Western Short Story
The young man’s name was Dante Aliberti. He came from Italy on an overcrowded boat on a chilly March day in 1879, and hit Ellis Island running. Grabbing a train heading west, he ended up in Missouri and on the very next day attached himself to a wagon train heading further into open land, putting himself out to hire for any kind of work, in the Promised Land or on the way there. He could work with marble, limestone, wood, and knew the warp and set of good steel under heat. He could dig with a long handled spade as long as the sun lasted and on a few pronounced days might even feel the thriving and promise in a forked stick at water dousing.
And he could be lonely.
Of all his attributes or talents bared or borne, lonely could be the most heightened. On the train one seer, familiar with Roman gods and myths, naming one forebear after another and steering him to her way of thinking, told him he was keeping himself busy to hold off his loneliness. It was the bare truth, he realized. Then she said, “Puteus shall provide the gateway to heaven for you.”
He would remember those words forever, and now believed he did not know the names of many of the Roman gods, for Puteus was a name he had never heard before.
On September 12, 1879, in the midst of a drought, the sky set with dark omens, black clouds driven by a hidden wind, the wagon train with Dante Aliberti aboard inched into Osage Company grounds. It was, unknown to the wagon train people, a cooperative with a bad reputation, to say the least, of absorbing small ranches into huge combines, with no care or thought of the dispossessed or the riven. Boss man Fleckler, half a giant, ugly as sin, noise a weapon for him, snapped a long whip over the heads of the lead horses. Its snap as loud as a gunshot and drew the train to a halt. With clear swagger born of a most hateful attitude toward people of color, other languages, odd clothes, he began his relentless address to those he already had distaste for. He did not waste many of his words.
“Water is a premium here, so be warned about your consumption. That means, how much water you use in a day. Make it light, and that’s an order while you’re on our property. And any of you don’t speak good English, you don’t have too much chance of getting work here. So I’d be on the lookout for moving on past this here place of business. We move cattle here. We don’t move people unless they can’t cut it to our rules, then we are too glad to move them on.”
After weeks on the trail, of deprivations faced and dangers encountered, the collective sigh could be heard rising from the whole wagon train. Dreams seemed to fold in on themselves. More problems were in the future. Times promised nothing new but more trouble, and the person of one loud man carried much of their dread.
As Dante Aliberti’s English was slowly finding its way, Fleckler’s words did nothing but make him smile. It was an innocent smile, though it found other meaning in Fleckler.
“We got to keep our eye on that feller too good looking for his own good,” he said to a sidekick. “Give him some early trouble, if that wagon train stays here a while, so we can treat him accordingly. Like tonight.” He finished off with a wink, and then snapped the whip just to hear the crack of it.
At midnight two of Fleckler’s men slipped alongside the wagon train. They made little noise, but Dante Aliberti heard the scuffling of boots, minor curses of surprise, and looked out from under a wagon where he had been sleeping for a few hours. He saw one man take something away from a wagon and the two men moved into darkness. A few minutes later, one of them, as if drunk, fell against the same wagon from which they had taken an object, and cursed loudly in a drunken voice.
The wagon owner, Adam Blockwell, came down from the back of the wagon. “Need some help, friend?”
“No,” said the one pretending to be drunk, “but I just saw that good looking foreigner with the real black hair take something from the back of your wagon and run off with it. He went over that way.” His finger waggled every which way of direction.
“Well,” Blockwell said, “let’s see what ain’t where it’s supposed to be.” He checked alongside his wagon and said, loudly and surprisingly, “Young Aliberti feller has taken one of my tool packs. The one with my ammunition.”
“Let’s get that thievin’ rat,” said the phony drunk, “and string him up. C’mon,” he yelled again, “let’s get that thievin’ rat and show him what thievin’ gets him here in this country.”
Around the wagon other members of the wagon train had clustered. Tired, woken suddenly, near to frustration from many points, they took up the noisy chorus.
“Wait a minute,” Blockwell said, “I ain’t sure who took it, but it ain’t worth a lynching, and you can take that from me. I ain’t lynching no man over a bit of ammo.”
Fleckler was on the scene in a hurry. “I’m not waiting on you folks to make up your minds whether you been stole from or not. Thievin’ doesn’t go here on Osage Property. If you won’t help the searchin’, we’ll do it ourselves. Next the foreigner will be stealing your women. I guess you’ll stand still for that too?”
“Not for a minute,” one wagon man said. “Let’s go get that foreigner and show him how we do it here.” There was a chorus of agreement, and the crowd of men started a search.
Dante Aliberti, hearing it all from the back of one small shed, slid into darkness as the noisy gang started routing around the company area. When many of the gang were at one end of the company area, Dante slipped directly across the compound. He had understood everything said about him. His heart was pumping away wildly, yet a voice was reaching out to him from somewhere beyond. “Puteus will lead you to heaven.” He kept hearing it, the same words over and over again, and suddenly knew that a message had been sent to him.
