Western Short Story
The sun boiled in the
cauldron of the canyon where water for perhaps 1000 years stayed
hidden, where ants scurried to hide from the heat, snakes rarely
showed before darkness was complete, an occasional rabbit came in and
left in a hurry, the vultures had long given up hope of finding a
quick meal, and it had become a place man ought not enter.
Not a sane man.
Bulker Keddson, mountain man, small giant even off a mount, had stayed alive for almost a month, according to his reckoning, hiding from the sheriff of Shrivel, down at the foot of the mountains. Only the scratches on the cave wall gave him any idea because he knew there were days when he made no scratch, his mind elsewhere. He scratched his beard, thick and gray-white and full as a blossom, then under his arms inside his heavy shirt, hoping the little critters would lie around for a day instead of “workin’ their little vices on me.”
“Wall,” he had uttered aloud another time another day, knowing not a soul on the hot earth could hear him, “I know you won’t talk back to me, just the way I make it so, so heads up for one more nick in your sweet side,” and he cut the new scratch deeply in place. “I think that’s 28 days or so by my count. A couple more and I’ll make an “X” for you, for one month more or less. Hidin’ ain’t easy when you’re hungry half the time and then some more when you ain’t chewin’ nothin’.”
Affording himself a grunt and a small grin, he spoiled it by wishing he had the steak he’d left on his plate that fateful day downhill in Shrivel. That once perfect steak was as thick as his wrist and smelled better than a skillet doing its bidding on an open fire on the trail, the air treated with morning’s delicacy.
Life was a joy ride some days, he said to himself in continuing, but not these days, the last day in Shrivel standing out a hard memory, a man wounded at his feet, one behind him with his own dagger stuck in his arm, the saloon bartender, Ben Bogarth, frozen in place in front of a giant with the small pistol whose touch was as deadly as rattlers’ fangs, and as quick.
“I didn’t tell them you were here, Bulker,” Bogarth said, “‘cause they knowed it from someone else I don’t know who.” The drink he’d been offering the giant when hell broke loose was still in his hand … that’s when the pair had come at the mountain man who supposedly had stolen their gold.
The knife, silent as prayers, had come first in the hands of Terps No-Name, as he leaped toward Keddson from the middle of the saloon, though the giant would swear later in the day that he “smelt the man movin’ like a varmint towards a chosen piece.” Terps was actually tripped, possibly accidentally, maybe not, by another infrequent drinker, Ben Maul, a real Cherokee who had “made the crossing” a long time in the past, of which only Keddson thought he was aware. That man Maul, for all intents and guise, was devoted to endless justice and to Mother Earth and her gods on high trying not to let parts of the old lady flounder in certain hungers. And he particularly didn’t like Terps and his pals, any of them, their breed or their mix.
The slip or the trip was costly for the attempted bushwhacker, for when he tried from a half-risen position to drive the knife upwards at the giant it ended up in his arm, an ungodly wound, blood running off to Hell and back. Keddson had driven his massive hand down over Terp’s wrist and pushed with his whole body as the blade found its bloody home in Terps’ other arm.
The bartender Bogarth, on the other hand, was a mouse, a thin, small rail of a man and one Keddson knew would squeeze himself into any corner, onto any side in a problem, just to save his self. “It ain’t much to save,” he’d said to Maul, “that scrunchy little body of his, but I suppose if he brung it, he owns it.” As an additive to his perspective, he said, “How does such a scrawnery body own such a big mouth?”
Now the shadows of the saloon were gone, the sole comfort of his one-day visit every few months was gone, Ripper Conrad was slightly wounded, his pal Terps No-name would be drinking with his other hand for weeks on end, and the little barkeep, Bogarth, was still sneaking coins and drinks on the side, which he’d done for a year or more on the job.
But the weakest part of the Bogarth’s make-up was being a snitch from the first drink poured, for he really came equipped with a mouth like a clothesline on a windy day. More than once Keddson had used that frailty of character for his own advantage, trying to toss people off his tail when he lit back for the mountains, for his own gold strike deep in the rocky earth.
Those were times the sneaky, spoiled-mouth bartender was a source of useable mistrust. “I know the big man heads out on the Rockville Trail,” he’d told a few drinkers, “and heads back toward Shanksville to mess up his route like it can’t be found, him and his horse them walkin’ like a mountain to his digs. He probably circles around a bunch of tricks, but he’s gotta come out someplace.” Always with such small tips from his end, he’d apply a small chunk of laughter, toss up another drink, palm the coin, the dispersion of knowledge just another small sideline.
In the cave Keddson saw every day his own last image the way it drifted in the saloon mirror, his beard as wide as an ox flank, and the fur cap squeezed down on his head as if the day was born cold. His eyes were dark recesses he could barely remember, lost in the floating image but as black as this hole in the mountain where he hid from the world and its sheriffs. There are some men who cannot look into the mystery of such eyes, feeling they’re thrown off kilter by a deep and unseen power not even being employed.
The dark and hidden cave was in reality a rocky grotto that provided a bit of gold for a lot of hard work, and this time around was keeping the sheriff off his back.
Keddson’d opened an account at the bank in Rockville and not in Shrivel, not wanting the barkeep to flap his clothesline again, but he must have been spotted at the Rockville Bank because the whole town of Shrivel now knew he held gold in some quantity.
