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Western Short Story
A young boy from Kentucky who, through no fault of his own, becomes an orphan with no home and no way to take care of himself. Left with nothing but the clothes on his back, a big-bore Spencer Carbine, and an old redbone hound, his only choice is to go west and live with an uncle that he has never met. This estranged uncle is an old Texas cowboy living alone on a remote cattle ranch in Montana. This story is about a boy being forced to grow up in a hurry and an old man forced to make room in his life for a complete stranger. It will come as no surprise to most of you that it also includes a legendary Indian medicine man and a curse. I hope you’ll come along as young Tom comes face to face with The Spirit of Black Butte.
* * * *
“Alright, Boy,” a gruff old voice shouted from the kitchen, “Get yourself out of that bed. The sun’s been up for thirty minutes. I ain’t running a dang boarding house here.”
Startled awake, young Tom sat up in his bunk, rubbed the sleep from his eyes and tried to figure out where he was. Being in strange surroundings, he hadn’t slept very well the night before.
The drafty old cabin had been cold during the night and he sorely needed another blanket or two. The old man sleeping across the room was little more than a stranger to the boy. Afraid to wake the old man, Tom spent the night curled up in a ball, trying to quiet his chattering teeth.
Tom was thirteen and an orphan. His father had been a riverboat pilot on the Ohio River, but drowned when his boat hit a snag and sank in middle of the night. Over the next year, Tom’s mother mourned herself into poor health and eventually succumbed to consumption. Her death left Tom with no family except a great uncle who lived along the Yellowstone River in the Montana Territory.
After his mother’s death, a neighbor assumed the mortgage on the farm where Tom was raised. Being a good man, the neighbor helped Tom secure his passage on a riverboat to Montana.
Tom arrived on the docks at Fort Benton on the first day of December, 1887. He had three dollars in his pocket, a small rucksack containing all his worldly possessions, a rolling block Spencer Carbine that belonged to his dad, and an old redbone hound named Abraham.
From Fort Benton, Tom hitched a ride on a freight wagon to Billings and met his uncle there. From Billings, it had been a cold two-day horseback ride through the snow to his uncle’s isolated cattle ranch.
Tom’s uncle was an older man, a life-long cowboy, and pretty much set in his ways. He came to eastern Montana on a cattle drive from west Texas. He liked the country so much, he decided to stay and homestead a place for himself. Having never stayed in one spot long enough to get married, the old cowboy lived alone in his humble cabin, and he had little use for strangers. There had been very little conversation between them on their trip from Billings.
“Coffee’s on the stove,” the old man said when Tom walked into the kitchen, “Help yourself.”
“Thank you sir,” Tom said, backing up to the soothing warmth of the stove.
“How’d you sleep?”
Tom was rubbing his hands over the hot stove top, “Alright, I guess.”
“You guess. Did you get cold?”
“Yes sir, just a little.”
“You should’ve said something. Spare blankets are in that trunk over there. Grab what you need for tonight.”
“Thank you, sir, I will.”
“You don’t have to keep calling me sir,” the old man said, “Everybody calls me Zeke, no reason why you shouldn’t.”
“Yes sir, Zeke,” Tom said, “It sure smells good.”
“Set yourself down and see how it tastes.”
Zeke set a chipped china plate with half-a-dozen fried eggs and a slab of steak down in front of the boy and fixed another for himself. Returning to the stove, he used a dishrag to pull the oven door down and removed a pan of biscuits from the hot interior.
“Don’t be bashful,” he said to Tom, upon returning to the table, “Dig in.”
“This is mighty good,” Tom mumbled through a mouthful of meat. “What is it?”
“Muley,” Zeke said, “They’re thick in the hills along the river.”
“I like it,” Tom said, “I’m surprised you got eggs all the way out here.”
“I bought three dozen hens the last time I was in Billings,” Zeke said. “The dang coons got a couple of them, but the rest are doing alright.”
