Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Puma-Dog, heavily burdened, yet bound in belief, wondered about the inside of the mountain he was climbing, and the trail so old in the making that he could not begin to measure its age. Even the old chief and man of wisdom, One-Wing-Gone, told him the mountain was as old as the gods themselves.
“They came as one before they became many,” he explained to Puma-Dog on the 13th celebration of all his moons. “One becomes many, to serve, to light the path, to push against darkness, to fill tribal history with heroes all going back to where they came from, from the Heart-of-the-Mountain, and to be served.
Puma-Dog kept remembering One-Wing-Gone repeating one stern piece of advice, “Bury your heroes in the Heart-of-the-Mountain, in the Caves-of-the-Gods.” He knew he would hear the words forever, following him in every action beside his brothers.
“How do we find the Caves-of-the-Gods?” Puma-Dog said, in the 15th Journey of His Moon, a brave full of curiosity, wonder, and holder of the long stories he had remembered from the Hearts of Fires, the fires where the elders related the history of the tribe.
“There is no map, no marked trail, no signs to follow,” One-Wing-Gone had replied, “but a close look into one’s great heart will find the Heart-of-the-Mountain. It is the law of the gods and the law of the mountain.”
Puma-Dog remembered his young excitement when he asked One-Wing-Gone if he had ever been to the Caves-of-the-Gods.
“Of course,” One-Wing-Gone replied, “many times. It is where I buried my hero brothers, those fallen in battle, and those who knew I would bring them to the final honor.”
“Many times? You lost many brothers?” He could not picture One-Wing-Gone losing a battle, an elder with a face like a hatchet sharpened for war, with eyes as keen as the eagle’s on the edge of a wind and sitting in the air above the mountain itself and above all their enemies.
But it was One-Wing-Gone who marveled at the young brave who never knew he’d been touched by the gods in such a special way that he would not only find the Caves-of-the-Gods but would reside there forever when his turn came.
Those to whom he told Puma-Dog’s story were sworn to secrecy, never to tell another soul what they had heard or their places in the Heart-of-the-Mountain would be given away to others.
One-Wing-Gone would tell the story like this: “When he was a boy, not yet named with his true name, he was hunting a puma in the mountains with his dog, Star. He and Star were brothers and had been many places together, and they had tracked the puma, the father of all pumas, onto the level just below the peak of the mountain, where you could first hear the mountain’s heartbeat with your ear placed close to the wall of rock. Rains came swiftly from the outlands and from new black clouds, which promised to wipe away all traces of the puma. The two hunters had no idea where the puma was exactly when the storm hit and the skies were suddenly laden with lightning and thunder of the greatest order, and darkness itself came and went in turns with the lightning. In the middle of the storm, lightning kept flashing into other valleys and canyons and behind other peaks as if war itself was being waged in the heavens and thrown by a giant god’s hand onto the earth.
“In one majestic flash of lightning brighter than a huge forest fire, a bolt flew from the hand of the god and struck right beside the boy and Star. The boy never felt the touch of the bolt, and to this day does not remember it coming so close. But when he came to, when his young senses returned to him, he woke up flat on the ground. Slowly he opened his eyes and looked directly into the eyes of Star who was dead but wide-eyed beside him. Sadness struck at the boy who loved his dog, even as Star’s eyes were staring in awe as if looking at something he had never seen, something beyond both of them.
“When the boy turned to look where he thought Star was staring, the puma was there with his mouth open and teeth as sharp as arrow heads filling that mouth. The puma’s eyes were staring at Star as if that was the last sight his eyes would ever see.
“At that moment, not knowing what he had been through, he took his name as ‘Puma-Dog,’ a tribute to both animals.”
One-Wing-Gone would say, with each telling of the story, “The Gods told me the story of Puma-Dog, one even he does not know, for he must earn his way into the Caves-of-the-Gods, which, strange as it seems, has been his fate all along. But you are sworn from this moment never to tell this story to another inside or outside the tribe, even beside one of the Hearts of Fire. The gods will attend you and your silence.”
