Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
I have little to say on the matter of young Chase Holman's kidnapping, but what follows closely here is sworn as the truth from my humble soul and eyes that rarely want for targets. I'm a hunter, a mountain man, was born to ride, live and die in whatever hills or mountains I loved, and know lead only in the form of bullets. I never knew the first thing about lead soldiers or other toy warriors such as Indians and cowboys. I'm just plain old me, Edward Joseph Dundeen, mostly known as Edjo, a Highlander by birth, an American by disturbed allegiance and displacement and an adventurer on the move. In the dark I'd tell a lady I'm six feet of muscle, sport a red beard thick as a rug, and have few limitations, if any, with weapons; in bright dawn I'd listen to their proposals.
Down from the mountains I had come, my horse Scallywag a mite skittish, his ears better than mine, telling me to stay alert, my two mules packed up with four months catch of furs of all kinds and magnitudes, and a big hole in all my appetites. I was headed for Juice Slattery's place in New Holman, first. Juice'd buy a bucket of old grease from me; I had a good eye, a steady hand and once saved him from an unfair altercation with three bullets for two men bound to run off with his wagon and goods. He even offered to buy their horses, from me, at a fair price, "Mine for the takin'," as they say out here.
New Holman, I'll have you know, sits on the prettiest shelf on the Humboldt River, where enough dreams brought it into place and a whole bunch of greed later on knocked it into the next century on its hands and knees. But all that's beyond my reach.
This day, the day of the kidnapping of Chase Holman's and wife Grace's only son, was a cool September day, a damned good day for selling all my furs to Juice, and I was bound for town when I saw two riders heading for the hills, and one of them had a blanket slung across the saddle with him. It didn't look like it was empty, and then I saw a pair of boots dangling out from the end of the blanket. They could belong to a pal shortly dead and bound for burial way up on some lonely hill, but I doubted it ... twice I saw the boots kick, meaning pain, discomfort or downright displeasure.
When the two riders swung up into the Saucer Canyon, at a steady trot, they did not see me ... and I kept out of sight until they were out of sight.
I thought about it for a while, going in up there, taking a peek at them, but I had the furs to take care of ... which meant winter's grub and drink and ammo. If I didn't have that stuff, Juice'd have to take me in, stash me up in his hay mow and, when and if he had a winter drunk on, he'd forget what I had done for him. I'd spent one winter with him, up in his mow; I'd freeze before I'd do it again.
Anyway, once they were out of sight, and my wandering mind came back under my hat, I turned for town, the long haul working on me. The place is named for Chase Holman, cowman, rancher, builder, owner of much, but smart as a whistle on a windy day. He named it because he built it and wanted it this way. He owned most of it, as I said, but let others in to get some of the spoils ... and take some of the headaches, like the general store and one of the two saloons and the hotel above the general store and the funeral parlor attached to the livery and the store for ladies only ... but he owned, lock, stock and wagons, the freight hauling rights from and to Elko and any place in between. If you wanted to stock your shelves, stock your bar, put goods in your store window, Chase Holman brought it in or shipped it out as sold.
When I got to Holman, the place was in a turmoil, noise galore, women crying on the street, drunks at sudden and honest sobering, and Juice yelling at me first thing he saw me, "You see anythin' out there on the trail, Ace? Anythin' funny? Holman's kid's been kidnapped. That boy's a special kid, a genius, makes them little lead figures I told you about and showed you couple of 'em; the cowpokes and Injuns and the soldiers, too, from Shiloh and Gettysburg and them other battles of the Big War. Chase is gonna kill somebody over this. And to throw the rope on it all, Grace collapsed right there in the middle of the street. Some kid handed her a note that a cowpoke gave him a dollar to deliver by hand. She read it, screamed, and collapsed in the middle of the street, in all that dirt and dust, with her best duds on, that yellow dress we all liked her in and them big yellow you-know-whats prouder'n any mountains we ever knowed."
You have to know I'm not the smartest thing ain't been to school yet, but I said nothing about what I'd seen. There'd be more coming, and I'd let Chase Holman handle that. Hell, he just about handled everything else in town, and as far as Saucer Canyon, too, I figured, with only me in the way, in line with what had already sort of filtered into my mind, things with me working as slow as walking to church.
At first, I'd only seen a couple of the kid's lead soldiers, one a Blue and one a Gray and one cowpoke all painted up like he just jumped up to face a fast draw in town, hand up, gun out, him leaning towards the other shooter. Even his Stetson sat on his back, the drawstring like it was holding it in place. It was all so damned real it give me the chills on my backside. Kid does it good, making them things. 'Course, it was Juice who showed me first, that little piece of a shooter, because little Chase has Phil Sligo, the blacksmith, make up them iron molds he pours the melted lead into and makes the figures right quick. Kid draws pictures and Phil goes to work ... between horseshoeing and wheel rims and such ... like he's living in the kid's mind. Young Chase came up with the idea all himself when his father brought a couple of figures back from Chicago one time, soldiers from Europe, like knights of King Arthur or some king. Makes Chase say his kid ain't ever going to be a cowman but play with toy soldiers his whole life, but admits he started it all hisself."
