Western Short Story
The Mogollons towered beside him for over three miles of trail when a cougar leaped from hiding. His horse reared, slipped and was tumbling. Noah Brittington fell off the edge of the trail, above Silver Creek, and went down into the mad current. He thought 16 years on this Earth was too short a lifetime for anybody to bear. If the good Lord was cheating him, what had he done for such a quick end, this simple run for gold? This trail was pointed out to him by his grandfather as the best way to the Mogollons and a cache of gold he had hidden away years earlier. But he had been lost for three days now. Was such a wise old man now lacking in wisdom or memory? Had he forgotten the right way? The weather was warm, the water would not freeze him, but would fill his boots that he’d have no way of getting off. The fall or sudden hit would wrench his weapons from their holsters, which might not be too bad for the swimming he hoped he could endure if he could stay clear of the horse hitting the water at the same time.
If … if … if … water, not cold yet, but enveloping. Smothering.
Sixteen-year old Noah Brittington, his weapons quickly gone, went black as the horse pounded down into the stream directly beside him, brute legs thrashing at the threat, the sudden fall from surety. He never knew one hoof had collided with the back of his head. Did not know how much water he had swallowed. Did not know, for nearly an hour, that a young Indian brave had pulled him from the stream, had decided to save Noah rather than the horse the river was taking in its rapid flow.
The young grandson of an elderly prospector, now “out of the searchin’ business,” came to his senses on a warm, flat rock beside the bend where Silver Creek slowed its rush. The residue of sun’s heat penetrated his backside first, then his bare arms. Shaking his head, his eyes starting to focus, he first saw the warm and inviting flames of a small fire, and then the face of the young Indian. The young brave, leaning over the fire, stirring it, a spit in front of him giving off a delicious aroma, was not the least afraid. That’s when Noah B., as has mother called him, realized his pistols were gone, his rifle was gone, his horse was gone. He had only his clothes, a shirt drying on a thin stick of wood upright near the fire, his pants and boots drying in place on his body, his hat a cushion under his head.
The heat of the warm rock penetrated him before he sensed the heat of the fire. An awakening aroma of cooked meat filled the air. The Mogollon cliff was throwing down its first dark piece of shade; soon it would reach him and his companion.
The Indian, as young as he was, perhaps younger, held a piece of cooked meat out to him. Firelight sparkled in the brave’s eyes. Noah B took the chunk of cooked meat gratefully, said, “Thank you,” and began to gnaw in earnest. The Indian smiled and did the same, and in his almost full mouthful asked, “Who you?”
“Nova Bee? That real name?” His teeth were brighter than any teeth Noah B had seen in a year or more. He vaguely remembered the smile on Sally Colamore’s face, how her bright white teeth seemed so different from everybody else’s teeth. At the back of his head, in a place almost dark, he saw her father’s wagon, loaded high, passing by his grandfather’s ranch as her family was on the way out of the territory, leaving forever.
Noah B looked around the thickening darkness. The water still flowed less than fifteen feet away, the sound steady though no longer in a rush. An unseen fish jumped and made a sound as it hit back at the blackening water. The shadows of the Mogollons as well as night itself reached out to touch the two young men, and fell across the fire. The overhead clouds gave off a promise of a break as a golden glow appeared in a rift. The moon was advancing through clouds and darkness.
“You pull me out?” Noah B made a swimming motion.
“I see you in water, looking down. No arms moving. Swim like Powatapha want me swim.”
“Did I lose all my gear.” He touched his belt and empty holsters, shrugged his shoulders.
The Indian said, “River take all. Take horse down there.” He pointed downstream. At the bend in the cliff Silver Creek was gone. So was his horse.
Noah B touched his own chest. “My name is No-ah B,” he said. “Who are you?”
“I am son of Eagle Claw and Dew Morning. I am called River Walks. But only until I become chief. Then I will wear another name. I will pick the name from the mountain or the water. The mountain and the river will sing my name. I will hear it when I am hunting for food, for skins, for the fish with many colors on his back. The wolf will run from me as he runs now, and the coyote, and the mad pig. The bird with arrow feathers in his wings will leave me signals against the sky.”
Noah B, mystified by River Walks’ natural reach at things, smiled at the litany, took another bite of meat, found interest as well as curiosity leaping within him. There was something old and pleasant and durable with the young Indian, obviously gathered from the ages and held close. Legend and myth had become an unbound book for him. His people, all the supposed diverse tribes and clans scattered from the snows of far Canada to the mountains below and beyond the big rivers, had been here a long time. All that was unwritten was still known. He wondered about all the things they might know that he’d never learn, not even hear about. Sally came back from wherever; maybe he’d never know about her. Maybe he’d never find the gold cache or see his mother or grandfather again.
