Western Short Story
He grew up in Pennsylvania, part of the Main Line as they might have called it even in the early days. But he seemed forever bothered about his place in life, as if all efforts came down to nothing at the end of the day. That’s when he usually took stock of what he had done, what he had tried, what he had not accomplished … not as yet.
Somewhere out there, beyond Pennsylvania, was a challenge for him and a place to hang his hat.
He decided to go west to find that place. It turned out to be Crawford’s Corner in a northern part of Nevada where two streams came out of the mountains to join up and start what was then called the Strand River. And it was mid-winter when the journey really started, being almost near Crawford’s Corner, and a long way from home.
His name was Stark Richmond, he was 22 years old, new at guns, shooting,” even aiming the danged things” he bought en route west. And in a livery where a stagecoach delivered him, the stage with a wheel problem, he mounted his first horse, feeling the bounce of the horse ride was much like the stagecoach working the rugged road.
The next act of the naïve young man was to let an Indian maid draw him into the hills, where his possessions were stolen away in the night, and she with them. There was nothing of his left. All he found at the sight were a few scattered white feathers on the rocks surfaces that made him think of a bird sitting on someone’s shoulder and molting feathers. A mountain man, on his way to some of his traps, found the young man wandering, cold, hungry, and desperate because he had truly lost his way. The mountain man, Jake Chamberlain, big as a bear, strong as moose, voice like a bull horn, saved the young man and took him under his wing for a long spell that winter. Eventually he brought him all the way down to the Wild Horse Saloon in Crawford’s Corner, a place he visited only twice a year. Chamberlain had grown very fond of young Richmond and the stories he carried from back east, but realized the young man needed a new and auspicious start in the rugged western life.
Chamberlain’d see to that new start for Richmond down in Crawford’s Corner, he promised himself.
Filling the room with his presence that day, Chamberlain advanced to the bar and said to the barkeep, though loud enough to make the introduction heard by every man in the room, “This here’s my pard, Stark Richmond, from back east a ways, who’s a story teller and can charm a saddle onto a mule if he had to, though I doubt he ever will. We been up in the hills, of course, doing our thing, and part of his catch of furs is to get some weapons to carry and a horse to ride, ‘cause his was stolen by a band of Injuns we had to fight off in a monster fight. I’m lucky to be here having this drink because this young un saved my skin.”
Stark Richmond’s future was made in a few words from a big man whose word no man dared to doubt.
Richmond, knowing how lucky he had been being found by Chamberlain, practiced with his guns in secret, rode endlessly to become a good horseman, joined in the occasional posse to hunt down a thief or a killer, kept his image alive, and at 27 years of age became the sheriff of Crawford’s Corner, married Beth Murphy, daughter of the most previous sheriff, and started a family.
He was in the general store on a Saturday afternoon, the week quiet all the way, and was looking forward to the performance in the evening by a small acting troupe. A customer came in and said, “I just heard at the saloon that another mountain man found the body of Jake Chamberlain up in the hills, with all his possessions gone.”
Richmond said, “He still at the saloon?”
“That he is, Sheriff. That he is, wetting down his throat like he’d been out there two or three months dry as straw.”
Richmond came into the saloon as the man he recognized as Joe Benbow was saying, “Poor Jake looked like he was hit by a rock tossed down on the back of his head or was hit by half a tree.”
“Hi, Joe,” Richmond said, “Can you tell me all you saw and all you did before you left Jake up there.”
Then he motioned to the barkeep and said, “Keep him wet as long as he talks good sense to me.”
“Sure can, Sheriff. I was thinkin’ of you directly when I saw poor Jake down like thunder and lightnin’ whipped him bad, or that whole tree I said.” He sipped his drink and continued. “But there ain’t no critters gonna chew on Jake. I saw to that. Put him down under an overhang and piled a heap of rocks right on top of him. The trail is marked by three sets of three rocks with the last, or the first according to which way you was to get there, right beside the overhang.”
“Anything laying around up there where you found him?”
“Not a stick, Sheriff. Not a spent shell. Not any tracks, but there’s lots of ways to get in and out and most of them off the trail are on rocky surfaces.”
“Was it near one of his campsites, one of those places he’d stop out on the trail when it got dark?”
“Not that I ever saw one near there, and I hosed up one or two times with Jake when I got a jug or he got one and we were within gunshot. But this was a place where they could come right down on top of him, it was tighter’n a mouse hole up there.”
“You check out any of the overheads while you were there?”
