Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Two mountain men, Berle Pauper and Smudge Henry, seeking pelts of any kind, found the baby girl at the tail end of a narrow canyon, her cries bouncing off the palisades of stone. The men were heavily covered even for a summer day as if they wore sleeping covers for the coming night. They evoked an aroma that was known by mountain animals of all kinds, and saloon patrons upon their immediate entry, which was about two times a year. Their sight was as good as it can get, their hearing without flaw and they could tell an animal solely by smell on the trail. That included town people before they came into sight.
“What the hell is that? Smudge Henry initially said, as he drew his mule to a stop. “Sounds like a baby, and just around the bend of the canyon. It’s got to be deeper in there. Let’s go.”
He nudged his mule to a trot.
Berle Pauper, bent always at his purpose, said, “No dallyin’ for us, Smudge. We ain’t none ahead of the game as it is.”
His words, he knew, had fallen on deaf ears. Despite his looks, a motley conglomeration if there ever was one of worn pelts and hides he’d sewed with his own hands, a beard that a crazy man would be proud of, and the deepest eyes of any man known, Smudge Henry was the most honest man and the kindest man Pauper had ever known; a partner for life, which was an often-threatened status in the mountains. And he was bound to follow him to seek the source of the cries.
When they turned the slight bend in the canyon they saw the remnants of a little shack jammed against the canyon wall. Much of it had been broken apart, the roof fallen down, and a body in front, on the ground, the body of a man half dressed for the dawn of his last day. An arrow was in his bare chest, where blood had run free. No weapon was visible, saying it was most likely taken by his killers.
For a moment the two mountain men tried to reconstruct the scene where the death had happened, and for that few moments they did not hear any cries. They assumed the man had run out of the shack at some disruption about the place, some theft afoot. No horses or mules were visible, though there were plenty of tracks; the man had come from near sleep the way he was dressed.
Searching through the remnants, they found no baby, nor did they hear any cries. And the big surprise was no woman’s body was found.
“If there’s a baby around,” Henry said, “should be a mother too, lest she’s been taken, which I figure she was. But that baby, if it ain’t in here under the mess of things, has got to be hidden. So they knew someone outside was bent on no good. We got to find that baby, Berle.”
It didn’t take them long. Behind the shack remains they found a small cave with a rock rolled in front of it. When Berle Pauper rolled the rock aside, Smudge Henry, softie of all softies in Pauper’s mind, he found an infant girl with striking blonde hair. He had no idea of her age, but guessed it was close to a few months. The mother, at the surprise visitors, had hidden her, hoping the right kind of folks would find her.
“What do we do now, Smudge? We can’t feed her. We can’t get milk for her to stop her cryin’. All we can do is keep her warm.”
“We can take her to the nearest town, the nearest women folk, maybe a new milker in the mix of them. And I guess that’ll be New Providence, down at the big river, lest we cross a new one we ain’t seen yet but probably's half grown by now.” He held the little blonde baby in the crook of one arm, her hair aglow. “Pert as a picture I saw once over in Camledge.”
Late that night, without finding any new town in their way, the two mountain men and the infant entered New Providence and went right to the saloon. When they walked in, five patrons looked up as the baby started to cry.
The barkeep said, “What you gents got there?”
Smudge Henry, holding the blonde child out in front of him like an offering, said, “A baby girl we found up in one of the tight canyons yonder. Her father, we guess, killed by injuns, and her mother, we also guess, taken off by them. We’re lookin’ for a mother-type woman who can take care of the poor little thing we ain’t been able to feed except squeeze some water into her mouth. She takes to mule ridin’ perty good but has got to be pert hungry by now and we ain’t found her kind of grub.”
The barkeep nodded to one patron and said, “Go get Tallie. Tell her we got a new baby here hungry as a lost pup.” He swung back to Henry and Pauper and said, “What did her pa look like? Big man?”
“Big as a house,” Pauper said, like he coulda taken on six a them if he didn’t have an arrow in his chest. Know him?”
“Yes, the barkeep said, nodding to the rest of the room, “name was Kincaid and was in here a few days ago, maybe a week, and goin’ off with his woman and lookin’ for gold or somethin’ big. Fool takin’ a baby and woman out there, chasin’ dreams.”
One of the customers, from a corner table, said, “Know what kind of Indians killed the man, maybe took his woman?”
Henry, still holding the baby girl, said, “It was a Kiowa arrow that kilt him, but that don’t say it was Kiowa. We ain’t seen a Kiowa since the army came across the big river near two years ago. They’re up in the deep mountains now.”
