Western Short Story
“That kid ain’t halfway to a cricket, you ask me, ‘n’ I hope he’s small enough to crawl out of that mess.” The miner Lew Osgood stood at the entrance to the old mine, dust from a collapsed tunnel pouring out into the valley and getting caught up by a steady wind. He saw the 7- year-old Chico Vestra finally walk through the cloud of dust, and Chico yelled out, “The fuse was lit from the other end of the tunnel. It was coming toward me all lit up and I had to run.”
The blast had closed the entrance to the mine ... behind Chico, by the Good Graces.
“Nobody was out here,” Osgood said. “Not a soul but me.”
Chico said, “Then he buried himself in there, Lew, or ducked out another way.”
Even in the dusty air Osgood noted the dark hair on Chico’s neck had found new grounds cascading over the back of his neck like a still-waterfall. “Getting older in a hurry,” Osgood thought, and seeing Chico’s brown eyes steady as a stallion’s.
He also knew Chico was the smartest kid in the valley (and maybe the only one), the place loaded with mines and dreamers who oftentimes could not hold onto reality, or even face up to it. That meant there was a whole cantankerous bunch of poor spirits and sour dispositions with enough docile dreamers to almost balance the scale, but few young dependents.
The explosion and tunnel collapse was the day’s start for Osgood and Chico Vestra, an orphan, a wanderer in the mining camps, living off hand-outs, what he could steal, catch or find as a toss-out. In search he was energetic, thorough, and showed a good deal of ingenuity and derring-do to finish a task. If they wanted, a dozen men, the good ones of soft words and not salty tongues, dreaming of the big strike, could toss warm words after Chico, tell what he had done for them, what a survivor looked like in the very early stages: “Kid’s a scrambler.” “Chico checks the ins and outs all the way.” “Ever see what he found and give back to Carter what he threw out one night when he was drunk. Honest as a good buck, the antlered kind.” “Kid ought to have his own bunk to crawl into give it nighttime.”
Osgood, 32, ex-sheriff, ex-train robber, ex-prisoner of the territorial jail, now a miner convinced gold was always underfoot, but never knowing how deep he’d have to go to find it, dig it, take it out, acknowledged a growing admiration for the youngster since he had started feeding him, finding odd little tasks to set his mind to.
Apt to talk out loud when no one was around, he’d mutter appreciation and a new clarity about Chico. “They did good for him down there in Mexico, for starters anyway; he shows it, but then they cut the kid loose. That’s hard for me to understand.” He’d shake his head entertain again the idea that the junk collector he’d heard about in Bola City, that Jehrico fellow up from Mexico, would make a great adoptive father for Chico: the warm-blooded indeed took to one another like bees to prairie flowers. His “I’ll think on that,” came up as a promise.
Osgood, only once, asked Chico where he called home, and never forgot the answer: “I am el huérfano desde Ciudad verde pálido,” his eyes filled with a pale green memory of a place he might not see again. The grown man, with his own pale memories, imagined stories that might accompany Chico’s response.
Neither one, at the time of that discussion, knew a pair of mine thieves had found an entrance to the old mine that Osgood had won in a poker game and started searching for gold and finding a little for expenses, the word of gold in a dead and once-deserted mine had grasped the attention of two thieves bent on living off others. Charlie Briscoe and Pete Sunderland were a pair of life’s deadbeats, leaving cattle driving after a mere week on the trail … and never going back.
Briscoe had said one evening to Sunderland as they stared out on the evening’s assigned work, “I feel like I got nothin’ but cow dust and cow dung in my mouth and I ain’t here for long. I’m lookin’ for a partner to ride on to other doin’s, whatever comes our way.”
Sunderland simply said, “I’m with you on that, Pal. My craw’s full up too. Night watch tonight we can ride away from without a word.”
The pair had bound themselves into a partnership, not for the good of anybody else. When they found gold leavings, no matter the location (pocket, saddlebag or claim), they took it as their own, for Briscoe had announced the new twist in their search; “We keep our eyes on the spenders, the poker players, the gents buyin’ goods at stores, anybody who’s forkin’ over dust or coin that’s more than what they need for themselves.”
As usual, the way such partnerships develop, Sunderland fell into second place in the line of command; he was the follower and never the leader, finding it comfortable that way, and doted on and obeyed all that Briscoe pronounced for their ventures.
Such commands included the current situation: “It’s a snap, Pete. Just go in there at night with a light, through the secret entrance the drunk told us about, and string a length of fuse to a few sticks of dynamite that’ll collapse the tunnel. They’ll never think there’s another way in. We’ll have the whole place to ourselves.”
Sunderland, never an expert in any activity, only saw the ease of entering the mine at leisure, working at leisure, finding gold at leisure.
Fate had spoken from the mouth a youngster, when he had said, “Then he buried himself in there, Lew, or ducked out another way.”
The words had hit Osgood as if spoken from some mount, never mind from the mouth of a child. “That’s good thinking, Chico, ‘cause I was out front and never saw anybody come out but you. So, like you say, he’s buried or got out the way he most likely got in. Let’s go look.”
Chico was hoisted up onto the back of Osgood’s horse and they went searching for an entrance to the mine they had not known about, and which did not prove difficult at all. When they found the remains of several small fires, and trash tossed indiscriminately around the area, they found the entrance. It lay behind a large chunk of rock that had sheared off the cliff face in the distant past.
The horse was hidden by Osgood and the pair entered the mine. With a torch they soon found the man known as Sunderland, fallen under a few rocks of size. The body was cold and stiff.
Osgood said, “I saw him around the saloon a few times, with another gent, and neither one of them looked overworked. Never got his name, though. We’ll have to take him out and bury him. Maybe that other gent I’ve seen him with will come around again. We might get a chance to see what they were up to, but no good most likely.”