“Where’s my dog?”
“I let him out about daylight. I guess he’s looking the place over.”
“I suppose,” Tom said as he spread jam on another biscuit, “I hope he don’t get lost.”
“He’ll be alright,” Zeke said, “Dogs always know where home is.”
“What is it you do out here?”
“I got the beginnings of a good herd of cows, but it’s a tough row to hoe up here in these hills.”
“Why is that?”
“The winter weather can be fierce,” Zeke replied, “and the lions and the grizzlies can be a problem come spring when the calves are born.”
“Lions,” Tom said, “What kind of lions.”
“Mountain Lions,” Zeke replied, “You know, cougars.”
“Do they come around here much?”
“You hardly ever see ‘em. The sneaky devils roam around mostly at night. I’ve been seeing a lot of tracks. I reckon this heavy snow has got ‘em on the prowl. I’m hoping that hound of yours will keep ‘em on their toes.”
“They might kill him.”
“Not likely,” Zeke said, “Lions are scared of dogs. I guess they figure there’s always a man with a gun around when there’s a dog nearby.”
“I hope so,” Tom said. “I’d hate to see anything happen to Abraham. He’s…well, he’s about all the family I got left.”
Zeke watched as Tom hung his head and tried to hide the tears in his eyes.
“Look boy,” Zeke said. “I know you’re little more than a child and you’re missing your folks. It’s only natural. Life can be tough, and that’s a fact, but feeling sorry for yourself will only make you weak. When your mom wrote and asked me to take you in, I was hesitant at first, but I didn’t have the heart to let her down. She knew she was dying, and she didn’t want you to go to some orphan’s home.”
“I know, I’m a crotchety old buzzard, but you’ll soon get used to that. I ain’t as young as I used to be, so I figure we can help each other. I can use a hand around here and you need a place to stay. Tom, you got a home here and a chance to have a future, so get over whatever’s ailing you and be a man.”
“Yes sir,” Tom replied, raising his head. “I will. I’m glad to be here. I’ve read about cowboys. I want to learn about ranching and I’ll earn my keep, you wait and see.”
“I’m sure you will,” Zeke said, getting to his feet. “As a matter of fact, you’re gonna start doing that as soon as you’re finished with breakfast. Rake those scraps in the biscuit pan and we’ll feed your dog when he shows up. As soon as you’re done with the dishes, we’ll go check on the cows.”
After the dishes were stacked neatly in the drying rack, Zeke and Tom made their way to the corral by the barn.
“Saddle yourself a horse,” Zeke said to the boy. “That’s old Buckwheat that you rode from Billings. He’ll be a good one for you to start out on.”
“He’ll do fine,” Tom replied, “I never had a horse before.”
“You still ain’t got one.”
“I know,” Tom said, “I just meant. . . .”
“You pull your weight,” Zeke said, “You’ll have a nice string before you know it.”
After being horseback for nearly an hour, they were quite a ways from the cabin and Tom was enjoying the vast empty landscape. There were rolling hills going off in every direction. Many of the slopes were covered in thick stands of lodge pole pines. The others were open and covered with scattered cattle. The cows spent their days pawing through knee deep snow to get at the buffalo grass underneath.
It wasn’t long before Zeke spotted a cow standing all alone. She seemed to be calling for her calf, but it was nowhere to be seen.
“This ain’t good,” Zeke said. “She had a pretty heifer calf. I was gonna keep her to build up my herd.”
Spurring their mounts, the two of them rode up the slope towards the cow. When they got close, they could see a blood trail leading off into the pines.
“What happened?” Tom asked.
“The dang lions, most likely,” Zeke said. He was down off his horse and dabbing a fingertip in the fresh blood. “Looks like one of ‘em got the calf last night and drug it up in the hills.”
“Do you hear that?” Tom asked.
“I don’t hear anything,” Zeke said after standing still and listening for a moment.
