Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Garcy Pewter, owner of the small Box B spread, squeezed himself into a ball, pulled his legs up as tight as he could, and held his breath. He could smell the moisture on his body. If the Indians with their keen sense of smell found him, he didn’t know how long he’d last. “They have ways,” he kept hearing from all the old timers of the area, and they always raised their eyebrows when they made that statement. He was on a ledge under an overhang in the canyon. His horse was dead on the floor of the canyon after the fall, ready to feed whatever animals fed on dead horsemeat. The bullet had missed him by inches, but the horse was not so lucky. When the old gray went down, Pewter was hanging on to the reins, and was able to swing inward and land on the ledge. The horse kept going. Pewter never heard him hit the bottom.
He had other things on his mind, which tried to wrap around the whole scene, measuring as he always did. When he shook his head at the implausibility of his situation, he said, “I don’t know where you are, Lord, but I hope you’re near and listening to me.”
In the first place, he remembered, there had been his foray into the hills above Noshegan, a small town in southern Idaho. It was stupid to go alone, he was admitting, for the renegades were all around, stealing, kidnapping, and causing misery. But he was too damned rambunctious to sit still and wait for justice … and justice is what his soul clamored for.
He had been plain mad for a week. His best horses were taken in the raid on the Box B, the two swaybacks and the mules left behind, as if to say they couldn’t be bothered with trash animals. On the ledge, fearful of capture, he was still mad, even as he heard them passing overhead, talking in a language he didn’t understand. Not a word of it. Except a kind of wild threat seemed to be cast about. His interpretation made him reach to see if his side arms were still in their holsters. Moving his hands as slowly as possible, he reached to see if he was armed. The sigh of relief almost escaped from him in a rush as he found the Colts still in place. It was a miracle. “Yes,” he said, “a miracle of good leather-making.”
The morning came back to him in vivid as a painting; he cresting the hill above the ranch house and seeing the raid in progress, the corral gate lowered and two Indians were driving the horses out of the corral. Another brave made sure the swaybacks and the mules stayed where they were. From where Pewter was, a hundred yards away, he began firing at them. They fled with his horses.
His two ranch hands, he figured, had been drawn off on a ruse so they would not deter the horses being stolen. He guessed his help to be up the canyon a ways and would be rushing back at the sound of the gunfire. They did not come back to check on the ranch or the stock, or him. That bothered him. He’d have to check, hoping they were holed up someplace, still in one piece. He closed the gate at the corral and the door to the barn. Two of his large pigs were loose at the back of the barn and he brought them back to the pen with a heavy share of grain mix.
Anger could well be tempered by hard work, expending energy, he told himself, but that argument was raising other arguments.
With anxiety building inside him, he went looking for his ranch hands in the north pastures. They were good old boys who had been with him for a few years, the pair of them good with guns, courage and each one carried a good deal of horse sense. Yet he suspected they had been drawn to the north quarter by a bogus raid.
Nothing was moving in the broad sweep of his view: no cows, no horses, and no cowboys. His nerves belted him with a new onslaught. He hungered for fairness, for chance, for the yield of long hard hours of work, for the safety of his two ranch hands.
Pewter knew he was continually caught up in arguments within himself. Life was rife with such dictates: good horse or bad horse, good gun or bad gun, good worker or bad worker, good Indian or bad Indian, good idea or bad idea, good feeling or bad feeling. Life came with choice, options, chance. He wondered, had he misplaced something along the way?
“Lord,” he muttered, almost so he wouldn’t hear his own voice, “I hope you keep me and the boys company.”
Even as he spoke, the quandary seemed to follow him, ride in the same saddle with him, and hang on him sure as leather.
Overhead the sun moved in a slow arc from its morning introduction, heading to the Rockies in the far west. A wide-winged hawk rode a thermal in a bright scrap of sky and a coyote called for attention in one of the ravines. In the air he caught an unknown aroma and thought of the adventures that came to a man in newness, in something as minimal as an odor on the air. In a perfect world he could enjoy all that bloomed around him … sound, beauty, essence of some order he vaguely understood as belonging to a man who cared.
