Western Short Story
At Ease with SGT. Able Startooth
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Thunder and lightning pounded and slashed around the Teton peaks as though the gods were angry. Able Startooth, an Indian scout for army cavalry that had been dispatched to the area above the junction of the Uintah and Duchesne rivers in Utah when unrest among Ute Indians took place, watched from the secrecy of a cave as a half dozen Utes looked into the dark and lit skies. They jabbered among themselves. He did not have to hear their voices, knowing what they were saying, having no doubt about their concern; an angry god had come out of hiding, bent on making changes on the land.

He had learned much already in his 29 years of life, and reading trail, body language and behavior of animals, as well as men, had brought him along as a man comfortable with nature as well as with human interconnections. He rode his horse as though the two were one, used weapons as though he had invented them, and could run half the day and half the night, whichever came first. He knew himself readily comfortable in more than one world, in which his sharing was acceptable. The storm intrigued him, lightning, blasts of thunder roaring through canyons, millions of hidden stars waiting for new chances, a faithful moon beyond some dark hill cradling its glory, and ever, on the dawn of each day, after every storm, after this storm, the eternal sun that gathered all things unto itself, as set in place by the high god of the same sky the sun shared.

He had attracted people in his few years.

This new storm lasted less than an hour, though fierce it was. In the morning the sun came bright and cast itself across the land. Startooth studied the band of Utes, one of them obviously a leader, as they came from hiding where the storm and the night had driven them for haven. They talked and gesticulated and the leader finally used a stick to draw something in the ground that could not be yet dry. He spent enough time over a hand-drawn plot on the ground that Startooth assumed each one of the braves knew and understood the apparent instructions given to them. He believed the drawing scratched in the dirt was a map, and the talk was in support of some warring action yet to come.

Sgt. Startooth, a misfit to some people of his life, not yet where he belonged by passion and by need, was described by several cavalry officer in the Utah area as “one Indian who could track a dead possum through Hell if he had to, and was given such an order.” Another sergeant of cavalry said, “I’d rather have him listening in the night than the damned possum playing games with us.”

Startooth, a Shoshone, was aware of the gods that looked down on all people with an eye for correction and retribution where required. If the land itself, or the people who lived on it, needed change, were due for change, or had incited godly wrath, they’d better be aware of their apparent shortcomings. And he always remembered what his great father had said to him when he was being educated by the elders: “Coyotes and ants are the lead scouts for the animals in their coming back to take over their world again. Be aware of the signals. Never close your eyes or ears to them for you will know them when they get bountiful.”

It took Startooth a long time to understand what his father and the other elders had said to him, realizing that they were warnings for the centuries.

With two trained pigeons, in a small cage he carried everywhere, Startooth came down to the site to study the map where the Ute leader had drawn directions in the earth. He easily spotted the designations for the fort and town at the edge of the Uintah River, three miles above the junction of the Uintah and Duchesne rivers. They’d attack in the morning for sure. He scratched the name of the town and fort on a piece of paper, along with a diagram of an arrow, tied it to the pigeon’s leg and let it fly off. Then he sent a second pigeon as a safety measure, hoping a hawk would not take one of the pigeons in flight and the town and the fort personnel would be alerted in time.

His tribal friend and pigeon fancier and trainer, Two Paws, stood on guard for messages delivered by Startooth’s pigeons. A few times they had been the difference in enemy attacks, which Startooth had determined beforehand from various sources, and used the pigeons to send the alarm. He did not expect any indebtedness or favors for his actions or abilities, but they did come to him.

Major Bantern had seen the value of Startooth’ s pigeons and had promoted him to Scout Sergeant in the 9th Cavalry, in a detachment of black cavalry that had a decade-long history in the Wyoming region. He trusted the Shoshone with his own life.

