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Western Short Story
It was a pleasant camp, situated on the banks of Oak Creek, a few miles south of Flagstaff, where he had delivered a prisoner, just yesterday. He spent the night under an overhang, enjoying the sound of a soft rain and the burbling of the creek water. He found some dry wood under another overhang, built a small fire, heated a pot of coffee, and fried some bacon. He was a contended man when he rolled into his blankets and drifted off.
The dawn brought a warm sun and a clearing sky. He was breaking camp when he spotted the opening to a small cave, just above the overhang. It was barely visible through some brush, and then, only visible from the point where he was standing after washing out his frying pan.
Big Jim Donaldson may have been a deputy sheriff, but he was also an adventurer at heart, and there was never a cave he was willing to pass up unexplored. The location was at least a mile off the main trail, so there was a chance that his eyes may have been the first to explore this one. He checked on his horses, stowed his gear under the overhang, and prepared to scale the rock wall to the cave.
He was disappointed to find rocks piled up at the entrance, obviously put there by human hands, meaning he was not the first to find it. Sighing, he pulled the rocks aside, enlarging the entry considerably, and peered inside.
The cave was small, and the rear wall ended abruptly, with a hole no larger than his fist where water may have flowed to create the cave eons ago. The ceiling was no more than four feet high, and was bare of any formations. On the floor was the long dead body of an Indian.
Jim Donaldson’s father had been an Indian agent, and he had grown up near Shiprock, with Navajo boys as playmates. He knew their dress and customs almost as well as they did. The man in the cave was a Navajo from his jewelry and his clothing, and Jim was wondering how he came to be so far south, only to die alone and in a lost cave. And, since Jim knew the Navajo customs and respected them, he was faced with a dilemma. He must now carry out a Navajo burial. He sighed and climbed back down to his fire.
Jim dug his moccasins out of his saddle bags and undressed. He then covered his nakedness in ashes from the fire to ward off the evil spirits that Navajos associated with death. Wearing only his moccasins, he again ascended to the cave, and began to prepare what was left of the body.
If a Navajo dies in his Hogan, then the Hogan is collapsed on top of the body and burned, along with his weapons and jewelry. This man was wearing silver bracelets, and a heavily tarnished, silver Concho belt, studded with embedded turquoise stones. It was beautiful, but tradition demanded that it be buried with its owner. Jim found no weapon, but did find a place where a bullet had passed through a rib and into the man’s lung. Perhaps he was a shaman.
After retrieving all the bones, clothing, and jewelry, Jim carried them to a small knoll where he dug a grave. Afterwards, he sang as much of the ritual as he could remember, and then burned the shovel he had used to dig the grave, also demanded by Navajo tradition.
He bathed in the creek, washing off the protective ashes, and cleansing himself from the evil spirits of handling death. It was now late afternoon, but he could no longer stay in this camp. It had become sacred ground, so he dressed, and mounted up. He did not look back at the grave. That too was forbidden. He was a white man, but he had long ago learned to respect the ways of the Navajo, although he had forgotten much of it.
Two hours later, he found a good camp location under some cottonwoods, and built a fire for his supper. Later that night, the wind moaned through the branches over his head, and he thought he could hear far off voices chanting a death song. A shiver traveled up his spine, and much later, he slept.
The doctor’s buggy was in front of his house when he rode into Prescott, two days later. He put the horses up in the stable and slapped the dust off with his hat before entering through the back door.
“Oh, Jim! There you are!”
Margie was a tiny woman, but someone to be reckoned with. Jim had met her at a barn dance, and had fallen in love immediately. They had married ten years ago, and she had given him a son David, and four years ago, a daughter, Mary. She was smiling at him now, but there was also a faint look of worry.
“I see Doc Waters’ buggy out front. Is someone sick?”
Margie sighed. “I don’t know what to think, Jim. Right after you left, Mary took sick with a high fever and had convulsions. Doc came right away, but we couldn’t bring the fever down, and Doc thought we might lose her. It got worse and worse, and then last night, she slipped into a coma. When Doc left, he told me that she would probably not last the night.”
She stopped and buried her head in her hands, sobbing. That further alarmed Jim, because she was not one to cry. Even when her mother had died, she had shed only a few tears, and then carried on. Now she was almost inconsolable, so Jim knelt beside her and held her until she finally sat up and dabbed at her eyes with her kerchief.
Jim hesitated, and then quietly spoke to her.
“What has become of Mary, then?”
Margie turned her face up to him and shook her head.
“That’s just it, Jim. I sat up with her last night, but sometime after three this morning, fatigue took over and I nodded off. When I woke, she was sitting up and smiling at me, and wanting something to eat! Doc came by this morning and couldn’t believe it. He’s in there with her now.”
Doc Waters was wearing his usual rumpled black suit, and unconsciously tugging at his beard, as he always did while thinking. Mary was sleeping, but she seemed peaceful and not feverish.
Doc shook Jim’s hand, nodded at Margie, and then thoughtfully glanced back at Mary.
“Damnedest thing I ever saw. Excuse my language ma’am, but frankly, I thought I had lost a patient when I left last night. Now she has no sign of fever, and whatever consumption she had is gone. She was jabbering and happy until she drifted off a moment ago.”
He studied Mary a moment, and shook his head.
“The only sign this morning that she was ever sick was when she told me about a delirium dream she had. Something about a strange man giving her something to drink to make her better.” He grinned at Jim and Margie. “She said it tasted even worse than the medicine I gave her. But if a fantasy made her feel better, I’ll not complain.”
After the doctor left, Mary slept until noon, when she woke up hungry. As Margie left to fetch her something, Jim entered his daughter’s room.
Mary held her arms out to her father, who sat on the edge of her bed. He started to reach for her, when he felt something under the covers. He stood and pulled back the blankets. Margie entered the room with some soup and saw the object lying on the bed. She looked at Jim with a puzzled frown.
“Is that yours? Where did it come from?”
Jim bent over and picked up the heavily tarnished, silver Concho belt, studded with embedded turquoise stones.