“The Wagons” by R.A. Lafferty

First published in the New Mexico Quarterly Review, Spring 1959



“But when did they have them first? Did they always have them? Who were the first ones to have them?”

“To have what?”

“The wagons. Did they always have wagons?”

“I guess they almost always had them. They had them a long time.”

“Did the Indians have them?”

“No. Not at first. They didn’t have the horse or wagon either at first. But they had the one almost as soon as the other.”

“Did the Spanish have them?”

“Yes, they always had them. They used pack mules too. But they also used the wagon. Why do you ask?”

“Every night after the fire dies down I hear wagons going along the ridge. They sound like real old wagons and I can never find the tracks in the morning. Is that an old wagon road along the ridge?”

“Yes, I think that is an old wagon road. They often went along the ridge just below the sky line.”

Jimmy was nine, and Jim was twenty years older. They both liked to camp out all summer. They traveled in a Ford pickup with an extra drum of gas in the back. They slept on the ground in their rolls and lived on coffee and bacon and flapjacks. They fished in the holes under the cottonwoods and shot jackrabbits and prairie dogs. The father and son were very close on these trips. And they went to ground in the short grass and brush country as though they had lived there for hundreds of years.

“Did they always go west — the wagons?”

“Why no, Jimmy, they couldn’t always go west. They went in all directions.”

“It seems to me they must have gone west most of the time.”

Jimmy hacked out brush with a cradle and bolo. He gathered buffalo chips and cow chips. It was always his job to build the campfire.

“Was there ever a town at Cielito?”

“Yes, there was a little town there once I think, a tent town or a cabin town. I have heard that there was a little town there.”

“I don’t mean a little town. I mean a big town with square after square and wagons solid around them. Was there a big wagon town there a long time ago?”

“I don’t know, Jimmy. I never heard of it.”

“Was there a different kind of wagon that didn’t have the same sort of tongue? It had a different creak, and the horses didn’t sound the same way when they stomp.”

“There were the ox wagons. They were hitched higher and rolled more. And on very early wagons the front wheels did not pivot and the tongue was pegged some way to the undercarriage or axle itself. And a very long time ago the wagons were pulled by Onagers and Przewalski horses.”

“That’s the kind of horses. That’s what I hear at night.”

They had cuervo to eat. They rigged it on a spit to roast. It wasn’t so bad if you called it cuervo. Lots of birds are all dark meat. All the wild birds are all dark meat. If you want chicken you can eat it at home.

“What did the Spanish call the wagons?”


“That’s a cart, that isn’t a wagon.”

Carro grande.”

“That’s a big cart. A big cart isn’t a wagon. They’re different.”

“I don’t know what they called them then, Jimmy.”

“I think they probably had a long name with a squeak in the middle. Were the wagons always covered?”

“I guess they were covered for a long time.”

“I think they had tents on wagons before they had them anywhere else. I think they had houses on wagons before they had them anywhere else. I guess those were the first houses.”

“They had them a long time ago.”

“Do you think Cielito had another name once?”

“I never heard of it if it had.”

“I think that once it was called Hammadj or Plaustrumopolis.”

“Where did you get names like that, Jimmy?”

“I just remembered them. I remember a lot of things like that. I’m pretty sure the wagon town was called a name like those. Could we go to Cielito in the morning and camp there tomorrow night?”

“Yes, we’ll go there if you want to. There would be water there.”

“Yes, there would have to be water there if they had all those horses there at one time.”

“All what horses?”

“Why, if they had about ten thousand wagons there every night, a lot of them would have four or six or even eight horses. That would be a lot of horses.”

“That would be quite a few, Jimmy. There is an old windmill about a mile from here and you can hear it creak at night. That may be the sound you think is wagons.”

“No, I know where that old windmill is. And I know where there’s a second one that you don’t know about. But that’s not what I hear for the wagons. If I couldn’t tell wagons from windmills I’d turn in my ears.”

“You’d look funny without them, Jimmy.”

“I look funny with them too. I don’t believe you believe I hear the wagons at all.”

“Yes, I think you hear them, Jimmy.”

After supper Jimmy told his father a story about prairie dogs.

