Western Short Story
Everyone in his hometown in Colorado said he was a winner, he’d get it all, and here he was flat on his back hiding in deep brush; gone were his horse, his holstered guns and rifle, his hat and canteen. The only thing he had held onto was the rope his hand fell on when his horse was shot out from under him. The horse fell down a ravine and he hoped the big gray was dead before hitting the ground; he’d been a good mount for five years.
Chad Lumsden could hear someone scavenging down below; there’d go his saddle, reins, weapons, and canteen - his survival possessions.
He caught the whinny of a horse somewhere below on the trail, but not in the ravine. Then he heard a horse pass by above him and realized at least two ambushers had had their eyes on him. He held his breath, hardly daring to breathe. That single ball of held breath was like a firepot at the moment, and Lumsden had to let some of it go, hoping the horseman above had moved on. Out his nostrils, as quietly as possible, he let that air go, and felt his nerves tighten, muscles tense up, found a prayer come pursed on his lips.
His mind shot eastward toward the small ranch in the sequestered valley of Chasm Country. It was pretty country with good pasture running into the foothills. It was memorable country.
And it was learning country.
“Listen, Sonny,” his father had said, one day not far from the ranch house, “it won’t always be as good as it is now. Times will change and so will the chances. It’s the way the cards are dealt to us. You got to be ready for the changes. That’s the biggest and most important thing in life … you got to be ready for the changes. Sometimes they’ll come at you like rocks in an avalanche, so you’ll know them when you see them or hear them, ‘cause you’ll probably have to duck. Others most likely are going to sneak up on you like dawn does some days.”
His father’s hand had, from horseback, reached out and tapped him gently on the arm. It carried the tone, for his father, not a touching man but a good man and responsible, had stressed his words with that touch. In this new moment of recall he’d swear he could feel that hand practically anoint him again, with the words echoing as they had ever since being said.
With a slight hesitation, he tried to remember why he was up here, in the hills, in the first place. Rhyme and reason kept their distance, and he stayed in the quandary, nothing coming clear to him. The knot on his head helped him to decide that he had forgotten something; he couldn’t bring it back.
He had a length of rope off his pommel – and that was it. Him and the rope.
Something was trying to break through, but he couldn’t open the door for it. Then he laughed softly as he realized he also had his good luck piece, the tinny toy flute his grandfather had given him years ago, saying, “Play a few notes on this when your good luck is at hand” – pause – “or if it’s left you high and dry or down and out.”
Lumsden, at that moment, also heard the clatter of a horse’s hoofs. The mount was on the stone part of the trail, above him, heading for the open rim where Saltersville could be seen in the distance. He had seen the town before from that same site.
For a few moments Lumsden reflected on a lot of memories, some good and some bad, and listened as silence slipped into the mountains and a slight shift of air said that evening was coming on, and possibly a cool night. He had to get under cover as soon as he could.
Just below the ridge line at the edge of the brush where he was hiding, he saw an opening, either a cave or at least an overhanging ledge. Gambling on finding a decent place at least for the coming night, he scrounged a bundle of fire wood and roped it down, pulled the rope back up and let himself down, with the rope looped off in place. If he had to, he could climb back up with the help of the rope, which he tied off on a piece of fallen rock.
He found a small cave in the canyon wall. It was empty of critters, and when night set in, he lit a small fire, and fell asleep. Dawn woke him, rested but a bit chilly, the fire long died out.
Lumsden studied his situation again; there was only one way out, but was it up or down?
In the clear morning breakthrough, the sun splashing on peaks above him, a new sound came to him. All the intelligence he owned told him it was Indians on the move. They’d surely find the rope looped around a part of the ledge above. He slowly pulled on one end and the length of rope slid down to his hands – meaning any escape for him was now downward.
Lumsden backed deeper into the cave when he realized the Indians must have seen the movement of the rope, or smelled him or the cold ashes of his fire. He backed into the cave as far as he could go, the aperture beyond too slim to pass through, footsteps sounding in the otherwise silent morning.
He heard again his grandfather saying, as much prophecy as could be, “Play a few notes on this when your good luck is at hand” – pause – “or if it’s left you high and dry or down and out.”
Toy flute came into his hand as if it had been delivered to him by the Pony Express.
He raised it to his lips and started a tinny sound, finding some moments of magic as the homely music sailed through the small aperture behind him, rose atop a stony but resonant surface and stopped the Indians’ approach in place, as the eerie music issued from another aperture. The mountain came alive with magic, as accompaniment to the voice of the god Wantatowee or Manitowak or whoever held sway on this mountain.