That reverie shook him awake.
If his boys were not visible, “not dead” he said half aloud, they had to be hidden somewhere along the cliff line. He fired a shot and called their names, cupping his mouth as he called out. Holding the reins in place, to still his mount, he listened for any reply. All remained quiet, the silent hawk, the coyote for the while, his ranch hands wherever he hoped they had hidden from the raiding Indians that had run off his horses, the good ones.
He called again, fired another shot. Heard nothing.
In a few moments tracks showed in the grass when he crossed them, leading to the steep climb to the tree level. Then faces of his ranch hands, Smithburg and Stallings, lit the back of him mind with smiles. He said another prayer, for he had heard nothing in response to his signals, his cries. As he crowned a lip of a sudden wadi he saw two horses dead on the slight downhill slope. He saw no ranch hands. No bodies. No signs of a struggle except for the dead horses.
Then, from a distance, from higher than his level, came a slight flash, a reflection off the edge of the tree line. He froze in his seat. If it was an Indian with a rifle he might be aiming at him now, but he had to assume one Indian would not fire at him, not give away his hiding place; the trade-off was not good enough.
On the other hand, if it was one of his boys, it could be a signal that there was someone in the way of rescue. He thought over carefully the new set of options, enemy or friend making a signal; an Indian inadvertently causing a reflection, one of his ranch hands sending a warning that he should not ignore for one moment. Life was full of options, choices, opportunities, and the endless quandaries.
The flash came again. Then again. Moving a few paces he found it stopped. HHe went back to where he was, and the signal came again. He had to be in the line of sight of the sender who had to be in the edges of the tree line. So, he guessed, an enemy had to be hidden between the two points.
Pewter slipped out of the saddle, hobbled his horse to a clump of bush, rubbed his neck to gentle him, and crawled forward. He went past the dead horses, saw the blood flow on the grass, and saw tracks heading to the woods. He circled to his right, keeping an eye on the ground between him and the point where the signal had been sent.
No movement caught his eye, but he saw an Indian brave behind a stump, still, as if he was protecting himself from gunfire from up the hill. Pewter, putting his rifle sight on the back of the brave, wanting to squeeze off a round, found himself locked into another situation … the brave did not seem to move at all, as if he was dead already. He eased off the trigger and watched. The Indian did not move, not a muscle. Pewter studied him, wondered how old he was, did he have a wife, or children. How many scalps were hung on his teepee pole? Why didn’t he move? Could other than a dead man stay so still?
Pewter aimed at the stump, at the demand of something inside him. He squeezed the trigger, and fired the round. The slug hit the stump and the Indian did not move. He must be dead, Pewter thought. He rose slowly and walked toward the Indian leaning against the stump. The brave was dead, his mouth open wide, his eyes closed as if in prayer. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, had large hands, good-sized arms, a thick mass of black hair, paint on his face, and blood on his chest. An amulet of some sort he wore around his neck. It was not made of teeth. Pewter had no idea what it was, but he took the amulet as a souvenir or a sign of conquest. Some good horses he had lost this day. He was not sure about his men. One of his men must have killed the brave. He put the amulet around his own neck.
A voice called from uphill. “Hey, Boss, I been hit. Stallings, too. He might be dead or real bad off, Boss. He’s in another hole near me, but I can’t get to him. I’m glad you saw the reflections. That bozo down there has had us pinned down for a few hours. Did you get him with that one shot?”
Pewter replied, “I think you got him, Smitty. He was dead already. I’m coming up.”
They brought Stallings home across the saddle behind Smithburg. Pewter walked the whole way, leading the horse.
At the Box B, Smitty’s wounds tended, Pewter asked, “How many were up there with you?”
“Just the one. I didn’t see any others.”
Pewter said, “I saw only two down here, so it was a small party using their numbers best they could. They got my best horses. I’m going after them.”
“I wish I could go with you, Boss, but I’d only drag on you.”
