Western Short Story
She was right, and pleading, when she said, “The storm is coming. We can’t get out of here, not all of us. Take my boy with you. You have the only horse. Our horse broke his leg and we had to kill him, and then we ate a lot of him. Four of us can’t make it on one horse, and my husband’s sicker than I thought.” She nodded at him, bundled in old rags, a heavy jacket and blanket parts, a sicker man I had not seen since the war. With cheekbones like two rocks on the trail, his eyes had stayed shut for more than two hours as she argued with me, finally winning her way. “Take the boy,” she said again, “and give him some kind of life. Don’t let him be vagabonds like us.”
She was asking me for help, me a long-time drifter who did not have a home for a long time. Me and the boy, when I really looked at it, were in cahoots in all this, becoming saddle pards.
Their place was tight against the mountain, in a small meadow they figured to stake a claim on; the future was bright, the grass would grow and feed many animals, special crops would grow in the good earth. A ring of mountains ran around them; however, when the storms came, like the one she was telling me about, they’d be locked into the meadow with escape most difficult.
So I left, the boy John in my lap as I rode, my arms and a blanket around him, the skies getting darker, the storm coming down upon us sooner than I realized. The wind in less than an hour turned vicious. I had to get into the canyon maze, to get a share of the natural protection.
”Take my boy,” kept sounding in my head. I wondered if they’d be the last words I’d ever hear from the lady, thin as they come she was, frail if you can imagine a woman to be so who’s still standing, begging for the life of her son to be spared , her own being discarded at the moment. Her face was pinched beyond recognition, and I would not know until later that I had known her almost 30 years earlier in Philadelphia, in another life.
“Dice often roll on the edges.” I’d heard that someplace along the trail, back down yonder in Texas or Oklahoma in that other existence, me with a kid in my saddle lap, a kid who as yet had not spoken a word, had not said he missed his mother or father in a sick bed of sorts, or worse. The wind whipped itself into a new frenzy, sand and grit of all kinds and grass shreds coming first as thin as spider webs, touching at my eyelids, then the snow taking over, swirling sheets of it like linen frozen on a clothesline, John still not saying the first word. He was a light-weight four year old who wouldn’t check out at more than 30 pounds. In a small way I warmed his body. In a way he warmed mine, but his heat different from my inner heat.
General, the horse I had ridden for three years, was working hard, now and then overcoming snow drifts formed the way the wind wanted them to be formed, and always against our progress. I could not see ten feet in front of me, cared now little for what was behind me. I had written them off, John’s mother and father. I could almost hear the limbs breaking over their heads, crashing down heavy with snow and ice, smashing that little clumsy shelter to shreds, stealing from them their only chance at heat. If they survived the crash, the bears and wolves and peccaries would take over all remains. If the crashing produced bleeding, it would happen as soon as the storm was over.
It was getting colder, the snow heavier, the wind sharper, now and then wielding a sheer knife at the back of my neck, up my arms between gloves and sleeves, the worst kind of infiltrator, subtle at first but not secretive. I huddled John closer, felt him shivering, thought instantly of a fire, hoping wood was available, that Zac had been at his given work.
Then a series of doubts and questions began to rise up.
I could not afford to worry about my horse; if he didn’t make it, we wouldn’t. The mother and father back there in the makeshift cabin would last only as long as she could move, keep her mind, see the future coming. If she lost her husband, she’d have to roll him out of that little cabin; to stay with a dead man was somehow unthinkable, at least to me.
If we got into the canyon in decent shape, we had a good chance. The snow would be wind-swept and careen across the mountain top and passage through some of the canyons would be tolerable. In there, inside the canyons that ran in a hundred ways, firewood had been stored by miners who continually pawed through the area searching for gold. Only one rich find in about thirty years, but it had been a good one, and the dreamers kept coming. And old acquaintance Zac Olney, realizing his digging and clawing at mountain rock was useless for too long, had hauled wood for a few dollars a load. It was stuff he first just picked out of the timber lines, deadfalls, standing dead wood his horses could pull down. He hauled and dragged them into the canyons, the miners tossing a few bits onto his lap, sharing things at bartering. I’d seen a few of his firewood sites, tight and square under eaves of stone, under prominent cliff faces or in caves, stashed in some protective manner so rot wouldn’t come before ignition. Later, seeing the profits of his labors, Zac began to tear down, rip out or up a mess of trees for half a dozen years, and then sawed, split, lugged and stashed the yield in many spots. Sometimes he had help. He got a second wagon. Sometimes the help stayed, sometimes not. Zac kept working and I depended on that determination of his.