At the moment of realization he was at the well that serviced the company area. A stone wall rose four feet from ground level, above which two forked limbs with a round limb nestled in them. A rope dangled from the round limb.
Noise seemed to come from all points around him. A torch was lit, then a second. Light flared and shimmered. Shadows broke and ran and came back again. Again he heard the prophetic words: Puteus will lead you to heaven. In a flash of revelation, he slipped over the side of the well wall and started to descend into the depths, climbing down while toeing and fingering clefts in the wall and edges of stone. There came the light from the darkness: Puteus was an opening that provided access to the old Roman aqueducts.
Almost halfway down the wall of the well, his hands and toes finding niches and small edges to aid his descent, he found under a wide stone lintel a hole in the wall. Feeling around inside, he realized it was big enough to crawl into as far as he could reach… and it was man-made. He squeezed his body so that he could climb into the hole. It went deeper than he thought it would, and then, like a miracle had been set aside for him, it turned into a small cavern of stone.
Puteus at work, he was sure.
Whoever had dug the well and set the wall stones in place, did it to set space aside for some secret purpose. Trying to envision the diggers at work, Aliberti could not fathom their reasons. They, or he, must have needed a hideout for their own or for someone else. The reason for its being evaded him more the longer he thought about it. Then he wondered how he would exist in the hole. Water was no problem; it was at the end of the rope in a bucket he could draw up to the hole. Food was his primary concern, at least enough to spend some time in the hole before he could make an escape; the angry boss man would forget him after a while. A week, a thought said, would be time enough.
Marking the stars straight overhead from the well, to tell time, on three nights he managed to slip out of the well and scrounge enough food to feed on.
Not a soul stirred in the town as he moved about in the darkness each night. Not a dog barked. No drunks roamed the main street. Aliberti moved as silently as a cat on the prowl. He saw no one, heard no one, wanted no one.
Late one evening, hearing men talk above him at the well, he managed to understand enough about the wagon train finally moving on, with a few more wagons added to the train, at dawn.
“It’ll be good riddance to them,” one voice said, and not the bad man he remembered, “whole lot of foreigners gonna clutter the place up before we’d know it. I hear they’re goin’ tomorrow morning before bright sky.”
“Oh, they wasn’t a real bad bunch, just ‘cause Fleckler got upset at that mystery guy. He’s probably dead out there in the desert right now, maybe the animals tearin’ him up. But I never knowed what set off Fleckler about him. They’s both mysteries to me.”
Puteus was at work again; the words fell down to him as clear as the stars would have on a good night, and he would have to leave his sanctuary and somehow hide himself in a wagon for the outbound ride. Perhaps the Blockwell man would hide him in his wagon until they got clear of the town. It presented the only chance he had; the man had been a fair man, not quick to leap at another’s words.
In the deepest night in a week, stars hidden all the way to the black horizon, Dante Aliberti clawed his way again up the throat of the well and slipped into the darkness. He found Blockwell’s wagon without any trouble and tapped lightly at the tailgate, whispering at the same time, “Mr. Blockwell, it is Dante Aliberti. I need help. I need to ride away on your wagon.”
He said it two times and Blockwell slid canvas aside and said, “Come aboard, son, before someone hears you.” He put out his hand and hauled the young man aboard.
“Stay under cover until we are well we’re well away from here. We leave in three hours. My family will hide you. Don’t let anybody see you, nobody from the train or from Osage. I don’t believe you stole ammo from me because I never saw a gun on your hip. That Fleckler man and his crowd are a mean bunch. Get under cover right now. Sleep if you can. Someone will bring you food and water. I pray we all have a safe ride to a new and better land than this place seems to be.”
He closed the canvas flap behind his secret passenger and cautiously looked about, making sure he saw no one who would give away his new passenger. There was no telling what Fleckler would do if he found Dante Aliberti still on Osage property. The deep blackness of the night was full of secrets of its own. One of them, moving cautiously, touched Dante lightly. It was Blockwell’s daughter, Myra, just turned 18, just turned more beautiful than ever, who said, “I have some of my supper left, Dante. You can have it.”
He ate. He slept. She was motionless for a long time.
Under the canvas shroud, under the darkest night, in the midst of his first real danger, Puteus was still on Dante Aliberti’s side as all life opened wide for him.
Later, she spoke lightly to him, barely more than a whisper. “What are you really looking for, Dante? Where are you going? What will you do?” The concern was loaded in her voice and he knew the tone of it no matter the language. And her aroma, the arsenal of her perfume, filled the air around him, in a language that never needed translation.
“I will be a cowboy. I will own land. I will raise children out here on the wide grasslands, under the wide skies, in the face of mountains, because the highest god of all has sent an angel my way.”
Myra Blockwell, not knowing about Puteus, smiled in the heart of darkness as she heard a whip snap, rough commands sound out loudly, and the wagon begin to move under them.