“You just keep a keen eye out here at the ranch. I’ll be back tomorrow, or the next day. If I don’t get back, you got yourself a new ranch. I’ll sign a paper to that effect. If I don’t do something now, they’ll only come back again, us being a soft touch for them.” His voice changed. “It ain’t gonna be that way.”
He rode off on the one good horse left on his ranch.
Which was now dead more than 100 feet below him.
Pewter was fit to be tied, but mostly mad at himself for being so exposed, being a soft touch for a small group of Indians. He suspected they were a minor renegade party, but had a smart leader.
He moved his arms and legs, arched his back, wanted to make sure he was able to do something to protect himself, try to get his horses back. A man without horses was lost out here. In the back end of a canyon he finally had seen them, and his horses. Three braves were sharing food, while a fourth one kept the horses tightly in against the canyon wall, holding them in a make-shift corral of brambles, brush and a few branches.
From the top of the trail he had spotted them as he moved warily along an old pathway. None of them, he thought, had seen him, but the round had come from somewhere else, from another brave on lookout, perhaps, or a new arrival.
But his last horse was gone. And he was lucky. He cursed the anger that had driven him to come this far alone.
Pewter got to his feet, shaking and shivering in his bones, afraid of falling off the edge. He had to get to a point of maneuvering, get an edge back that was lost for a couple of days. Along the wall the ledge was wide enough to shuffle as long as he held on with a tight grip. How long before they spotted him he had no idea, but it wouldn’t be long. For thirty or so feet he moved on the ledge until he saw a cleft he could slide into.
He slipped inside the crevice. It widened, had more room overhead, allowed him to stand fully upright and promised even a bigger opening further on. It was a cave he had entered. No growls came, or hisses, no animal sounded out its possession of the cave. It was dark but Pewter felt around him the tumble of stones and boulders. With lots of effort, he blocked the way behind him with good-sized rocks; there was no way he could let himself be captured. If an exit came up ahead of him, a getaway loomed possible. His guns were at his side; all he needed was one horse to get home. Yeh, one horse loose on the mountain. Chance, choice, opportunity might not come along so often. The questions and the doubts came from every direction.
In some manner his anger began to slip away from him. He thought the anger must be dissipated by the adventure ahead of him. The grasp for continued life.
So he thought.
At the end of the cave, as it narrowed down to a small opening allowing him to slip through, Pewter felt a cool freshet of air circulated around him. Outside the cave he saw, below him, a small valley covered with green grass, a small waterfall about a hundred yards away, three Indians sitting by fire, and a bunch of horses tied to a loose line. He wondered if any of them were his.
Well, he thought, I’ve come this far. Might as well find out. He looked around him for a way down. The one certain belief he had was that he had to get onto a horse. He was lost without a horse. He wished he had his rifle, but that was with his horse at the bottom of the canyon behind him.
Off to the left was a jagged line against the cliff face, and it angled down to the floor of the valley. Most likely an old trail he surmised. “Downward, and onward,” he said to himself, and made his way as soundless as he could, moving very slowly, often immobile. He kept his eyes on the Indians who stared into the fire. Around a tall stone pillar he went, out of sight of the Indians, and came onto ground level after a slow and clumsy descent. A horse snickered. Guttural speech of one brave came to his ears. Meat of some kind was cooking, and the aroma was delicious.
A horse snickered again. A pebble fell onto a stone, the faint sound alarming. He meant to turn, but his arms were suddenly pinned by arms stronger than his own. He smelled the breath of the Indian who embraced him from behind and who was hooting and hollering as loud as possible. The braves at the fire sprang to help horse collar him further. They tied him tightly and dragged him to the fire, laughing all the way, their faces painted, their movements menacing, their cries nothing but jubilation.
He swore he blacked out. It might have been from the surprise, the rough handling, the leather binds tight all over his body, breathing at times as hard as if a horse kicked him. When he was fully conscious, Garcy Pewter found himself tied between two rugged saplings, with his arms extended and parallel to the ground. Dryness scoured his throat.