“You think you know all about them but I bet you don’t even know this. You see, in the very middle of every prairie dog town and about four feet down there is a pile of gold. The reason that the prairie dogs have little pouches in the sides of their cheeks is so they can carry the nuggets. All the prairie dog burrows in a town are connected and they all go back to the gold pile. Now this is the way it is run. When an owl comes to eat a prairie dog, the prairie dog has to give him one gold nugget to keep from being eaten. That’s the only way they can do it, for the owl can go down the holes too and see in the dark. When the rattlesnake comes to eat a prairie dog, the prairie dog has to give him two nuggets. That’s the only way it can work. If they ever run out of gold, then pretty soon they will run out of prairie dogs. Sometimes you will see an old prairie dog town that is deserted. What happened is that they ran out of gold and were all eaten.”

“What do the owls and rattlesnakes do with the gold?”

“Different things. Sometimes the owls give it to the crows to keep them from pestering them in the daytime. Sometimes the rattlesnakes give it to the bull snakes to leave them alone. The rattlesnakes are afraid of the bull snakes.”

“Well who gets the gold finally?”

“Old sharpies, snake hunters and crow hunters, and coyote hunters. The coyotes get gold from both the snakes and the crows for not killing them. There are coyote hunters that people wonder how they make a living they kill so few coyotes and the bounty is so low. They don’t kill hardly any coyotes, but they sure do get a lot of gold.”

“Where did you get a story like that?”

“I got it from a primitive. You remember the little Mexican at the store in Aguila that I talked to while you were buying supplies? He told me that story. He was pretty primitive. You said that when you get stories from the primitives themselves they are most likely to be authentic.”

“Yes, I think your story is authentic.”

Jimmy got out his guitar. He couldn’t play very well but he liked to try. He played and sang Cattle Call, Rye Whisky, Wagon Wheels, Camp Town Race Track, Chisholm Trail, Wagon Wheels, Frankie and Johnny, Red Wing, Way Out West In Kansas, Wagon Wheels, Streets of Laredo, Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Golden Slippers, Wagon Wheels, Blue Tail Fly, Hot Time in the Old Town, Way Back in the Hills, Wagon Wheels, Blues in the Night, Wabash Cannon Ball, Wreck of the Old Ninety-Seven, Wagon Wheels, Empty Saddles, In a Little Spanish Town, The Old Grey Goose is Dead, Sweet Genevieve, Wagon Wheels, Ramona, Tree in the Meadow, Mule Train, Wild Goose Song, Wagon Wheels. He sang about an hour and a half. Then he did Wagon Wheels once more, and afterwards rolled up in his blanket and went to sleep.

Now here was the problem he considered as he slept. His father had said the wagons couldn’t go west all the time. How could they go west all the time? And yet whenever he heard them at night they were going west. He had heard hundreds of them night after night, all going west.

The only way they could all be going west was to keep going on around the world but this wasn’t likely.

“There are a lot of things I don’t understand about the wagon trains, but I understand more than anyone else because I’m the only one who even knows about them.”

In the morning they loaded up and went to Cielito. There was only one house at Cielito. But one house is enough for a town to have if it is able to handle the business. It may be that towns of more than one house are unnecessary. There is certainly some excess when they have ten or a hundred or a thousand or even a million houses; that is too big for a town to be.

There was both a gas pump and a watering trough there, so no matter how one traveled he could have his fill. There were two very great windmills and a whole series of tanks. And there were chutes and pens and corrals. The one house was built like a spider for there were many wings and extensions to it. There was a smoke house and a bake house, a horse stable and a goat pen, a bunk room or hotel, a store, a dining room, a bar, a herreria or repair shop; likely there was something else in the other wings as they would hardly build them and then leave them empty.

The reason that Jimmy had wanted to come to Cielito is that there were three wagons there, one still in use, and two very old ones that had been retired. He did not ordinarily like to camp near a town, not even one of modest size like Cielito; he had explained to his father that it was bad policy to camp within eight or ten miles of a town, and Jim the father had usually deferred to his superior wisdom in this. Mrs. Munyos told him about the wagons. The oldest one had been there before she was born, abandonado, left, unclaimed, derelict.

“Maybe they will come back some night and take it and continue their journey.” Jimmy suggested to her.

“I doubt it, Chico. It was here they stopped to eat the last of their horses. Then they went ahead on foot. But after only one day’s walk they lay down and died, los pobres. My abuelo found them the next spring and buried them with a cross even though they were heretics.”

“Can I have the wagon then?”

“It isn’t serviceable. Half of it is taken for firewood, and you would be able to go only a little ways with no horses and only three wheels on the thing. But it is yours if you want to say it is. It is no use, only to play in.”

That afternoon she told him a lot more about the wagons, and about something else.

“I will tell you something that nobody knows except me. This is that a long time ago before people had wagons, los osos had them.”