“It’s coming from up there,” Tom said, “Come on.”
Tom headed Buckwheat up the slope and Zeke followed him. As they drew nearer to the source of the sounds, Tom realized it was Abraham and he was in full cry. Upon reaching the summit they spotted the old hound frantically trying to climb a big pine tree.
“Well, I’ll be,” Zeke said, “That dog of yours done gone and caught himself a lion on the first day.”
“Where’s the lion?” Tom asked, scanning the trees.
“Way up in the top yonder,” Zeke said, “He’s laid out on a limb.”
“I see him. He’s a big one ain’t he?”
“Fair to middling,” Zeke replied. “Think you can hit him with that rifle of yours?”
“Me? You want me to shoot him?”
“Your dog treed him. Only seems fair, but you better hurry. That cat’s getting nervous with us down here.”
Tom climbed off his horse and handed his reins to Zeke. Pulling the Spencer from his scabbard, he retrieved a cartridge about the size of his thumb from his shirt pocket. Zeke watched as Tom slipped the brass shell into the breech of the big .56, nervously closed the lock, and pulled the hammer back.
“You sure you know how to shoot that thing?” Zeke asked.
“I think so,” Tom said, mounting the heavy gun to his shoulder.
“You think so,” Zeke repeated. The old rancher began to grow impatient as he watched Tom trying to settle his dancing sights on the lion high over his head. “You better get on with it. He ain’t gonna stay there forever.”
The boy’s heart was racing and he was trembling with excitement. Finally, Tom gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, and yanked the trigger.
Things were strangely silent after the booming report of the rifle rolled away across the distant hills. The steep slope and deep snow under his feet combined with the thump from the Spencer put Tom right on his backside. Still sitting in a cloud of white smoke, the boy was trying to clear his head from the jolting recoil as a cloud of snow and a huge tawny body tumbled down from the tree top. The now lifeless lion hit with a thud and Abraham was on it in an instant.
“I’ll be a cross-eyed son-of-a. . . .” Zeke hollered, “Boy, you got him! One shot, and you dang sure dropped him!”
“Is he dead?” Tom asked, wiping at the blood running from his nose as he struggled to his feet.
“I’d say he is,” Zeke said. The old man was off his horse and standing over the lion. “Come up here and get hold of this dang dog of yours, and we’ll take a look at him.”
Tom finally managed to get Abraham away and got a good look at the lion.
“He’s really something,” the boy said holding the big cat’s head up.
“He sure enough is,” Zeke agreed. “We’ll get him back to the cabin and skin him out. You can salt the hide down and we’ll take it into Billings in the spring.”
“Take it to Billings,” Tom repeated. “Why take it there?”
“For the dang bounty,” Zeke said, “Boy, you’re looking at five dollars laying right there.”
“Five dollars,” Tom repeated, “Well alright then, let’s go get another one.”
“One at a time,” Zeke said, “We got all winter.”
Buckwheat made it plain right off, that if Tom was planning on tying that lion on his back, the boy had another think coming. Tom ended up dragging the cat back to the cabin at the end of a long rope.
When they got the cat home, Zeke took the time to show Tom how to get the hide off without putting holes in it and get it salted down so the hair wouldn’t slip. It was well after dark by the time Tom had finished with the lion hide. They placed the bundled hide in a wooden grub box on the porch, where it would stay frozen solid until spring. In spite of his bruised shoulder, Tom was a happy hunter when he slipped under his blankets that night.
The next several days went by without any new lion sightings. The baying dog and the gunshot had probably pushed the other lions farther back in the hills. Tom fell right into the role of a cowboy. He was anxious to learn and Zeke was a willing teacher. The old man began to realize his life was better with someone to talk to. A strong bond of mutual respect began to grow between him and the boy.
The two of them were having supper one cold evening when Abraham raised his head up from the floor and started to growl.
“Old man!” a voice shouted from outside, “Are you home?”