The noise at the campfire was on-going, with a great dash of vengeance in it. He agreed that that determination was a liberal choice of his own … many Indians were due for justice, but this particular group probably didn’t qualify. He had one dead ranch hand and some missing horses to find, scores to settle.
Once in a while one of the braves would walk past him and jab him with a stick or throw water at his feet but never in his face. For the first time Pewter realized Indians laughed like some of his pals in a saloon on Saturday night. His captives laughed continually, one of them pointing out and obviously counting the horses in the make-shift corral. An education was coming at him and he took it all in.
One of them laughed and threw more water on his boots when Pewter said, “Do you believe in the same God I do?” Laughter and understanding did not seem to go together. “Why do you throw water at my feet and not at my mouth?” There was more laughter and he was sure none of them understand his words.
He passed out a couple of times. Each time he came to he could feel pains all over his body, not sure how they had been delivered to him.
This last time he remembered they started using sticks on him, slashing and beating him and poking him where it really hurt. He could only cry out. It went on for hours at a time, then they’d eat and work on the horses and gather firewood and one or another would come back from hunting with a rabbit or a bird. No big game. They cooked, ate, laughed, and then began hurting him again
None of the food was offered to him. The beatings did not stop. The laughter did not stop, and the wild language they used.
Pewter called on his God as often as he could, as loud as he could. One of the Indians jabbed him with his stick and tore his shirt. He laughed at that and was about to jab him again when he screamed out and fell to his knees. Pewter remembered that moment ever afterward. Chance. Choice. Opportunity. God at hand.
The other braves rushed from the campfire and the Indian torturing Pewter yammered again and pointed at Pewter. He was almost hysterical.
The others stared with open-mouths at the amulet hanging on Pewter’s neck. One of them seemed to be hypnotized and stayed on his knees for a long while. When he rose he went to the small corral and broke down a part of the barrier, tossing limbs and brush aside. The horses drifted out through the break, a few at first, and then all of them after he hollered loudly and waved them out. In a smooth move, attesting to horse experience, the Indian roped one horse and brought it to the campfire.
All the Indians fell to their knees, talking and yacking and yammering one atop the other, and then all together, as if in a chorus, they chanted one word in their language. It sounded like ‘Wakatanka’ to Pewter who did not understand the word.
And they kept looking up at the sky.
But everything had changed. God, who was around, had answered.
An ax swung in the air, cutting the leather binds on one tree, and then it bit into the other tree. Pewter’s arms fell like rocks. Two of the braves caught him as he fell and brought him to the campfire, looking overhead all the time. Water was given to him from a gourd, a little at a time, and then he was given some cooked meat that he ate ravenously. More jabbering went on between the Indians and one by one, in sudden silence, each of the braves touched the amulet still sitting on Pewter’s chest.
The horse brought to the campfire was one of Pewter’s mares, a rugged gray, and one brave hung a gourd on Pewter’s shoulder and three of them hoisted him up on the horse. The braves stared into the sky as they put him up on the horse. They all stood back as one young brave pointed the way out, where the horses, a dozen of them, were drifting off.
Bareback, clutching the horse’s mane, Pewter nudged the horse forward. The big gray, with a known weight on its back, caught up with the freed horses. Pewter yelled them on and waved his arms and all the horses went into a quick trot and headed to the pass that lead to the great prairie beyond.
Pewter did not look back, glad to be out of there, to be on the move, to be on a horse, to have his horses back. He kept thinking of the sudden change in the Indians, realizing the amulet he had taken from the dead Indian had some kind of power over them, or which they held in some kind of reverence. None of the other Indians wore such an amulet, he had checked that out as they had set him up on the gray.
Why had that one Indian, driving Smitty and Stallings to cover, killing Stallings, getting killed by either one of them, been alone at his end of the raid? Pewter figured he had been alone, as he had seen only the four others in the camp, including the one that had caught him coming down the trail. He also assumed the Indians believed he had killed the brave who wore the amulet he now on his own chest.