Los osos? The bears?”

“That’s right, the bears. This was a long time ago before the bears got stubborn as they are now, and won’t even talk anymore except a few of them who have been raised by people. But the bears used to be the masters of everything. They had the only mills, so if the people wanted to have their corn ground they had to come to the bears to have it done, or else do it with hand stones. And the bears were the only ones who knew how to make baskets or bottles or tonels, or blankets. Did you ever watch a basket-man make a basket? He holds it as a bear would and works it towards himself. That is because the bears first taught the trade to the people. So the bears had a lot of business and the people had to come to them for everything. And they had big cities with paved streets and all kinds of riches.”

“Then what happened?”

“I don’t know. I think the bears must have become proud and have been punished. Now they have to live in the hills and have forgotten how to talk, or are too stubborn to do it. And they don’t make blankets or baskets or anything any more, except for just one bunch of them in a town away back in the hills. There is only the one bear town left. And even the things they still make, they don’t make them very well, hardly better than the people make them now.”

“What did the bears have to pull their wagons with if they didn’t have any horses then?” Jimmy wanted to know.

“No horses? Oh, well, a long time ago before there were any horses, there was another animal that looked exactly like the horse. So if you would see the two together you couldn’t tell which one was the horse and which one was the other animal. This other animal is what the bears used to pull their wagons.”

“Oh, I didn’t know about that.”

“And now you see, it is all changed. Now it is we the people who are very rich and powerful, and the bears who are poor. Little boy, I don’t think you believe my story.”

Dama, I do. It is a legend. My father says that when we hear a legend we should try to arrive at the anthropomorphic truth behind it.”

“That should take you all afternoon. And when you find it you tell me what it is.”

But it didn’t take him all afternoon, it only took him a little while to find what it was.

“Those bears who made tonels and drove wagons couldn’t have been bears. They must also have been people. They were big people and they walked heavy where the Indians walked light. They had a lot of hair and beards and this made them look like bears, especially if they wore bear skins or buffalo robes. And if they say there’s another animal that looked like a horse, well it was a horse all right, they just said it wasn’t. I never believed that about there weren’t any horses till the Spanish came here. The Indians used to hide their horses every time the Spanish came to town so they wouldn’t get stolen, and it’s a good thing they did. I can see it all now.”

After he got it figured out he went to Mrs. Munyos and explained to her how it was.

“Ho, that’s all you know,” she told him. “Bigger and hairier then the Indians were they? Why I’d make thirteen of you myself, and talk about hair, my marido has so much hair on him it’s like he crawled inside an old buffalo carcass.”

“Ho, that’s all you know,” said Jimmy. “My father has more hair. When we’re camping we just carry empty mattress covers and every night my father pulls enough hair out of his chest to stuff two of them full, and that’s what we sleep on.”

“That much hair? I can hardly believe it.”

“Well it’s true. What did you say was the name of that bear town?”

“Why Villaoso, of course. But you have to go way back in the hills to find it. You follow the canyon all the way back till it’s so narrow that even the birds have to fly sideways. And when you get to the end of it there is Villaoso, the bear town.”

“How did they get the wagons in if it’s so narrow?”

“What wagons? Oh, the wagons. Well they built them hinged so they could flatten them out so that all four wheels were one behind the other. And when they were past the narrow part they straightened them out again. Do you think that is a mentina? Let us see if you can find the anthropomorphic truth behind that, little boy.”

Jimmy went to seek out his father who was drinking wine in the bar.

“Papa, could we go tomorrow and look for the town of Villaoso?”

“We will go and look for it.”

“It is back in the hills and up at the end of the canyon.”

“I heard her tell you where it is.”

They ate that night in the house that is the town of Cielito, and they slept in the old wagon bed. And the next day they went out to find Villaoso, the town of the bears. They followed the canyon all morning until it was so narrow that the birds had to fly sideways, and the Ford could hardly go between the walls.

“Were the wagons ever as narrow as the Ford?”

“They had to be almost if they went through here.”

When it became so boulder strewn that they could drive no longer, they left the Ford and walked. And it was right about there that they saw the first of the bears. And after a thousand yards they came to Villaoso itself where the cliffs close in. There were upward of thirty neat caves in the cliffs, but only five or six bears lounging around. The rest no doubt were out working somewhere.

And there was still a way between the cliffs just wide enough for a wagon, and the trail went on down to the plains on the other side. Jim went up the face of the cliff quite a ways and then roped Jimmy up. They had a nice den that it would take a very agile bear to reach.