As I rode, hugging John tighter, wondering how I found myself here, in this situation, I went back to the last town I’d been in. The cards fell in my favor there, my stake grew, and the ladies took a bit of it, as usual. I had too much tequila on the last night and left early in the morning, headed for Turpstown where my brother had a small ranch and needed help for the winter season. I had wondered off the trail looking for one of the water holes I knew had been still wet my last time through, not quite sure which canyon would take me right to it. When I came upon the little cabin some folk had built under some trees, three tree trunks being corner poles, and I knew they were not going to be there for the long stay, not for the whole winter that could pound at you like the ocean. Snow-heavy limbs would crash down on top of them and they’d be open to the worst of the winter beating across the plains and the edges of the mountains, sucking the heat right from their bodies.
I could not have painted it any worse than the way it hit me when I knocked on the real makeshift door.
I guessed, I saw, I smelled hopelessness, yet the woman offered me water and then a cup of coffee thinner than cow wire, haste boiled right into it.
The woman was frail as an old broom stick, her eyes sunken in her head, her hands shaking like leaves in the morning breeze. “My husband,” she said in her very first words, “is sick and can’t be moved. We have a bit of food, sufficient wood for fire, but little else besides frozen horsemeat.” The kicker in their whole lot was a boy about 4 years old, a smiling tow head who had no idea of what was what. I knew her unsaid terror.
That was my introduction to the boy John, the 30 pounder now in my arms, still shivering. For the first time in more than half my lifetime, I was totally responsible for the safety and the life of a youngster. I had never wanted to be a father, now, for all practical purposes, I had a son. The thought and realization worked its way deep into me. I spoke to my horse; “C’mon, Gen’ral, show the troops what you’re made of. Up an’ at ‘em, Gen’ral, time’s awasting. Bless you, Gen’ral, and all that follow your line.”
General broke another quickly-swirled bank of snow and plowed on. The heart of that great animal must have been heaving in that proud chest. Pride and sadness hit me at the same time, thinking about him; he had served me so well for those years and here I was putting him through another very difficult ordeal. I heard the wind break into a howl and knew its breath was being split by a canyon entrance, a fortunate sign. John nestled into my arms deeper as the snow and wind slammed against us, as the horse began to tire from his ordeal. I talked to him again. “We’re closing in, Gen’ral, getting near some good cover. Won’t be long now, big boy.”
As always, I was being haunted, trying to put in place who I was. I admitted I was not immortal, not invincible, not sinless, and I could feel a ton of baggage hanging on my backside. It was then a series of doubts began their rise, crawling up my backside and becoming known. I asked questions. What if the wood was not there? What if Zac had been hurt and not able to complete his rounds? What if some raw-cold miner or prospector had seen the piles of wood and stole them for his own? What ifs grabbed me. The boy shivered more. The wind whistles and howls picked up, and suddenly in a matter of minutes it was as if we were in the eye of a storm center. The wind stopped careening across my face, stopped finding ways inside my clothes. The boy breathed loudly, like a gasp, like he knew what relief was like. We had turned into a canyon and found that relief. General felt it as much as we did; he plowed on a bit stronger.
In a deep refuge, sort of a cave within a cave, we found a pile of wood and a bundled pack of kindling knotted by a small length of rawhide under some stones on a ledge. An old sheet of canvas also lay bunched on the ledge with more rocks holding it down. I could picture it being stripped from a wagon broke down in the middle of the plains or against a river bank that had got in the way.
I was able to get General under decent cover and get some water into him from snow melt. The fire, meanwhile, was soon roaring, the heat touching us where needed, John sleeping soundly wrapped in a blanket and the old canvas likely left by Zac the savior. It was like heaven had come down out of the skies for us. From my pack I soon got the goods to get the coffee going and charred a bit of jerky for the smell of it, for the quick taste of it, and all -other good memories.