“Where else would I be this time of night!” Zeke shouted at the door. “Come on in!”
The door opened and a small man wearing a fur coat and a coyote-skin bonnet stepped into the light. He was wearing buckskins under the coat and he appeared to be an Indian. His long hair was mostly black with streaks of gray. Tom couldn’t help but notice the ragged scar that ran through the Indian’s pale and seemingly lifeless left eye.
“I see you already have company,” the Indian said, when he spotted Tom.
“My niece’s boy,” Zeke said, “From back in Kentucky. He come out here to be a cowboy.”
“You are a long way from home,” the Indian said.
“No sir,” Tom said, “This is my home now. I like it here.”
“Tom,” Zeke said, “This is Walks Far. He’s a Hunkpapa Sioux. Walks Far hides out here in the hills so the army won’t send him to the agency.”
“What’s an agency,” Tom asked.
“It is a bad place,” Walks Far said, taking a seat. “The soldiers watch my people day and night. There is hunger and sickness there. I like it here in the hills.”
“I’m glad to know you, Mister Walks Far,” Tom said.
“I am glad to know you,” Walks Far replied.
“Have a seat,” Zeke said to the Indian, “I’ll get you a plate.”
“That is most kind of you,” Walks Far said, hanging his coat on a hook. “It is cold out tonight.”
After eating, they sat around the table and talked.
“I heard a soldier’s rifle five days ago,” Walks Far said. “It came from the north. I watched, but I saw no one moving around.”
“It was the boy,” Zeke said. “He shot a cattle-killing lion. The dog there treed it just south of Black Butte.”
“So you are a hunter,” Walks Far said.
“To tell you the truth,” Tom said, “It was more luck than anything else.”
“It is a good thing to tell the truth,” Walks Far said. “I am going to like you, Boy.”
“I like you too,” Tom said. “Zeke is taking me deer hunting in the morning, would you like to come along.”
“That would be a good thing, but there are soldiers prowling along the river. I must go back into the hills for a while.”
“What’s got them out from the fort in this weather?” Zeke asked.
“The soldier father is angry,” Walks Far said. “He wants me dead or locked up at the agency.”
“I don’t understand,” Tom said, “Why do the soldiers want you dead?”
“It is just their way, and nothing for you to worry about.”
“I love this place,” Tom said, “I don’t blame you for not wanting to leave.”
“It is a good place,” Walks Far said, “Except for the high country around Black Butte.”
“What’s wrong with Black Butte?” Tom asked.
“There is a dangerous presence up there,” Walks Far said, “It is said to have been there for many years, even before the white man came into this river valley.”
Zeke watched as Tom’s eyes grew wide.
“What kind of presence?” the boy asked.
“My people say it is the spirit of an ancient warrior,” Walks Far said, “He guards the burial grounds of the first ones. This spirit warrior appears as a man to some, but he is said to take the shape of many different animals.”
“What kind of animal?” Tom asked.
“Some of the old timer’s claim he’s a giant grizzly,” Zeke said.
“Have you ever seen him?” Tom asked.
“No, and I don’t want to,” Zeke replied. “Enough about the spirits,” he said to Walks Far, “you’ll have this boy too scared to go outside after dark.”
“I’m not scared of the dark.” Tom said.
Walks Far motioned across the table at the boy and said, “I sense this one is not afraid.
After finishing his meal, Walks Far rose to his feet. “It has been good to be here, but now my friends, I must leave you.”
“Do you have to go tonight?” Tom asked.
“Yes, Little Brother. The army is close. I must use the cover of darkness to reach the mountains. It is snowing in the high country and it will cover my tracks.”
“Don’t you fear the spirit up there?” Tom asked.
“I do,” Walks Far replied, “But not as much as I fear life on the agency.”
The next morning just after breakfast, Zeke was surprised to hear horses outside.
“Hello in the cabin!” a stranger shouted.