“One thing worries me,” said Jimmy. “I don’t see any remnants of basketry or pottery or even a corn mill. I thought the bears here would at least keep up some of the arts. They don’t even seem to have blankets, not even poor ones. For these really are bears. I thought at first they would turn out to be just hairy men.”

Jim took the rifle and went back to the car before it got dark. He brought the supplies back up the cliff to the cave. He cut wood and brought it up too.

“Do you want a bear steak?”

“Oh no, dad, don’t kill any of these. These might not be ordinary bears at all.”

“You mustn’t let the old stories get a hold of you, Jimmy.”

They built a fire on the ledge to keep away the bears and mountain lions and devils, just as the first family in that region had done eighteen thousand and twelve years before. The figures are Jimmy’s and are arrived at logically. For it was a reliable book he had read, and it gave the figure at eighteen thousand years; and it had been published twelve years before.

After supper Jimmy serenaded the bears with his guitar, and they looked up at him in the dusk and sat around like big dogs. And after that a coyote serenaded them from a distant cliff top.

“There are three coyotes,” said Jimmy. “I can tell them by their voices. There is one reddish one almost as red as a fox. And there is one big gray grizzled one. And there is one with his tail full of cockleburs.”

“No. There’s only one,” said Jim.

“Why, there’s four more now, and that makes seven. There’s one with a sort of black cross on his muzzle, and there’s one with a crippled foot. And there’s a chicken killer that still has feathers on his face. And there’s one real young one. That makes seven.”

“No. There is only one.”

“There’s six more from the other cliff and that makes thirteen. One of them has a white front foot. And one of them ran into a skunk this morning and has to stay a little off from the others. And there’s the old boss coyote, and there’s the one that’s going to take him out someday. And there’s a young female who has a couple of them excited. And there’s a mean one with a slashed ear that doesn’t get along with the others. I can tell what they’re all like by their voices and there’s thirteen of them.”

“No,” said Jim. “There’s only one.”

“Why, there’s at least nine more now that just sounded from farther back. That’d make twenty-two. I know there’s more than one coyote.”

“Yes, you are right. Now there are two of them.”

After a while they went to sleep and let the coyotes have it.

After a long time Jimmy heard the creaking and woke his father.

“It’s the wagons. You sure ought to be able to hear them now.”

“Yes, I believe I hear a wagon.”

“There’s at least a dozen, and I guess there are a hundred right behind them. There’s one with a loose rim and they ought to fix it tomorrow. And there’s one with a bad seat spring and it hits bottom every time they go over a boulder. And there’s one with a tongue squeak, and one has a split spoke, you can tell by the way it grinds in the hub. And one has loose boards in the bed. And one is loaded too heavy on one side or the load has shifted, it gives a kind of twisting squeak. And one of them has a front wheel that sure could use something. And one of them has a colt tied behind and he’s getting tired of it all. And one of them has a sort of harness rasp. They ought to dress it with a little oil. There’s a lot of them, you can tell that right off.”

“No. I think there’s only one. I believe all those disabilities belong to one wagon.”

“There’s one horse has thrown a shoe and he goes tender on that foot. And one wagon has a lantern or something hanging under it with a squeaky handle. And one has a lot of stuff lashed on. Ropes have a sound when they stretch and give.”

“I know they have, Jimmy. But there is only one wagon.”

And there was only one. It came over the boulders up the canyon with a big load lashed on and a lantern swinging underneath and a colt tied on behind.

Hola!” one of the wagon men called up to them by the fire.

Hola!” said Jim.

Oje!” said Jimmy. And the wagon went through the narrow pass where there was only an inch on either side, and on down the other slope of the divide.

“There really was only one,” said Jimmy. “And I thought there was about a hundred. But that’s the same wagon I heard the other night. They haul something into a little camp. They didn’t have the colt the last time I heard it, but one night they had a burro on behind. I sure do like to listen to wagons.”

A bull-bat swooped down from one cliff and up above the other one. Then another bull-bat swooped in the opposite direction. And directly a third one went the same way as the first.

“I’ll bet there’s a hundred bull-bats flying around,” said Jimmy. “There’s one that has double jointed wings, and one that has two white bars on the top and bottom side too. And there’s one that doesn’t eat anything but midge flies, and one that doesn’t eat anything but sexton beetles. And one of them has two claws bit off by a prairie dog. I’ll bet there’s a hundred of them.”

“No,” said Jim. “There is only one.”

R.A. Lafferty

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