We were not the first ones to find shelter here, and Zac surely had found this place. If I ever met him again, I’d treat him to a night at the nearest saloon. Zac was much of the goodness I had met in my time, a real piece of the land. I was feeling that life might not be so bad after all, after all I had been through, with Zac and others like him hanging in the mix of things, the country spreading farther west, getting as big as the mountains that often stood in the way of the westerly stuff. And the boy now becoming my full responsibility. I felt the weight of that responsibility as much as I felt the goodness setting in me about Zac, like opposite things always at work.
The coffee smell and the jerky stinging the air must have gone off on the quick wind and found a keen nose, or a hungry one. A voice came off a wall of the canyon like a gunshot. “Is that hot coffee I smell, stranger? Haven’t had a mouth of it in three days.”
I didn’t know where he was except it wasn’t far. “You a friendly sort, mister? If you are, you’re welcome. Who are you?”
“Name’s Tug Trubok. I been fiddlin’ in the earth hereabouts and tryin’ to hold out for the storm ‘cause I wanted one more day of dreamin’ ‘fore I moved on. Plain got stuck and didn’t dare head off in the storm to Newfield.”
“Any hits? You got a good horse? C’mon over. Just follow your smeller. I have the coffee and some jerky burning itself ripe. You got anything to add, bring it.”
In a matter of ten minutes Tug Trubok rode up to our place. We tied his horse up beside General who snorted a bit and welcomed the company.
Trubok said, “Here, I got some bear meat in a trade. Burn that ripe, if’n you can. See you found Zac’s store of wood. Man’s special, that’s what he is. Came by about a month ago, three trips in a week or so settin’ us up for winter. Said he was goin’ to winter down in Newfield ‘til the fish was movin’ again.”
“Zac’s an old friend of mine.”
“Any friend of Zac’s can move anywheres he wants hereabouts. Who’s the boy? Your’n? Looks too tender for such weather. You just gettin’ outta the storm?”
“I got him from his folks who have a mighty weak shed of a place back yonder. Looked to me, and his momma, that they wouldn’t make it through the winter. Boy’s father’s sick as all get out. Boy’s name is John Furlong.”
Trubok set an inquisitive frown on his face, gulped a mouthful of coffee, and wiped his mustache and beard with the back of his hand. “Don’t hear that name much out here.” A nod, a cocking of his head, the set of his eyes, gave his next words extra attention. “Fact is I heard it in Newfield last visit. Man from Philadelphia, of all places back yonder, and he was lookin’ for his brother havin’ seen no hide nor hair of him in a passel of years since he left home.”
“This Furlong drifting or looking?”
“Man’s got his mind set on findin’ his kin. Askin’ questions all over, what I heard, kinda direct at it, like he’s not gonna let go the reins no way. I heard him say any good word can be sent to him in Newfield or Coldville, either place any time ‘cause someone there’ll know where he’s put himself.”
I was really interested, thinking of the possibilities, the name, the errand I was on for the boy, the mission of this Furlong fellow. “So you saw this gent? Right in person? What sort of fellow is he? Make his way out here?” If he was the brother of the boy’s father, I’d have my doubts about him, the shed he built for his family coming back into my mind, the poor frame of it, the horrible shortcuts at building.
I could have asked a hundred questions, even as the boy stirred in his sleep, rolled on one side, doubled up in decent comfort despite the weather. He was three feet from the fire, at the back end of the cave, and Trubok and I sat opposite each other, the fire between us.
Trubok nodded again. “Man’s a sticker, I’ll bet. Could work his way, but from what I heard won’t have to. Comes from money back in Philadelphia, which means somethin’ greased I’d guess, easy pullin’s while he’s on the search.”
“Might have a connection here but I agree on the chances being slim. This country gets bigger every day, more people heading here so all kinds of towns pop up to give them a place to set down. The boy’s folks picked a bad spot out there in the far valley, lonely as a lobo on the prowl. I saw that right off, but we couldn’t all make it out of that valley, partly heaven there and partly hell if you ask me. If you could bunk down there for the winter, be real comfortable, you’d probably love the place in spring. Some hard choices in between though.”