When Zeke and Tom walked out on the porch, they found a small detachment of cavalry. There was a young lieutenant and four troopers.
“Good morning,” the lieutenant said.
“Good morning to you,” Zeke replied.
“John Boyd,” the officer said. “Sorry for barging in on you, but we’re looking for a renegade Sioux named Walks Far. Do you know him?”
“Know of him,” Zeke said.
“Do you know where he might be?”
“From what I hear, he could be just about anywhere.”
“You would do well to keep your eyes open,” Boyd warned. “Walks Far murdered a group of settlers a week ago along the river. He ain’t much to look at, but he’s about as bad as they come.”
“Are you sure it was him?”
“The people down there were pretty sure,” Boyd said. “But you know those Indians; they all look pretty much the same over a rifle sight. We’re moving on to Black Butte. Walks Far is reported to hide out up there.”
Zeke scratched his chin whiskers and looked up at Boyd, “I would be very careful up there, if I was you. Black Butte is no place to be roaming around. That trail is icy and the snow is deep up there. Folks around here know Walks Far is not to be taken lightly.”
“I’ve heard all about him being a medicine man or something,” Boyd said, “But that’s a lot of sheep dip. The army isn’t afraid of a little snow. I intend to capture or kill him before we go back to Red Cloud.”
“Well,” Zeke said, “You’ve been warned.”
“Keep your eyes open, Old Man,” Boyd said, turning his horse toward the high country, “You and the boy stay close, that one-eyed renegade is a merciless killer. Good day to you.”
“And a good day to you too,” Zeke said.
“Do you think Walks Far killed those people,” Tom asked when the cavalry was out of earshot.
“I don’t know,” Zeke replied. “He never talks about it and I don’t ask. It’s been our way for many years.”
“Is he a real medicine man?”
“Walks Far is special,” Zeke said, “But I don’t rightly know why. Trust me, Tom. There are some things in this world that a man’s better off not knowing.”
“He’s our friend,” Tom said, “We have to go warn him.”
“You’d never find him up there. And besides, Walks Far can take care of himself.”
“But we have to try.”
Zeke turned to Tom and grasped him by the lapel, “Boy, you will not go near that mountain, and that’s final,” he said. “You get caught trying to help Walks Far and they’ll hang you, if you don’t get lost and freeze to death first.”
The next morning dawned bright and clear. A cold wind blowing from the north was a sure sign that more snow was on the way. Zeke found Tom in the corral after breakfast.
“Where you headed this morning?” he asked.
“Thought I’d saddle Buckwheat and ride up in the hills to see if Abraham can find another lion. If we had two hides, it would make the trip to Billings even better.”
“I suppose,” Zeke said.
“I was thinking if I had ten dollars of bounty money, I might be able to get a big sombrero like yours.”
“I reckon every cowboy needs a sombrero,” Zeke said. “I got a few things to do around here. You go ahead, but watch yourself up there. Remember, we’re on the north side of the river. If you get turned around, just head south till you hit the river and follow it downstream back to here. Don’t go too far and get back before dark. If it starts to snow, head back as fast as you can get here. It can pile up in a hurry this time of year.”
“I’ll be careful,” Tom assured him, “See you for supper.”
Tom spent the morning riding the wind-swept ridges watching Abraham work out a few old tracks. The dog failed to find any hot lion scent and Tom had just about decided to return to the cabin, when he spotted the trail leading up to Black Butte.
It was starting to spit a little snow and he knew he shouldn’t go any further, but his adventurous spirit took control of his common sense.
“We’ll just go a little ways,” he said to Abraham as he turned Buckwheat up the steep winding trail.
The further up the trail they went, the steeper and more narrow it became. The sun was getting low in the sky when Tom decided he had gone too far and it was time to turn around. The spot where he found himself was narrow and slick. There was a solid rock wall on his left, and the loose shale under his nervous horse made the footing treacherous. There was no way to turn Buckwheat around without being dangerously close to the steep drop off.