He touched his hand to it and felt nothing. When he looked down at it extended onto his hand by its leather string, he noted it was not a tooth, not a piece of bone or a piece of wood, but a piece of odd stone in a strange shape. He saw or smelled nothing from the piece of stone.
But something touched him.
The first actual thought that came at him was the many stories of stray stars or pieces of stone that had come out of night skies bound for Earth. Mountain men and trappers and night riders of cattle herds and late customers in saloons had often spoken of streaks of fire falling from the skies to any place beyond them, in the mountain or out on the wide grass. Few of those who saw such sights had time to chase down the places where the objects had hit and burrowed into the land. Now and then, some Indian must have followed the arrow of fire hitting the earth, perhaps quite near him.
He wondered about the piece of stone, an odd stone he agreed, that he now wore hanging on his neck. When he got settled down again, he’d go looking for plausible answers. His rescue deserved some explanation, but he didn’t know where to start.
In a day’s work he managed to get the horses back to his spread and into a corral. Smitty was up and about, and had taken care of Stallings and his burial. He said, on greeting him, “Boss, I thought I had seen the last of you and might be a new ranch owner, but no such luck.”
They both had a hearty laugh over it, and laughed again over dinner after all their work was done for the day.
After Pewter had told the whole story of his time in the secret valley, Smitty said, “Boss, I heard once way back, from that old buck Indian who camps way out on Luke Jurgen’s spread, that something fell out of the sky one night when he was a tyke. He said the moon was bright and then went behind a cloud and things got scary, and it was like a falling star coming across the whole world, silent but red as fire. Damned thing, whatever it was, suddenly came down, and went right through the hands of an old sachem who was asking for a sign from the gods. The old sachem, without a cry of pain, stood and said one word, ‘Wakatanka.’“
Smitty finished his tale. “That was the end of his story. I never heard the word again from him, or the old buck would never tell me again. Spooky stuff if you ask me. Wakatanka.”
Pewter, something suddenly clicking in his mind, jumped at the word from Smitty’s mouth. “That’s what the Indians said up there in that valley, ‘Wakatanka.’ I’m sure of it. Sure as hell.”
“That’s a strange testament to heaven,” Smitty said. “We better go see that old buck one day soon.”
With such knowledge at hand, Pewter could not delay his visit to the old Indian. In the morning he and Smitty were on their way to Luke Jurgen’s spread. It was up-range about a dozen miles. They arrived after an easy ride and Smitty pointed out an old shack up against a sharp-rising cliff.
“That’s where he lives, Boss. His name is Slow Dog and Luke lets him stay here. Says his whole tribe is almost gone from the area now. Only a few of them around. He’s a Cherokee. Once he was the shaman for them.” He helloed the shack and the old Indian came out.
Slow Dog was about 85 years old, blind in one eye, few teeth left, but carried himself with a confident grace. The smile across his face was authentic, and he held out both of his hands, one for Smitty and one for Pewter, and he pointed at a sitting log in front of the shack. An Indian woman, much younger, carried out a pipe and gave it to the old one, and set down a board with three mugs on it.
They sat on the log and sipped a rare kind of tea. The wind was mute. The sun was almost straight overhead. Peace was spread far and wide by silence.
Pewter remembered the other Indians and how they stared at the sky. Something else clicked in his mind and he reached inside his shirt and pulled out the stone amulet. He held it up for Slow Dog to see.
With one hand held like a visor over his good eye, Slow Dog looked overhead, seeing where the sun was. Tremors shook him visibly and he said, “You must go quick before the sun gets long and throws your shadow on me. Do not throw your shadow on me. I am too old and only have a few days to feel the wind and to stick my hands in the earth. Do not throw your shadow on me.” He was pointing at Pewter. “Wakatanka watches. Wakatanka listens. Wakatanka waits for his shadow to catch up to him. Do not throw your shadow on me. I have seen the stone from the skies that calls for men in the shadows.”
Pewter, understanding all that had happened to him, around him, knew that God, by whatever name he was called, had made an appearance. And Slow Dog, the last shaman of the Cherokee, knew what would bring him down from the skies and make new demands in the shadows.