Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The bear rose up before him and the boy fell back on his rump. For a long terrifying moment, the grizzly stared down on him with its small, red-rimmed eyes and He-Who-Does-Not-Sing thought his pounding heart would tear out through the flesh of his chest.
Then, after what seemed an hour but must have been no more than seconds, the bear grunted, shook its head as though saying you are not worth eating, sank down on its forepaws, turned and was gone into the tall grass from which it had erupted. He-Who-Does-Not-Sing didn't move. He sat, smelling the musky odor the beast had left behind, feeling the wet of the slaver it had flung against his face and body when it shook its head. Slowly, his breath returned to a normal rhythm as his heart slowed its palpitation. Perspiration mingled with the bear's slaver, dripping off his face and running down his bare chest.
More time passed before he was finally able to rise and cut a trail away from the direction the grizzly had gone. He moved at a quick pace, moving higher and higher until he was certain he'd left the bear's territory behind. Only then did he stop to rest, climbing atop a boulder from which he had a good view of the valley below. He harbored a fear the beast might be following him, though he told himself it had already shown it had no interest in a skinny boy who hadn't yet earned a man's name.
He was a boy, just entering his teens. His people were called Issiometaniu, Ridge Men, because they preferred to live in the mountains unlike the other bands of those who later became known to the world as Cheyenne and roamed the great grasslands to the south.
He-Who-Does-Not-Sing. His grandfather had given him the ridiculous name. He wrinkled his nose and snorted. He didn't like people calling him this. Everyone used it now. It had replaced his childhood name. Of course he didn't sing. When he did, his voice cracked and people stared at him with amusement. The girls laughed, and that was worse.
He'd complained to his grandfather. The old man told him to be patient. When he joined his first war party he would have opportunity to earn a man's name.
The boy had been told his father had been a great warrior. He-Who-Does-Not-Sing didn't remember his father, who had been killed by the Pawnee when he was still a baby. His mother had married another man who often beat her and the boy. He preferred to spend as much time as possible with his grandfather, who told him good stories and assured him one day he would be a warrior to make his father proud.
It embarrassed him, but he had begged Dog's Brother to let him join the small band he was leading into Ute territory. Dog's Brother was only a few years older than He-Who-Does-Not-Sing yet he had already been admitted into the Hoof-Rattle society after counting coup against a Pawnee on his first raid. At first Dog's Brother had laughed at him and called him a baby. Then Scabby-Face spoke up for him, saying even children deserved a chance to prove themselves. Dog's Brother relented. He had his chance.
Dog's Brother had organized the war party in the proper manner. First he'd invited those he wanted to join him. He fed them and outlined his plan. He'd taken a pipe to the medicine man and got his blessing. They'd readied their gear, painted and stripped for action, sang wolf songs and received gifts from those who wished them well. It had been exciting and He-Who-Does-Not-Sing had been proud to be included. He thought one girl in particular had even smiled at him.
But things had not gone as they hoped.
There were only seven of them, none out of his teens, and they'd set off on foot. Some had questioned Dog's Brother on the wisdom of this. He promised they would have Ute ponies to ride home. Maheo was with them. If they brought back many horses they too might be invited to join the Hoof-Rattle or, at least, the Coyote society.
They proceeded cautiously, Dog's Brother sending out scouts every morning in search of sign--people, horse dung, campfire smoke, anything to say they were near their quarry. Every night in their camps along the way, Dog's Brother encouraged them. They smoked, prayed and sang war songs. Even He-Who-Does-Not-Sing joined in. He was too happy to worry about his crackling voice.
But it was a long and exhausting journey and they had used up most of their arrows before they encountered the Ute. Rather than a settled camp, they stumbled onto a Ute war party. They were outnumbered and when the boy saw his friends being slaughtered, he ran.
And now he was alone, lost and ashamed.
For the next few days, the boy hid--dirty, scared, consumed with guilt--and prayed Maheo would protect him from pursuers and show him the way home. He still carried his bow, but had no arrows.
One morning he awoke and saw the sun rising in the east. This helped him decide the way he needed to go and it made him happy. He felt confident he would soon be home and safe, though he still didn't know how he would bare his cowardice when he faced his grandfather again.
Mid-afternoon on that day, He-Who-Does-Not-Sing caught the scent of wood fire on the air. Could he be near home, or might it be an enemy?
He crept on hands and knees and then on his belly like a snake as near as he could to the source of the smoke. A creature sat by the fireside, roasting deer meat on a spit. He-Who-Does-Not-Sing had never seen a creature such as this. It was huge, like nahkohe. But it was not a bear. Nor was it the monster called Two-Face, for as far as he could tell this creature had only one face. The lower part of its pale face was covered in hair. On its head was a cap made of a skunk's hide. The monster's body was cloaked in the skins of other animals. And the creature was singing, singing in a guttural tongue the boy could not understand.
His stomach rumbled with the pleasant scent of the roasting meat. The monster must have heard this faint sound, for it rose now, bending and peering with red little eyes like those of a bear, trying to find the source of the noise it had detected. The boy gulped air. The creature strode toward him. With a cry, He-Who-Does-Not-Sing leaped up, ran forward, smacked the creature on the chest with his bow, darted around it and kept running.
Behind him he heard the creature bellow with laughter that sounded almost human.
He ran until he could run no farther. He didn't know if the creature followed, but he didn't wait to find out. As soon as he'd recovered his breath, he continued on.
The next morning he entered territory which seemed familiar. In the near distance, smoke rose above the trees. He was focused on that smoke and the thought of home or he might have noticed another figure hurrying to catch up to him. So it was a shock when he heard his name called. He swung around. "Rabbit?"
The other boy ran up and flung his arms around He-Who-Does-Not-Sing. "I thought I was the only one they didn't kill," he whispered.
"Did you see the monster?"
Rabbit wrinkled his brow. "Monster? I saw no one until I came down the hill and saw you."
Thinking it might have only been a dream inspired by his fear, the boy said nothing more about his experience as he and Rabbit proceeded home.
It was only later, in the warm comfort of the family teepee and after several bowls of his mother's bison stew, thickened with succulent slices of red turnip and milkweed buds, that he told grandfather of his encounter with the creature.
The boy was puzzled when his grandfather began to laugh after hearing the tale.
"That was no monster you saw," the grandfather said, patting him on the knee. "though it is a creature we try to avoid. What you saw was a ve'hoe'e, and you were very brave to have counted coup on him. You have earned a man's name."
And this was how Strikes-The-Whiteman earned his warrior name.