We come back to Puma-Dog, heavily burdened yet bound in belief, wondering about the Heart-of-the-Mountain, and the Caves-of-the-Gods. For the last day and a half he had labored with the great weight on his back, the weight of a great warrior, a great friend, Only-Deer-Leg, who had measured and taken down more than a dozen warriors in the battle with the Comanche enemy, and who had finally taken a spear at Puma-Dog’s back, saving his life.
When the enemy’s fight disintegrated and they finally disappeared from the canyon, and all Puma-Dog’s companions had departed, leaving Puma-Dog with the responsibility, and the promise, of getting Only-Deer-Leg to his proper burial place, in the Heart-of-the-Mountain, in the Caves-of-the-Gods. By turn, he found his hero’s quiver, some of his arrows, his great spear and stone club, all sharing Comanche blood. From the last encampment he found a deerskin blanket belonging to Only-Deer-Leg, a string of bear claws, and three scalps prominently displayed on a pole. He wrapped all the prizes of his friend and hero in the blanket and set off for the Caves-of-the-Gods in the Heart-of-the-Mountain, mounted on a horse found wandering in the canyon of the battle. Puma-Dog thought it fitting that the animal was a Comanche pony.
At a ledge of the mountain, where the trail was no longer passable for the horse, Puma-Dog started carrying all the parts of Only-Deer-Leg. The load was as heavy as the onus of his delivery to the sacred place. He kept talking to his friend: “We will find our way in to the Heart–of-the-Mountain, I promise.” Puma-Dog also felt the weight of that promise, which sat on his shoulders like the world itself.
At various times he had to put down one or the other of his load, the body of Only-Deer-Leg or his war prizes, all the parts of a warrior’s life bound for eternity. One part of the load would be left in a secure place, while the other was lugged onward to another selected place on his route to the mountain. When it was the body of Only-Deer-Leg to be left, it had to be protected from creatures of the mountain and creatures of the sky, to whom the gods had given the right to feast on all remains found on the face of the earth.
Places where covering rocks and boulders were scarce, he had to find a shelter in among the rocks, such as a small cave or indentation or an overhang that would serve his need of protecting the last remains of Only-Deer-Leg.
Puma-Dog kept talking to his friend: “The Caves-of-the-Gods are in front of us, not behind us. We are getting close to your forever sleeping place. I do not know the path or the true trail, but it is in front of us. I can swear to that with all my heart, which tells me I am going the right way.”
Once, as he struggled with his load, he saw in the distance, on another part of the mountain, a brave struggling under another load, and knew that warrior was lost. He felt badly for the brave who was carrying his own burden. It made Puma-Dog think about his confidence in finding a resting place for Only-Deer-Leg, but his resolve did not waver at the sight of the other burdened warrior. Only new bursts of energy and hope sprang up in him.
Once more, a strange thought hit him, thinking he had heard an eagle say, “Just follow me when you have a doubt. You and I have shared the sky and all that has been in it from the beginning.”
Puma-Dog did not know what that message meant, having no idea that an eagle could know lightning first hand from the same sky the way Puma-Dog knew it, or One-Wing-Gone, or those who had been told the story beside the Hearts-of-Fire. But he kept looking up at the great sky, seeking the spread of wings above him, seeking the eagle whose voice he had heard saying words he did not understand … but words he would trust if he ever understood them.
Nature, or parts of nature, he believed, had always sent him these secret messages. They could be truth from the highest order, but he did not know that, nor if things accepted became what they were meant to be.
A second creature of the earth spoke to him in another surprise; it was the voice of the dead puma who shared his name; “Even as you doubt my voice now, and doubt me, I know more than you. I know all about you. If you can find me this time, I will be in the Cave of the Gods, in the Heart of the Mountain and will tell you all there is to know, all you ever wanted to know.”
At that moment, from the fair and clear sky above them, a bolt of lightning hit the mountain and through a sudden opening Puma-Dog saw the holy ground and carried Only-Deer-Leg and all his treasures into the Heart of the Mountain, and as Puma-Dog set down his friend and hero, he himself fell dead in the same spot long ago reserved for him, and he instantly knew all things the puma had promised.