And not far from the fort, in another attraction for Startooth, the widow Velma Browning, on a piece of land left by her husband, killed while fighting rustlers, knew Able Startooth was a special man. She had been living, and working the property for a half dozen years, her husband killed in 1879 and no man but hired help was ever allowed on the property. Startooth was the social exception, though visits were long months apart.

She was convinced fate had brought them into contact, knew the ease of it; he knew it to be the gods of the mountains and the wide grass.

But the twain had met, conversed, studied each other, found attractions, found the good ground in each other.

Now, with his pigeons sent aloft and his scouring the sky for the dreaded, swooping hawk or falcon bent on disrupting communications, Startooth thought about Velma being right in the path of the Utes. They were armed. They were aimed at the fort and local civilians holding sway on the land between them and the fort.

Urging his horse, he headed down the backside of the hill, hit the level ground just where the river made a wide curve, and let his mount go all out for Velma Browne’s ranch. She was ahead of her time in many ways, and he hoped she had read the activities around her, and had taken to hiding where she had hid before, in a slim tunnel that went from under the ranch house to the well about 20 feet from the side of the house. Velma had shown him the layout. She explained how it worked, allowing someone from the house to go under the floor and move to the well where several rocks above water level and just below the surface were placed for easy removal. The climb out of the well was simple after that, with due caution of course on the part of the escapee.

Even as he rode, he tried to imagine the ways that she’d notice changes in the land. They had often talked about braves who were gathered for war sent messages that birds of the air and creatures on the ground sensed, read, were alerted to. Often those alerts were read by other creatures on the fringes of new activity.

With proper signs coming to her, he believed she’d have ordered her few hands to drive her herd, what there was of it, toward the fort. That way she’d know there was a chance for the hired hands and the cattle to be saved. In turn, she’d barricade herself in the house and be prepare to go underground if the ranch was overrun and her home threatened to be invaded.

“Woman of the grass is not afraid of dark under earth?” Startooth had asked her after she’d explained the outlet. “She is not afraid of being buried before her real time of leaving?”

“No, Able,” she had said, being the only one beside Major Bantern who called him Able. “I am not worried about that. I am as comfortable there as I am with you.” She had no accompanying gesture until he held his hand out and signaled he understood her. In turn, Velma Browne placed a finger softly on his cheek. Twice she tapped him with that soft finger, knowing once again that he was the most handsome man she had ever known, his face chiseled and honed as keen as the finest arrow, the edges sharp and neat, yet as bold as the mountains themselves.

“Once,” she had told herself, “I will tell him we have been paired from the beginning of all men and women.” She often heard herself say the words in the same exact manner, with the same breath of truth in them.

The immediate transfer of her finger touch was spiritual, yet tangible, and he thought all she knew had kept her going in her hard times; she knew people who moved around her world, understood them, found strengths and weaknesses that other people did not see. A worthy woman she was, one who could be at home anyplace, on the grass, in the mountains, with her man. There was no doubt in his mind that Velma Browne would be the center, and the heart, of any abode she resided in regardless of how it was made, of logs or hides or the walls of a cave high in the Tetons. Knowledge of that order he had known for a long time.

Her face, in a manner of illumination, softened considerably when he was around, and enhanced her real beauty. Her hair was as golden as a prairie flower and her eyes made him think of a bird he had seen only once near the river, a small blue bird that only flew off when he reached his hand toward it on a low branch of a young tree hugging the banking. The bird, seemingly not startled, had risen gracefully from its perch and without the slightest strain of muscle was aloft. It made him think of Velma. From afar he had admired how she strode about the ranch, and yet he had seen immediately how her steps slowed when he was closer. Her move had alerted him right from the beginning and he was enthralled with her unsaid messages.

In her eyes he saw the new way for her, and its acceptance. It would be hard for her, and he knew the taunts that could and would come upon her. But he also found a resolve in her as strong as any woman he had ever known.