“What are you saying? It wasn’t Kiowa but someone else using a Kiowa arrow? Why? ”
Berle Pauper stepped forward and said, “We didn’t smell no Kiowa up there, so we don’t think it was Kiowa.”
The man responded in a hurry, saying, “You’re telling me you can smell a Kiowa out on the trail from a Sioux or a Blackfoot or a Crow? What else can you smell?” The last question carried a twinned haughty expression on his face as he looked around at the others in the saloon. His lips were compressed in a like smugness that all could read, tripling his stance.
“Well, Mister,” Berle Pauper said, “all I can smell now is a big mouth say-a-lot who thinks he’s somethin’ special and who don’t think one bit about this little person we brung here to get help and you was asked to go get help and you’re still sittin’ here shootin’ your mouth off like no baby needed any kind of help. If that ain’t enough answer for you, just keep tryin’ me.”
The smug one stood speechless.
Pauper turned to the barkeep and said, “I’ll get Tallie. Who is she and where do I find her?” And to his compatriot Henry he said, “You keep aholt of her, Smudge. Don’t let none a them gents here go touch our golden one. She deserves somethin’ better than them.”
The barkeep, well aware of what was happening in front of him, said, “She’s the sheriff’s wife and lives in the little house beside the livery, east from here a hundred feet or so.”
Tallie Reynolds, the sheriff’s wife, exclaimed, “Oh my, it’s Merle Kincaid’s baby daughter. I saw her only a week ago or so, before she had name. I don’t know what her name is.”
Smudge Henry said, “We called her Goldilocks when we first found her, and Goldilocks she stays far as we’re concerned.”
“Goldilocks it is,” Tallie said, “and now we’re going to clean her up and get her fed. We have milk ready and waiting for her. Isn’t she the prettiest thing you ever saw? I’ve never seen golden hair like hers. I do hope her mother will come back to her.” She turned to the two mountain men. “Do you think she has a chance of that?”
“If they ain’t Kiowa, and we don’t think they are what took her, she has a chance. Me and Berle here will have a go at that, lookin’ her up, tellin’ her about Goldilocks. ‘Bout all one can do for a pert one like this.” He touched the baby girl on the forehead just before she left with Tallie Reynolds for perhaps the rest of her life.
Berle Pauper and Smudge Henry were gone out of New Providence more than four years. The only news that ever surfaced about the pair came from two drummers passing through town. One of them, in the Reynolds’ home, seeing Goldilocks, hearing the story of her rescue, told of one trading post where the owner said two mountain men had been in for supplies, trading pelts, and were on the lookout for a kidnapped woman with a band of renegade whites and Indians. “The mountain boys said they had been on the trail for almost a year and were ‘bounden’ to catch them.”
Another drummer, in the New Providence saloon, spoke about the two mountain men still on the move. “They came into Saul Goodman’s place in Absalom back east a ways, supplied up quick, and took off again. They were in a mighty hurry, Paulie and Henry, and only had one whiskey apiece and were out of the place in less than an hour. That’s men on a mission, for sure.”
In that four-year span, Goldilocks Kincaid grew into the loveliest little girl that New Providence had ever seen. She was a bundle of golden fleece, wide smiles and the only thing ever said about her otherwise was that she and Tallie Reynolds, her known part-time mother, spent the latter part of each day looking down the road that came from the nearby mountains for possible visitors, and looking as if the visitors were just around the corner.
About that time, in the Chatham Mountain Range, northwest of New Providence almost 80 miles, Berle Pauper and Smudge Henry looked down on the narrow inlet into the Chatham Range, more than 30 miles from any town. Seven horses were tied to a rail in front of a rambling shack of a place that promised it would not make it through the coming winter. A dozen horses were in a make-shift corral in the rear of the shack and they moved in an endless discomfort of some sort. Smoke poured from the chimney and aroma of beans flooded the air. The one window showed a dim light already lit for evening. A man came out the door and gathered a bucket of water from a barrel and went back inside. Farther off, up a good way on the mountain, a cougar screech of want or dominion was heard. One of the hobbled horses gave off a reply. The smoke drifted toward the two mountain men, sitting on their rumps, breakfast long gone in their guts, no meal at noon, weariness setting in.
Berle Pauper said to Smudge Henry, “Think she’s in there, Smudge? I ain’t seen her in a whole day. Why’d she stay inside if she’s there?” He shook his head, the day taking its toll on him, the hunger crawling in his gut, the long search making its rounds again on him.
