.
I should’ve known. All twenty-six of us vacationers had arrived by shuttle bus in Idaho’s Targhee National Forest where Jeff’s Teton Wagon Train and Horse Adventure was to transport us into Wyoming in covered wagons like pioneers. Jeff was as big around as a bear, and his felt hat looked as if it had melted onto his head. He and his wranglers were all toting large-caliber sidearms holstered in handmade rigs. That’s odd. Why so many guns?
Jeff sported a Fu Manchu mustache that moved when he spoke. “The guns are for bears. The country is thick with them.” For extra protection he kept a rifle and a shotgun under the seat of the main wagon.
Rodney, forty-six, a used car dealer from North Carolina, paid close attention to the wranglers’ clothing and gear, especially their chinks and wrist cuffs. He listened to the wranglers’ lingo, watched how they walked, and peppered them with questions about life in the wild wide-open. Since childhood, he had loved westerns, especially Gunsmoke. He had seen every episode. Matt Dillon was his Ideal Man.
Rodney sported a four-day-old goatee, a palm cattleman straight out of the box, jeans with fancy stitching, and square-toed boots. He had brought his girlfriend, Sherry, hoping several nights roughing it in the backcountry would help each get to know the other better. Who knows, he said, one day they might marry.
We spent the first afternoon crossing into Wyoming. Dust wafted up like fog and coated us, turned our throats dry. We watched the scenery slip by and made small talk. Rodney chatted as if he had known us all our lives.
The long second day’s ride took us through the northern Teton Range. On the knoll overlooking Loon Lake, the wranglers positioned the wagons around two fire rings. We were laughing and trading stories about the day’s adventures when the shots rang out. I wondered, Is it a group of rednecks, drunks, or some anti-government militiamen whackos? Rodney decided someone was shooting at a bear, but when the wrangler returned without Jeff, everybody fell silent and milled together like a school of fish.
Shortly Jeff galloped back whipping and spurring as if running from the law. He launched off his horse and screamed at the wranglers, “You got your guns?”
They clawed at their holsters and looked around wide-eyed. The wagons provided some cover, but we were easy targets. We need to scatter into the woods, make ourselves hard to hit, and fire back from the cover of trees.
Jeff yelled at us to stay put, but Rodney pleaded with Sherry to run.
“No, let’s stay here with everyone,” she said.
Rodney was hopping like a pogo stick. “Y’all can stay, but I’m getting out of here.”
Then I remembered the rifles and shotguns under the wagon seat. We needed to defend ourselves, anything other than stand there in a bunch. I turned to a wrangler. “Hey man, we gotta get those long guns.”
He didn’t seem to hear me.
Then I’m getting them myself. I sprinted toward the wagon, but the wrangler grabbed my arm and held fast.
Jeff was looking back toward the forest, his eyes bugging out. “We got riders!”
Someone gasped. A couple of cries went up. One woman prayed aloud. Wranglers took positions behind the wagons.
Rodney’s face turned as white as flour, and he sprinted toward the woods like an escaped convict but tripped over the wagon tongue and fell face first onto the ground. With dirt flying, he scrambled on all fours beneath the low limbs of a spruce. I gotta get low, he thought, and then wallowed down like a badger.
Sherry fumed. He left me. He left me!
Our attackers came with thundering hooves and a shrill wail. Jeff and his wrangler stood poised for battle with their guns up and hammers cocked. Gunfire erupted. Two horses galloped past. The riders wore buckskins and had painted faces and long black hair.
Finally I understood. The previous year I had taken a wagon ride with the Bar T5, an outfit owned by Jeff’s family. Indians had “attacked” us on that trail, too. Relief washed over me, and I bent over laughing. The wranglers holstered their pistols, and Jeff and all the other guests hee-hawed, too.
Sherry pointed to Rodney still on his belly under the tree, his mouth agape and eyes large as chicken eggs. His mind understood the joke, but his emotions hadn’t yet caught up. “You ran,” she said, and cackled until she could barely breathe.
At our final campsite the next evening, camaraderie permeated camp. Everyone swapped email addresses and phone numbers and promised to share photographs and holler when in each other’s necks of the woods. Rodney borrowed Jeff’s vest, scarf, chinks, wrist cuffs, and gun belt and swaggered around posing for photos. Holding a lariat, he squatted and reached up with his free hand as if about to draw. And I declare, if he didn’t look a bit like Matt Dillon.
In the morning the bus arrived. Jeff gave a speech, said everyone was family now. The men shook hands and the women hugged. Everyone loaded into the bus. The wranglers formed a line alongside and fired in salute. Sherry sniffled, and Rodney slid on his sunglasses to hide his tears. He hoped Sherry would not hold his running against him. He had no idea whether the trip had made them more likely to marry, but he felt certain about one thing: On the wagon train he had never felt more like a cowboy.
Six months later when I passed through North Carolina, Rodney and I met at a restaurant for supper. He still watches Gunsmoke every night. We almost peed our pants laughing about his hiding under that tree. I asked, “How are things with you and Sherry?”
“Good. We’re still dating. Aw, we’re in no hurry.” A boyish expression came over him. “Man, I had no idea the trip would be that fun.”
“Are you and Sherry going back?”
He nodded. “I think I am.” As if imagining himself clattering and creaking in a wagon, he grinned. “Yeah, man. And next time I might buy chaps and all.”