Terps No-name, by plan, had started it off, saying, “Sheriff, that big donkey done came into our camp and stole our gold. Took it off a rock where we’d been countin’ it out, every little nugget of it, all the time his little fancy gun he hides somewhere was pointin’ right at us like he was ready enough to kill both us. The man’s a danger to regular life, secret and mystery-like ‘n’ strong as a flood tide on the push.”
The sheriff was going to arrest Keddson for attempted murder and prior robbery on the flimsy accusations from Terps No-name and Ripper Conrad, until Ben Maul gave his version: “Ask them two men where they got the gold they said Mountain stole from them. Make them show you where they get their gold, if any such place exists, like that old mountain would let them dig her up.” That last was apparently some Indian talk gaining entry in his argument.
That wasn’t enough for the sheriff, and it fell by the wayside when both accusers began to push for a trial. “You can’t expect us to give away our mine location when we ain’t got a claim filed yet.” No one else, even those in the saloon that day, stood up for a man who came to town once in a month or more … and had an Indian as his best and only friend, as some knew from the barkeep. There were differences that ought to be accounted for.
But Ben Maul; was not done on the issue, and kept pressing for Keddson, until Ben Bogarth, behind the bar one day, said, “Of course, if you want to take the word of an Injun ahead of us others, Sheriff, that kind of stuff catches up to a body before he knows it’s happenin’.”
And it all fell apart for Ben Maul in the town of Shrivel. So he went to visit his mountain pal.
Bringing it to a head was Keddson himself when Maul told him what happened. The two put their heads together, and a plan was formed right there in the cave, Maul being the only other man ever to visit the site of Keddson’s gold mine.
Maul, thinking all the way from the first conception, pulled both men into shooting at him when he had no weapon, which they swore had mysteriously disappeared just before the sheriff showed up. He locked up No-name and Conrad. And before he knew what happened or how, Keddson was standing in his office giving himself up, asking for a trial.
The sheriff was pleased to accommodate him, and put him in one of the two cells he had in the jail.
“Now,” whispered Keddson to the two prisoners when the sheriff had left them, “we get down to business. I bet 10 bags of my gold to one of yours that I can find your strike, but from then on we work it together and share equally what we dig out of it, down to the last ounce. All we have to do is get all these stupid charges dismissed and then get to work out on that mountain.”
Conrad, knowing they had no gold find of their own, told Keddson he and his pal No-name would have to talk it over and they began their soft discussion.
“Just think of it, Terps,” Conrad said, “we get an equal share of his gold, ‘cause he’s gonna take us to his own place ‘cause we ain’t got one he can find and take us to. He’s just lookin’ to get us to work for him, like he’s so damned smart, but we can make arrangements when we see how things go. All we gotta do is work at it a little, but not so’s we kill ourselves at it. Make the sheriff or the banker draw up an agreement spellin’ that all out, and we’re home, Terps, all the way home.”
The charges were dropped against all parties, the agreement drawn up by the sheriff who kept smiling and shaking his head, and let all three men loose after it was signed by each one. He put a copy in the safe at the bank.
The three ex-jailbirds gathered supplies, mounted their horses, and set out from Shrivel. Keddson made it a sure steady ride but rarely taking them in a straight line at any time, leading them on a two-day journey into the hills, the canyons, past myriad caves in the whole mountain of rock as he continually pointed out huge examples of “them godawful upheavals, been cut up one time and pieced back together by real old time shakin’ of the earth.”
He feigned his study of the trail every inch of the way, but at the end, in front of a cave where tracks were evident, Keddson mounted and said, “I bet this is it. Let’s look, but we have to give it at least a full day of work. Don’t tell me if I’m right or wrong until we have the good word on it, see if you gents left any of your good stuff for me.”
The others agreed, and they pitched their supplies under cover and began a search. It was under a torch long hours into the second day when No-name yelled out, “Hey, Ripper, look what I found.” He had yelled so loud that it frustrated Conrad who could not keep it secret from Keddson.
When he saw the size of the nuggets, he added, “How in hell did you find our place, Keddson? We thought we covered our tracks from the eagle hisself.” The words surprisingly not choking him as they passed through his throat, while his eyes looked elsewhere for the time being, as though he was searching for the Mother Lode herself.
Two good-sized nuggets had practically fallen at No-name’s feet, elegant, lovely yellow gold that shone its absolute brightness under the torch enough to whet the gizzard of the hungriest man in the lot.
Keddson collected his bet by allowing their coming finds to cover their wager. Three weeks later, exhausted well before noon every day, dying for a good stiff drink, supplies nearly gone to minute rationing, no other nuggets found but one small speck of gold each week to sustain their energy and greed, the pair of slackards were ready to quit.
“We guess we’re caught up here, Keddson,” Conrad said over the campfire that night, “and we’re gonna light out and let things be as they are, us on the outside, just like this whole damned thing never happened in the first place.”
Keddson said, “I’ll let it be too, as long as you sign off on this paper I got here, sayin’ it’s so just like you said.”
The pair signed on the dotted line, and left the harshness of the mountains, the exhausting hard labor, and their personal ledgers still full of dreams of easy money.
In Shrivel, at the saloon, watching the pair of Conrad and No-name working on their third drink, the sheriff nodded at the turnaround and surmised how another solution had come from good thinking and clear imagination on somebody’s part, but none of it any of his doing.
He wondered if he’d ever have a friend as smart and as capable as Ben Maul who could salt a foolish old cave so it would completely fool the foolish.
The mountain man, at the end of the bar, totally indebted to the cross-over Indian for his imagination, simply tipped the third glass in a row to his friend, as Bogarth, pouring, listening, wondered how things had ended so quickly.