Western Short Story
Boy in a Cave
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Boy in a Cave

Tom Sheehan

The sound was different from all sounds he'd heard coming from outside the cave, from beyond the boulder his father had, with all his power and ingenuity, placed at the entrance to the cave. This was not a bear trying to get into the cave, pawing and thrusting at the boulder shoved there, oh, so long ago he was not sure of any time lapses, what month it might now be, the darkness, the interior night that a deep and lonely cave has for a 12-year old boy, for Noah Quirk. Nor was the noise outside coming from a pack of wolves whose sound was always, since the beginning, as if their howls and shrieks of hunger, threat, body-rending habits were all that life drove them through.

This was a different force, a new energy, and he hoped to hear a voice from it. He had not heard a voice since his father had placed him here, on a bearskin-lined shelf in the cave, a natural cut-out that fit his form, that provided a place for sleep, for resting, for dreaming, for survival against the god-awful odds. That powerful man had said, "I will not promise more than to use all my power to get you free again. But you must realize that not many of us, perhaps none of us, will get out of this valley alive. The snow has been devilish, endless, a barrier against any movement. Soon they'll be eating the horses if bears or wolves do not get them first. Some people have died already. More will die before the snow releases it's great grip on the whole train of wagons, on every single body and soul still alive."

His father had laid down a supply of wood and all the supplies he had hauled at night from their wagon, last in line of the wagon train as it was stopped in its tracks against the wall of a mountain beside them. "Noah, you will be the last of the Quirks for this time. I want to give you a chance to get through this, which is the only way I can see you doing it. Others, like I've said, have already died, and more, maybe all of us, will die here in this cursed valley. I do not see any way we can get through this, but this chance for you is a possibility. Use the storm for water source, the ice that will freeze around the edges of the boulder where I place it at the entrance, the melt of the snow. With the bearskins you will be warm enough in the heart of this mountain. Use the food sparingly and wood sparingly, that which I brought from the wagon. Use it for torches to check what lies further inside the cave."

He had paused there, at that specific point, and then continued solemnly but hopefully: "I have not gone to the depth of the cave to see what is there. And I can make no more promises than saying I will do my best to come back for you, but if I do not return, and you, with care and the protection about you and with God's help or that of a lone trapper or hunter, may eventually get yourself loose of here. It is the third month of the year, and I am sure that help will come sometime, summoned by the two young men who left here at least a dozen days ago, if they hopefully got through to rouse some help and some real consideration from others on the way west. If you get past all this, continue on the journey west, the first of the Quirks to get there, the first of us to get to the promised land, which certainly is not here in this dreaded valley, this valley of death."

After his giant of a father had hugged him, placed him in the natural shelf, his new bed of sorts, wrapped in bearskins, and then shoved the boulder into place at the entrance and a few chunks of rock broken from the cliff-face as part of the tight barrier, and making it tighter, the boy fell asleep ... alone in the darkness, a scattering of white sensations of light about the boulder's edge, safe from the bears and wolves that searched out horses, people, any bit of food left in the wagon train, caught here, carried here, the night before the endless snow began again in earnest, the endless snow locking them into the fist of nature, on their own, the odds for survival fully against them all ... except for one man's son.

Noah had not seen the message his father had scratched upon their wagon: My son is in a cave in the mountain wall, behind a boulder and rocks, keeping him safe. It is marked by a red cloth. Please help him if he waits yet for help. He alone cannot free himself of that bondage I have thrust upon him. (Signed with the signature of Garret Quirk.)

Noah Quirk had slept, had risen, slept again, until hunger and thirst moved him from the shelf into exploration, self-help, as much curiosity as fear would allow or expect, on his third day of unknown days within the heart of the mountain. He'd started a fire, saw smoke slip into a stream seeking its escape through an unknown passage, made a torch, explored a bit, salvaged sufficient water, ate some of the frozen food and meat his father had secured for him, saved his energy by keeping wrapped much of the time in the bearskins left for his sole survival.

The days, countless days in deep darkness, passed with small explorations, quick decisions on food eaten from his small supply, much of time spent on the shelf within robes of bearskins, with hopes for salvation rising and falling, seemingly at alternate moments in the heart of abysmal darkness, at odds with their very coming, with the cave being at the same time both his threat to life and his own survival.