The good luck won out for Lumsden. Looking down he saw some of the natives drop the gear they had stripped from his dead horse. One of them brought up a horse, a paint pony, and saddled him, hung all his gear appropriately, and tied the horse off on a rock. Then the five of them climbed out of sight, leaving salvation behind in the ravine – as if the god of the mountain had condemned them, ordered them, thanked them with music from the heart of the mountain.
He did not see any of the Indians again; they had slipped away into some part of the mountain as if they had been commanded to disappear.
The paint was gentle, strong, and accepted him as Lumsden mounted and rode out of the ravine. In a few hours he was entering the saloon in Saltersville.
The barkeep and owner, Harry Fontaine, greeted him. “Well, well, Chad, we thought we might have lost you for a while there. Folks said you were gone near two days. You got some special story you’re willin’ to tell us? We’re all ears for that one, son, but glad to have you back at the same time.” He poured a mug of beer and set it on the counter. “Your pa was mighty nervous, like he had ants in his pants. Left here twice and came back and had another beer with us both times. Nerves lookin’ for company I guess. Y’oughtn’t to do that to your pa. He lost some shine them two days.”
“You wouldn’t believe me, Harry, what I’d have to tell and the Indians up there in the mountains. They’re not any plain Plains Indians. There’s something special about them.”
Fontaine jumped right in and said, “You ain’t been talkin’ to them alone, have you, Chad? Ain’t much safety in that. They’d leave you so even your pa wouldn’t know you.”
“You’re wrong there, Harry. You’re looking at me now and they could have had me easy as you please.”
He proceeded to tell Fontaine about the events on the mountain, right down to the tune he was playing on the toy flute.
Fontaine, going right past the story about the music, said, “No idea about who was shootin’ at you, Chad?”
“Not a flicker of who. I saw nothing. Just heard them looking for me when I was hiding in the brush. Probably at least two bushwhackers waiting to clean out my pockets.” He flipped the talk. “What do you think about the Indians and how they just quit trying to get me and even saddled up a horse for me?”
“Maybe thought you was a god come alive for them, like Mawawawa, or Wamamama.” Fontaine added a healthy snicker to his fun-and-games name-poking at the Indian gods.
“That’s pretty funny from where you sit, Harry, but don’t ask me to laugh. They let me be and for a reason I may never know, but am thankful.”
“They’re just plain old Indians, Chad. Nothin’ to get excited about.”
“Except I’m still alive. And I’ll tell you this, Harry, that I’m going back up there someday.”
Chad told his father the whole story and what he wanted to do, and on his own.
The kindly older gent agreed to all, happy that his lone son had been spared up in the mountains, by the god of the mountains.
Three months later the local freighter brought a package to the Lumsden ranch, all the way from Independence, Missouri. It was addressed to “Chad Lumsden, Lumsden Ranch, near Saltersville, Colorado.”
The next day, Chad Lumsden packed an extra horse with the package, a few blankets, and other supplies, including 5 extra ropes, and rode off to the mountains where he had almost lost his life. His errand was peaceful and thankful.
With guile, strength and determination, he managed to get his supplies and the package up to the same place where he had spent a lonely night, and a miraculous escape.
He managed to haul up some fire wood, lit a fire at darkness, and went to sleep beside the fire.
As before, he awoke, rested but chilly, and a little nervous. But he was adamant about completing his errand.
He backed into the fissure, as he had before, when he heard movement on the trail.
The flute came to his mouth, and his three months of practice on the tin flute produced a remarkable piece of music. The sounds of that music resonated on rock faces up through the connecting fissures in and through the mountain. The music resounded with miraculous acoustics that few Indians had ever dreamed of.
When they came along the ravine below him and along the ledge above him, Chad Lumsden brought out the package from Missouri, opened it, and took out 100 tin flutes. For more than an hour he sat on the ledge playing flute after flute, which the Indians admired as if the god of the mountain was playing it himself.
After the hour of playing, one Indian advanced toward him down below and held up his hand in the sign of peace. Lumsden tied a rope on the package of flutes and lowered it to the floor of the ravine. The Indian, the same one who had placed Lumsden’s saddle on the paint pony months earlier, picked up the package, mounted his horse and rode away.
In a matter of minutes, not a single Indian was visible.
Chad Lumsden rode his own horse back to Saltersville, met his father at the saloon where each of them had a beer, and 50 years later was still telling the story about the musical mountain every chance he could.