But no less a person than Bantern had professed the truth of the ground he was walking; “There will come torment, perhaps abuse, from her people; and you will be subject to the same thing, ridicule, spite, anger that seethes in one’s soul, hatred for your personal gain, her fortune, her womanhood. I know of no two stronger people to face such odds than you and Mrs. Browne. Just be ever alert.”

With such memories finding the way back into his mind, Startooth urged his horse for more speed and the pair ran up the side of the Uintah River, the morning sun in vivid reflection all along the surface of the river as far as the wide turn.

As he climbed one grade in a trail across the prairie, away from the bend in the river and toward Velma’s ranch, he topped a quick mound, and saw across a further rise the massed Utes preparing to attack the ranch. From a past event in one of the 9th’s battles, he estimated this force to be the same size as one the 9th had scattered in a Wyoming campaign, probably between 500 to 700 men, most of them on horseback. Those not on horseback were assigned to recapture and mount the horse of any brave killed in action or wounded too severely to ride. It was a tool of force constantly employed by good warriors … not to allow their forces to be reduced by lack of horses under control, saddled for war. Death, they knew, would come, and they had to be ready to fill the ranks, fill the break.

Startooth had seen Utes wage war, had seen them at their best and at their worst. Velma stood in line to be accursed of their anger and hatred, the land being changed by an angry god, leaving it to man to correct the change, if that was needed or demanded.

Leg-with-Wings, he knew, was the leader. He had met him a number of times in peaceful situations, but had heard of his battle prowess and subsequent activities in the wake of a victory; as he rode, those activities of Leg-with-Wings caused Startooth to fear deeply for Velma.

His horse, as if spurred by another force, plunged ahead as he hunted for words from his father, some words to handle the situation, give him honorable direction, yet weigh in on the problem with a solution, a resolve.

He heard his father say, “Courage of the turtle in his slow walk on the land is as high as bravery gets on the face of the earth, even as he moves slower than the flow of the beaver pond.”

He saw the outcome, like pictures the ancients had scribed on the walls of canyons, on the faces of huge rocks, and as bold as some of the sculptures the Basque shepherds left on the flats of tree trunks.

Startooth’s hand patted the neck of his horse, and the horse slowed from a mad rush to a slow gait, and then to an approach upon the Utes that equaled the turtle’s flight. Some braves turned to see him coming when a scout issued an alert; the cry of a fox moved in among the braves ready for battle as Sgt. of Scouts Able Startooth came on them from the rear.

Startooth pointed, not at Leg-with-Wings but beyond him, to the suddenly-formed wall of army troops stretched in a wide line in front of Velma Browne’s ranch. His hands talked to Leg-with-Wings in the old silent language of signs. He told Leg-with-Wings that many would be killed on both sides, that today was not a good day for fighting, and that Startooth’s own chosen woman waited on him at the ranch.

The hands stopped talking and Leg-with-Wings said, “She is your woman, Startooth? The one who lives in wooden teepee? Who rides like brother wind and walks like brother breeze? She is your woman?”

Startooth nodded his answer and put his hand on his heart, his hand parallel to the ground, his thumb against his chest. Sergeant’s stripes sat on his sleeves, but his hair sloped down in two thick braids, and his horse wore a saddle with Shoshone talk cut into the leather. The Ute chief saw all this.

Leg-with-Wings held up his hand in the sign of peace, a place in the massed braves opened, and Startooth walked through the space as he made the peace sign to Leg-with-Wings. Their eyes met, and Startooth said, “Deer Path waits for you in your teepee with the same promise I go to in the wooden teepee.”

Major Bantern and Velma Browne, and the wall of troops, saw Startooth part the ranks of Ute braves, ride slowly toward them, with the Ute warriors moving away from their formation in the once-proposed battlefield.

Velma Browne rushed out to hold Startooth’s hand as he rode through the line of troops, toward the ranch.

Relief flowed in all observers, but deep expectations waited at the ranch for the new pair of lovers, Velma Browne, widow, leading Sgt. Able Startooth, army scout, by the hand into a new chapter of his life.