Now and then, in the days following, days that went countless and really unknown, he shook free and felt his spirits rise in the darkness, his own singular spirit propelling him into further, though cut-short, explorations, his curiosity swelling at times in a natural curve of human spirits. After all, he was a Quirk, and his father had given him a chance at life, even as slim as it was ... so it was up to him to make the most of his circumstances, come hell and high water, as he'd heard his grandfather say more than once in their quick visits back on the east coast, all of America being a dream out where the sun took daily dreams into the wide western half of new land, new promise, new life.

On those dark days, he'd strike a torch, take strike at the darkness that enveloped him, stretch his yearning to see his father again, rarely see the image of his mother harshly taken from them on the sea voyage, drawn overboard by an unknown tyrant that lurks in some souls, a tyrant never seen but often known.

He began to review the forces that propelled him onward in this crypt of sorts; his mother's love for his father, his brother lost at birth, himself; his father, the giant of all these forces about him now, those that marked the trail west across the sea and across this wide land, and he was suffused with them all. And in one bright moment, so that light shone in his mind, he suddenly knew he was bodily infused by the bears whose skins he lay among in his sleep and in his long moments of thought, of sustenance, of being. Through their vast ranks in the wild, they came at him, bringing history, time, today, tomorrow, hunger, danger, surprise, a sudden knowledge that crept into his consciousness from his sleeping quarters on the small ledge, his alliance with creatures that without doubt would attack him for their own survival. He was a partner with them as well as a foe when it would demand amends be made, for life to be saved or taken, darkness to be overcome, life to be lived when, if ever, he was freed from this normal winter habituate of animals that would take him for food when movement came among them, when they came free of winter, when, most likely, little would be left of the wagon train occupants, horses, life that had come to cease here so close to him.

The sound came again, and he tried to figure it out, how long he had been here, how many times he had slept within the bearskins, that the stars he used to watch at night with his father, so much like this place, this world where he was surviving, were the stars out there that were waiting to be seen again.

It was another thump on the outside of the boulder. He pictured the butt of a rifle signaling him, the repeated sounds of hope, surprise, rescue. It could be nothing else; not a bear, not a wolf, but a man on a mission.

Time shrank for him, sudden reality poised for entry.

"Are you there, boy? Are you there, Noah Quirk? This is Jonathon Scottwick here. We found the message your father carved on the wagon. Are you there, Noah Quirk?" The hope for a miracle of unbelievable proportions rode in his voice ... as though he fully expected to hear no response, letting the wide silence take over the words, the voice, the stillness.

Noah's voice struggled for the reply caught up in his throat, words having remained silent for so long ... nothing said aloud, no soul to hear him speak, silence the absolute and continual control of the cave, the spirit of the bear yet hanging on, holding tight to what this hole in the side of the sheer mountain face had held to its innards. He dared not think how many bears for how long had spent deep winter in this hole in the wall of a mountain.

"You don't want to go down there to the wagon train, Noah," Scottwick said with deepest conviction, "to see the havoc raged there. The remnant bodies are all over the place, horse and man, and they have been eaten down to the very bone in practically every case. Down to the bone, I say! To the very bone! One cannot tell who was what, or what was who. I've never seen anything like it in my life and I tell you, I have seen some of Hell itself up here in these wilds. I am most sure that you have lately had such encounters."

He paused, thought of horror and surprise, and added, "And I am not sure which one is your father, but no one, nothing at all, has been left alive. It's a morgue of the wildest sort out here, believe me. Be ready for salvation and for horror. I have to warn you, and I have; be ready for salvation and horror!"

Noah's eyes hurt at an explosion of light, at the dark figure moving in front of him, when the boulder was withdrawn with great grunts and groans from its barrier position, the light blasting past him with no sound but the words coming from a stranger's mouth ... "Well, there you are, Noah, there you are. God bless the wisdom and intentions of your father who has brought you life for the second time, for the second time, my young man of boundless promise. Oh, yes, for the second time from where I view this new possibility coming for you. Hail to the man who has made the way for you to continue onto all your days."

The blasts of winking lights continued to hit at Noah Quirk's eyes, and a face appeared with a smile there engaged.