“I was only wantin’ to get Jake under cover from the varmints and get into town and tell you. I was goin’ to the jail when I came into town thirsty as a sand bug. Came here first. But I took good care of your friend Jake, and my friend too.” The jigger was emptied in a flash. Worth waitin’,” he said, and slapped the bar again. “Worth waitin,’” he said again, “but not for long.”
Richmond motioned one of his deputies outside and the two men, in less than an hour’s time, were riding out of town.
In the mix, they both knew, was Big Chogan, Crow of the toughest order, renegade, who had broken away from the main tribe and had raised hell locally for over a year. He was a fanatical Indian, sworn to take back the land that was stolen from his people by the white man and only a few months earlier had ravaged a whole family in their crude cabin at the edge of the Clayborn Range. Three large posses had started out after Big Chogan and his gang but none of them caught the slightest sight of them in the morass of the mountain passes, as if they had floated off the ground like one of their spirits. A few members of the posses began calling the leader “Big Gone Chogan.” He had become a cult figure in the Indian nation, and his reputation was continually on the move.
Richmond tried to remember what the mountain man Joe Benbow had said … something like “He was pounded by a rock from overhead or hit by most of a tree.” The image persisted at odd moments and it made him wary on the ride out to where Chamberlain had been found. As he and his deputy passed through rocky passages where the trail thinned out and was under overhangs of a sort, the feeling came strong.
At the site of the stony burial spot, saying a few words over the dead mountain man who had saved his life, Richmond and his deputy found little evidence of the crime. They scoured among the rocks and the hidden cavernous ways that mountains grow up through, and found little more. Then Richmond saw his deputy holding something up to the light.
“What’s that you got there, Paul? You find something?”
“Just a few white feathers, Stark. Kind of funny because I haven’t seen any of this kind before.”
Richmond recollected his early experience with the white feathers and felt a strange connection between the two finds. “Where’d you pick them up, Paul? The exact places, if you can remember.”
“I do know, Stark, and I’ll show you right where I found them,”
He lead the sheriff back over his route and Richmond saw the connection further, and though it was not a line-of-sight, he did see a route of exit, which he assumed was that of Chamberlain’s killer.
The two lawmen hobbled their horses, took off their spurs, grabbed their rifles and set off in the direction the sheriff had decided on. An hour later, in the tumultuous toss of the rocky remnants of earth-shaking turmoil and unrest thousands and thousands of years ago, in a cluster of caves and caverns where some were big as rooms of a saloon, they heard the sounds of drunken revelry coming from a small entrance in the side of tossed rocks. Under a near overhang was a supply of wood that obviously had been toted to that point by the people making the noises. The supply was a pile of dry wood that could heat a cabin for a few weeks.
Richmond’s deputy found an exit on the other side of the huge jumble of stone. With that discovery, they made their plans, set their timing, assigned each their places and duties. The two of them set a pile of kindling and brush at the entrance, the deputy staying to light a fire and the sheriff setting himself at the exit point.
The initial flames flickered, ignited brush and the other light kindling and began to burn quickly through the pile. The smoke, as if directed with a whisper of wind behind the heat, pushed the smoke into the hole in the mountain.
It did not take long for hell to break loose inside, as the smoke, with the fire now roaring with a big gush of support from a mountain wind, filled the interior of the cavern. One of the renegade band tried to run past the fire and the deputy shot him. Another tried, and he was shot, his screams filling the air now rushing about because of the heat running through the mountain crevices. At the other end, Stark Richmond saw a painted Indian, face and chest artfully adorned, wearing a cloak of feathers, carrying a white bird in his hands, tringy to run out of the cavern. Richmond shot him in the legs, both legs, and the Indian Big Gone Chogan dropped to the ground.
The white bird flew off into the mountain air, a whir of wings, a flash of a shadow, and the end of a mystery.
Three wounded prisoners were tied on horses the deputy found hobbled in a nearby cavern. The dead members of the group were buried in closed caves, rocks piled at small entrances, even the damned were protected from the mountain creatures of prey.
Richmond found some of his gear and some of Chamberlain’s gear in the hideaway when the smoke cleared. For the first time in a long while he felt complete, or at least satisfied with the turn of events. He had carried off his job, all with the help of the mountain man who had saved him from sure death in the mountain range.
Retribution and payment in one stroke.
Stark Richmond named his first son after the mountain man. He had a few names saved up for those that followed, also knowing that his time could end any day as the sheriff of Crawford’s Corner … one way or the other.
It was the way in the west; you went with it, grew with it, or left it in a hurry, usually not to your liking. Hope was often caught up in a friend, or a new comrade; it was hardly a time of choice.