He hauled the body out of the mine, dug a grave and buried the remains, with a few words said by Osgood, not in any hurry. With two boards with just “? 1868” scratched on the cross piece, the spot was marked.
“I‘ll have to go back, Chico, and get some tools and supplies. It’ll take me a couple of trips, so I want you to hide up there on that ledge before dark and keep an eye out. If you see anybody around and I get close, toss a stone at me, but don’t let him see you.” Taking off his vest and handing it to Chico, he said, “This is all I got that you can keep warm with. I may not get back tonight, so it’ll help against any chill that comes. Be careful.” He patted Chico on the head and rode off.
But part way around the mountain, heading down a tight passage, a feeling of uneasiness came over him. It night have been a reaction to claustrophobia, he argued, but it didn’t carry enough weight. At one time, he assented, he’d just plow on. This was different; it carried equal parts of doubt and danger and began to dig into him. Reining in his horse, he sought some mental reservation to bring about a decision … all that came to him was Chico at a point of peril. It was enough for him to turn about and head back, darkness not too far away. Chico, most obviously, was on the ledge, but he began to urge the horse on.
The sense of shadows came from wherever the slanting light found structures of any kind, and it happened at a sharp turn in the trail when a single shot rang off an upper part of a cliff face, and a spark of light from a resounding ricochet pinged away but released its sharp echo.
And a deep guttural voice broke out from a low shadow against the cliff: “I don’t know who’s up on that damned ledge, but you better show yourself, mister, ‘cause you ain’t goin’ no place before sun up and I’ll sure plug you quick once it comes. No way down from up there, but the one way I know.”
As if for kicks, to test the courage of the person hidden on the ridge, or from his own uneasiness, another shot followed, the pinging echo followed the shot, and silence followed that.
Osgood heard the stone as it clattered on the rocky surface of the canyon floor.
Chico, he figured, was not hurt, was trying to alarm the shooter, or had become aware of Osgood’s presence. Immediately he believed in his own sensibilities, and knew once again the uneasiness that had forced him to return to the site.
He dismounted, rifle in hand, and proceeded toward the source of the guttural voice, which released a new tirade. All the yeller got in response was a hail of stones from above.
The angry voice then screamed, “You son of a bitch, I’ll kill you.” Two side arms were emptied at the upper reaches of the canyon. “I got plenty more. Wait’ll I load up.”
That was followed most immediately by a single round not far from his feet, and it too had an eerie echo to its hit on a rocky surface and a spark that could set off flames.
In his most commanding voice, Osgood said, “Any more of that, mister, and you’re damned dead where you stand. Drop all weapons now or the neck slug catches you where it’ll hurt you most.”
Weapons fell in place, bumps and thumps and mutterings of half oaths, disarmament in its quickest form.
Osgood yelled out, “Chico, come on down and light us a new fire. We’ll see who this hombre is, find out what he’s been up to.”
In a matter of minutes, Chico came out of the deep shadows at the base of the cliff.
The guttural voice said, “Is that a midget or a kid? Is that who I was shootin’ at? Damned if it ain’t a snotty-nosed kid.”
The ex-sheriff said, “That snotty-nosed kid was in the mine when your pard set off the blast that killed him.”
“What pard? I ain’t got no pard. What mine you talkin’ about?”
“The other hombre I saw you with in town a few times, the one we buried out yonder a ways, dead when we found him from the blast he set off. It almost killed Chico here.”
“I sure don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about. My name’s Briscoe and I don’t know nothin’ about no mine and no pard that you may have killed, not me, and not any blast either.”
Sensing nervousness coming on Briscoe, Osgood said, “We’ll find out for sure when we talk to the sheriff and the fellow who runs the general store where they sell dynamite and if you happened to buy any recently that you ain’t used up anywhere else but here … in our mine.”
“Who says you own this mine?” Briscoe was now seen in the light of the fire Chico had going, the flames rising high as dry brush flared up.
“You know about this mine?”
“A drunk told us about it.” Briscoe knew immediately he had stepped beyond his lies.
Chico said, “We buried a man who got killed in there. If you bought the dynamite, the sheriff will find out. I was lucky I got out. It chased me all the way, all the boom, all the shaking.”
Feeling good about the revelations so far, Osgood said, “Briscoe, you got to know the snotty-nosed kid here figured the whole thing out. That’s sure to get a laugh and a rise from a judge in court. Attempted murder of a child. Death of a gent you know. Stealing from a claim. Hell, they’ll sentence you to the penitentiary in a second.”
Briscoe, tied to his horse on the way to town, was left with the sheriff after Osgood and Chico told their stories. The pair went back to the mine, worked it for few months, found but little gold and sold the mine to another miner for a small sum.
“What do we do now, Lew?” Chico asked Osgood as they sat in front of the mine’s second entrance, night in its early switch of light and shadows.
Osgood was in a quandary, and kept thinking about Chico’s start down in Mexico, and his getting cut loose for some reason unknown to both of them. “I think we have to see a man down in Bola City. His name is Jehrico and he’s from Mexico. He’s made a name for himself up this way. He salvages things that people throw away or lose on the trail. Makes money with a lot of things he comes across.”
Chico nodded, a smile starting across his face, his eyes lighting up.
“I think he’ll be glad to see you, Chico. Real glad. We’ll leave in the morning, first light.”
Both of them put out blankets and rolled into them, under a sky full of stars, night sounds keeping company with them for almost an hour, until sleep came all the way home to the ex-sheriff, ex-train robber, ex-prisoner of the territorial jail, and el huérfano desde Ciudad verde pálido.