“You remembering?” River Walks said. “Your eyes talk.” His teeth were brighter yet, his smile real.
“I came here to help my grandfather, now a very old man with little to hold onto. He sent me to find what he had hidden here, a small treasure of the bright gold. He cannot work any longer. My father is dead, from endless work. I want to help my mother and my grandfather, so I came here to look for his cache.”
“The old man is a chief, a dying chief?”
“In a way, yes, he is a chief. He is my chief. He is old as time.” The vision of his grandfather locked on the small porch, his legs almost stiff now, his eyes narrowed when looking at him, trying to find his face, came in quick pictures at the back of his head. His grandfather’s spirit would run all over the mountains if his legs would let him.
“He change his name when he become chief?”
Noah B thought he found an opening. “Yes,” Noah B said, “now he is called Thunder Boss.” The heavy and guttural voice of his grandfather came back to him like a shout from the mule end of a wagon. Now, at a distance, maybe not to be heard again, it was warm and comfortable. It gave his grandfather a solid sense of being in spite of the porch scene, the squinting eyes, the hands locked into ugly fists, the stiffening legs.
River Walks said, “He take his name from the sky? Is a big chief now, but send young man to get bright rock from the big mountain. I find bright rock in many caves of the big mountain, but no bright rock in the river. Mountain is big brother to river. River walks away from big brother. Take your horse, your guns, fill your mouth with water only Powatapha know how much, send me.”
“You know the bright rock?” Noah B said with deep interest. Perhaps his luck had not run out on him with the fall. Firelight flickered across River Walks face, young on the skin, old in the eyes.
“Cougar stand guard on bright rock. He watches for the mountain. Knew you were coming on the trail. I know all the way from other side. Saw cougar watching you. If you take heart of the mountain, cougar try to take it back.”
“We use the bright rock. We get food with bright rock. You do not value bright rock?”
“It belongs to mountain. We do not take it from mountain.”
“You take mountain’s deer for food. Mountain bird eggs from nests. They live and die, sometimes you kill them. I just take bright rock that has no life in it to give life.”
River Walks smiled at Noah B. “You talk like old Indian getting older. I know the talk you say. I have heard it at council fire since I was young. My father wants to live in the mountains and get older as the sun gets colder. He does not want more wars. Powatapha makes all men brothers but not all brothers know they are brothers. All Indians come across the bridge of ice the way Powatapha lead them. He lead them past the ice to the happy mountains where ice does not stay all the time. Powatapha let them see how things grow, how sky throw down sun and rain, light and dark, warm and cold. Some brothers of the nations fight among themselves. They forget Powatapha brought them all from the land of the ice over the ice bridge.”
“Did Powatapha know bright rock was here? Did he leave it for me to use, but not for you? Does the cougar keep you away as he keeps me away?”
“You talk council talk. My father would know your words, but not all at council would believe. I know your talk. I will take you to bright rock in the new sun. You take it to old chief, Big Thunder Boss, tell him no war here.”
“I will do that, River Walks. Noah B promises that.” He saw the rift in the clouds, the moon poking through, a gold and silver moon touching the raggy edges of clouds, the raggy edges of the Mogollon cliff, touching the strange companionship of Indian and cowboy, both youths with a hopeful outlook.
“I lose my knife in river,” River Walks said, “or we could become blood brothers.” Instead of using a knife, he unwound a cord that was about his neck. “Put around your wrists, and you will never break our bond. You try and break.”
He wrapped the cord about Noah B’s wrists, holding them tightly together. Though the cord was thin, Noh B could not break it. He struggled, twisting it all the time, even putting his arms over his head. He could not break the thin cord. He tried the overhead maneuver again, without luck.
when the shot rang out, from across the river. River Walks fell down
on the flat rock.
A voice rang out. “We got him, Noah. We got him. Hurry, boys, in case he ain’t dead yet. Hang on, Noah, we’re comin’.”
“No,” Noah screamed. “He’s my friend. He’s my friend.”
Silence came across Silver Creek. Overhead, the raggy clouds closed on the moon.
Noah B fell across the body of River Walks. He was crying when the men got to him, his hands still trussed in the thin cord.