“You gonna look up this Furlong fellow?”
“It’s only honesty and promise kicking it in. Soon as we can get out of here, and get to Newfield, I’ll do that right off. The boy’d have a chance if this gent’s a relative and he’s somewhat better at things than his father. “
We huddled in the caves for two days and the third day broke bright and clear and a good twenty degrees warmer, like spring might have a mind of sneaking up on us if we weren’t holding the reins. In a full day’s ride over wind-swept grass, now and then a snow drift built across the way, we got to Newfield. Lights were on in most of the buildings, the saloon, the small six-room hotel beside the saloon, a lantern in the livery where horses and men made comfortable noises at the end of day. All the while John sat quietly across the saddle like he was pocket change I was carrying. He hadn’t even called for his mother yet. I was wondering if the boy could even talk.
Trubok and I made right for the saloon, after our horses were put up, to warm our bones, the boy’s bones, to feel the sputter down the throat, the real welcome to a night of promised rest, and warmth. A piano was playing; the soft tinkles of the keys coming down the quiet street sounding like raindrops on a watering can. A girl’s voice, like music itself, came to me as I carried the boy in my arms into the saloon.
Trubok headed right up the stairs to say hello to an old friend. I suspected that he’d have his drink upstairs, out of the way.
Every gent in the room looked up as I sat the boy on the bar and began rubbing his limbs. He still hadn’t said a word. Not in all the ride had he said a word, nor in the caves those nights. And he had not cried either, not a whimper out of him, but I was sure he was a mute. A couple of gents nodded at me, one I had seen before, somewhere down the trail, and one who, I guessed, was saying his compliments on my bringing a young boy in out of the tough weather … though any one of them, I am sure, would have done the same thing. Their interest did not flag as I kept rubbing him, and the barkeep set up a soft drink on the bar top.
I did notice that some of the older gents, who had worn their saddles to the nub, who had probably lost a son or two, in the war or on the plains spreading west, were taken with the image of the boy, the young, the new, the unspoiled future being seen now. A few of them walked by, patted the boy on his knee or me on the back and said nothing more than “howdy,” and I knew the thrust of their simple message.
I admit a whole bunch of it got to me, finally realizing that I had saved his life for sure. I could picture the wreck of that shed that had been his short-time home, and the savage end that his parents might be having at the moment, or already had known. A three-day trip back into the remnants of the storm might find nothing, or find something. It hit me then that I’d have to go back. There was no other way.
A bang came from the door being slammed and another good looking gent came in and was talking to a few others who had been playing cards. His clothes were somewhat trail-worn, but I knew such duds had lots of service left in them, being well-made I could tell.
After ten minutes or so, me still rubbing the boy’s limbs, him still quiet, no whining or whimpering, the stranger approached me and said, “You ought to get some food into that boy and a warm place to sleep. If you haven’t got a place, you’re welcome to my room right at the head of the stairs. I’ll manage otherwise. They tell me you brought him in out of the storm. That’s quite admirable of you, quite admirable, if I do say so.”
“Mister,” I said, “you say a lot of Philadelphia in your voice. You don’t happen to go by the name of Furlong, do you? Don’t tell me your name is Furlong. Don’t tell me I’m that lucky.”
“Mark Furlong it is, sir. I am all the way from Philadelphia, looking for my brother and his wife Enid who was a Paterville before she was married, of Brent Hall Patervilles. And what has luck to do with this and are you, sir, also Philadelphia born and bred? ”
I almost fell on the floor. I had known her back in Brent Hall, as a young girl in the same end of town where I had grown up, to about the age of fifteen when I was out on the road in a huff, all in one day of misguided anger.
Now, I had withstood the ride with the boy and this latest surprise, both coming at me from out of nowhere. I was still in one piece, though not yet proof of anything from where I stood. Now I would see how well this other Philadelphian would handle his end of things.
“Mr. Furlong,” I said, “I’d like you to meet your nephew, John Furlong.” I put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. I felt something I thought might have been energy, or something else I’d get a name for in a hurry.
But I think his mouth is still open.