Smudge Henry, never forgetting the little blonde girl he held in his arms, thinking all the time about getting her back in her mother’s arms, like it was the end of the world for him and his sole mission in life, said, “She knows somethin’, Berle, that lady. I think she’s seen us the last two days hangin’ on the edges. Maybe she’s seen us earlier. She has to be one grand lady, wearin’ all this trash on her for this long time, about to burst anytime, thinkin’ about her little girl all the time. I wonder what Goldilocks looks like now. I just can’t imagine how she looks ‘cept pert as a picture.”
“Like a sunflower, Smudge. Like a sunflower. That’s how I think she looks. Probably talkin’ ‘n’ walkin’ and doin’ her best waitin’ on her mother to come home.”
He held back more thoughts, letting his head clear, and said, “How’ll we do it, Smudge? It ain’t gonna be easy.”
“I think we ought to run off their horses, Berle. They won’t know who’s around them, sneakin’ up on them. Might be every sheriff from here to New Providence for all they know. We have the surprise in hand. They don’t know we’re here, just two of us. If she knows, she ain’t tellin’ them. I bet you a whole dollar she’s thinkin’ all the time about Goldilocks she ain’t seen all this time. She ain’t really thinkin’ about us, though she most likely’s seen us.”
“All right, Smudge,” Pauper said, “I’ll run off the horses out back so they come across the front of the shack, maybe toss loose a few of them out front. What’ll you do?” He was standing up as if he had stepped forward when volunteers from the ranks were asked for.
Henry thought it over before he answered. “She’s the important one. We got to get them to leave the shack, chase what’s after them off, or go after the horses. They know they ain’t goin’ anyplace without their horses. They run, we have to get her out. I’ll get her away. You run off the horses. Okay?”
“Fine by me, Smudge. I can just see her holdin’ Goldilocks the first time in almost ever. Won’t that be somethin’ for her and Goldilocks? That’s up to you, Smudge. I’ll do the horses. You get her off and out of here. Go down the back side. They’ll never try that after dark. We’ve watched them for a long time. They ain’t any heroes in that bunch. If it don’t pan out the way we want it, I’ll see you in the clouds some day, rainin’ down on some poor soul lookin’ for a drink, out on the desert and dry as dust right up his throat.”
“Berle,” Henry said, almost putting his arms around the man, “we been best partners ever, so who ever lands on his feet in this thing, sees that Goldilocks finds her mom, have a drink for the other.”
Berle Paulie slapped his pal on the back. “Let’s have at them scoundrels, Smudge. Let’s do it good.”
He walked off without a loom back.
In the cool of the evening, the sun gone, the shadows intent on sifting down atop everything, the horses were run off by Berle Paulie. As the whole remuda of sorts went past the horses out front, three more horses broke free and ran with them as if a stallion had made a call.
Men spilled from inside. Three mounted horses out front and chased the loose mounts and some ran on foot.
Smudge Henry, quiet as if he was on the trail of a pelt carrier of any sort, slipped into the shack, put out his hand to a blonde woman, bone-tired looking, age sitting in her face, who shivered in a corner of the one room place. “We found your daughter where you left her, Ma’am. I’m sure she’s alright, back in New Providence. Tallie Reynolds has her. She must be waitin’ for you. We best hurry out of her.”
The woman smiled at him, still in disbelief.
He led her down the back side of the shack, through a slim fissure in the cliff face, and out to a sure escape on the plains. He listened for other noises all the way and never heard a sound. He wasn’t for praying, but enough Indians told him that He listens up there, on the edge of a cloud. Sometimes He answers. They called him Tinami, Manitou, Nokomos or Old Man Coyote, any kind of name, but they believed what they said. He prayed for Berle Paulie, the best partner he ever had.
The blonde woman and the overdressed mountain man came into New Providence three days later, in the early evening. Tiredness ran all over them, but when they approached the Reynolds house, two people were sitting out front in the meager shadows of evening, and Smudge Henry pointed to the little blonde girl and said, “There she be, Ma’am. Goldilocks is what we called her ‘cause she had no name far as we knew. So Goldilocks she is. I’m willin’ to bet that there’s a shivaree of sorts comin’ on the land soon, for you and Goldilocks.”
The blonde woman ran forward, her arms spread wide, toward the little blonde girl who stood wondering what was happening all around her.
Tallie Reynolds cried out her joy and her sense of loss in one moment that life took control of.
And from up the road, from the center of town, an aromatic, overdressed mountain man ran toward them, calling out Smudge Henry’s name.
New Providence was new all over again.