Continuing on a little further, the trail finally opened up among a field of rugged frost-shattered boulders. Tom got his horse turned around and began to steel himself for the descent. Before he could get started down, he heard a voice.
“I figured you or the old man would show up here, eventually,” the man said.
Turning in the saddle, Tom spotted Lieutenant Boyd as he stepped out from the tree line.
“I’ve heard talk that Zeke was helping that renegade Indian. Now, I guess I know for sure.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tom said. “I just got too far up the trail and was looking for a place to turn around.”
“You’re a poor liar, Boy. I saw it in your eyes down below. You know Walks Far and you know where he hides out.”
“No sir,” Tom said, “I’ve never been up here before in my. . . .”
“Get down off that horse,” one of the troopers said as he grabbed the boy and dragged him out of the saddle. When Tom was on the ground, the trooper yanked the boy to his feet and slapped him. “Now you’ll tell the truth, or I’ll beat you some more.”
Just as the trooper raised his hand to strike Tom again, Abraham latched onto his leg. Releasing the boy, the trooper fell to the ground as Abraham tried his best to eat him alive.
“No!” Tom shouted as Lieutenant Boyd drew his sidearm and fired. Abraham released the trooper and fell limp when the bullet struck him.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Tom sobbed, kneeling over his lifeless dog.
“You’re gonna be next,” the bloodied trooper declared, struggling to his feet.
One of the others was helping the wounded man as Lieutenant Boyd approached and stood over Tom. “Alright, boy, get on your feet.”
The sun was down, and darkness was only moments away. Tom was still clinging to his dog, when the sounds of cracking branches and a thunderous roar erupted from the dark timber. Before any of the troopers could react, a monstrous grizzly burst from the trees and swarmed over them.
The giant bear was roaring his rage as he swatted Boyd, sending his body crashing into a boulder. The wounded trooper was next to feel the bear’s wrath. His neck was shattered as the bear struck him with a massive forepaw. The remaining troopers manage to fire a couple of shots, but they had no effect on the raging monster in their midst.
Tom managed to get to his feet. He wanted to run, but he couldn’t leave Abraham. Before he could decide what to do, the killing was over. As the sounds of panicked horses faded into the twilight, the great bear turned away from the scattered victims and stared at Tom with its’ one shining eye.
Losing all hope, and unwilling to witness his own death, Tom dropped back to the ground and lay trembling, his face buried in the body of his faithful dog. The boy knew his short life was about to come to a brutal end and there was nothing he could do about it.
If only he had listened to the warning that Zeke had given him that morning, but it was too late for that now. He lay there waiting for the first horrific bite, when he felt a hand on his shoulder and he heard a familiar voice.
“It is over, Little Brother,” the voice said. “You are safe now.”
Rolling over, Tom found himself looking into the eye of Walks Far, the medicine man.
“Where’s the bear?” Tom asked.
“The great Mato has returned to the high country.”
“I thought he was going to kill all of us.”
“The great Mato is quick to recognize his friends.”
“They killed my dog.”
“I think maybe he is not dead,” Walks Far said. “Let me have a look.”
As Tom watched, the Indian knelt in the snow beside Abraham and ran his hands over the dog’s body. The Indian sang a quiet prayer as he rubbed Abraham. After a moment, the old dog whimpered and raised his head.
“The bullet only grazed him,” Walks Far said. “I think he will be alright.”
Zeke sat alone in the cabin that evening. It was late and he was worried about the boy. Snow was falling and it was long passed the time Tom should have been home. Zeke was about to get mounted and go look for him when the cabin door swung open and Abraham limped in. The old dog went to his place by the stove and lay down.
“Where have you been?” Zeke asked.
“I’m not quite sure,” Tom replied. “We were way up in the high country.”
“Did you find any more lion sign?”
“No, but I did find one thing.”
“You were right about Walks Far. He is special.”