Then, on an errand, I'd seen the ranks of his lead figures, all kinds of them, as he had scattered them in scenic battle sites in a section of the ranch yard between the bunkhouse and the barn ... and woe to any ranch hand who disturbed any of the battle scenes the way young Chase had set them up, all from hearing stories and reading the books his father had shipped in from Chicago. Besides all that, some lucky veterans of our big war on both sides, said, "The kid's got it pretty well lined up, the way it was on July 1, 1863, Seminary Ridge, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and that meant the possible location of General Lee's Headquarters."
And those wily and lucky veterans said the same about Second Manassas, and General Longstreet's Assault, August 30, 1862. And he had squared away about 7 or 8 other famous sites from around the world, right out of books, history's pages, mind you, the Knights and the Yeomen and the awful arrow brigades ... and it was like a history lesson sitting there on a bench built against the barn and listening to the little shaver knock the hell out of losing generals for their faulty plans and lack of battle visions.
But back to the kid otherwise, and his plight: It was Grace who got it all going, though ... the posse, a deputy who went around and questioned everybody in town about anything they might have seen or freighterswagon haulers and coachmen, calling all the ladies (outside of the saloon ones) into the church to pray in one bunch, even as snobby as some can get. Now I like Gracie, I like to tell you, but I don't have much use for her husband, especially when he's plotting on more green in the till anyways it comes, meaning he don't care for them or me.
And it was Gracie who let out the word in church that her husband was going to offer $1000 for the safe return of his son, and $2000 for the kidnappers dead or alive. Shows what kind of man he was, or father, or husband, or citizen for that matter ... vengeance thicker than love or blood. But she knew the reward information would drag men from their sick beds if need be, or from the arms of their mistresses or from another man's payroll even if his job wasn't done. Nobody saw much of $1000 or $2000 those days but Chase Holman, then the banker, or the next bank robber ... and that might be coming up on the list of things to do tomorrow for some folks thereabouts, including those two riders I spotted dipping into Saucer Canyon.
Juice, glad to see me otherwise, and having a shot ready for me soon as he saw me coming into town loaded down with furs and trying to mellow me for a lower price, said, as if hailing a fountain of information, "Edjo, the boys tell me those two hombres with young Chase headed out to the north from the ranch, like they was headed in your direction, right along the rim to Saucer Canyon and a hundred places to hide up in the other end with all the narrow lead-offs and skinny tunnels and passageways. They don't have to have a secret cabin to hide out; they's enough holes in there to hide a herd of cows, you had a mind and the time." He rubbed his hands together the same way a jeweler does for a prospective groom or a just-married husband coming off a long drive.
I had ideas and visions of the far end of the canyon, a maze if there ever was one, hundreds of caves and deep shelves and crevices with no end and peep holes by the thousand to keep an eye on trailers and stalkers and posses galore. Juice told me about Handsome Henry Hoss, shooter, killer, bank robber, known by the only name he ever had, even the one on his wanted poster in a dozen areas of the country and him up in there for three months without sight or sound of him. "That Injun," Juice related for a second time in the evening, "Two Feathers, slim as a weasel crawlin', smelled him out one night from Hoss's late supper fire in the rock hole he stashed himself in. Laid a rawhide noose in the dark, spread some bear blood on the rope that Hoss would smell, and caught him by both ankles and yanked him upright and got the reward for Hoss."
"Three months?" I said.
"Yup, and never a sight or a sound. His horse had been shot and cut up, but that meat wouldn't last more than a week or so even if he smoked it for the whole week. For sure, other things live in there in the rocks, or under them, and all of 'em hungry as Satan."
The thing about Juice is he's smarter than most of the others, and of course smarter than me, yet I figured he knew all along that I was about to go up into Saucer Canyon after the $1000 or the $2000 or all of it in one roping and was already working my mind over what lay up in there, the way he explained all of it again, how it might look to a man hiding or looking, take your pick.
I was out there where I last saw them, the pair of kidnappers as they headed into Saucer Canyon.
Overhead, at a discrete angle nearer evening than morning, sun rays golden as corn and beginning the first of angular landings, a coyote calling as if on my tail, when I saw the glint of light, a reflection lasting a bare second, in the grass of a worn path, enough light to catch my eye and my interest. You had to hand it to that Holman kid ... it was one of his lead soldiers; this one a yeoman with bow and quiver and kneeling on one knee as though he had sighted his prey ... as I figured I had a solid lead too.
I imagined him, as he was being grabbed, stuffing his shirt with some of his true loves living in constant lead. Did he have enough to lead the whole way to a hideaway? Was he forced to guess and measure them out, one at a time, a trail turn at a time? Did he know the territory? I thought he was about the smartest kid I had met in all my days; and just hoped he had a sense of timing and direction, and the evil intentions of his abductors, to put me right where they were tucked away in the canyon. The kid had a way with him, that's for sure.
The second poured-lead lead, unpainted, sparkled where the trail turned to the left; not an abrupt turn, but enough so that I assumed he could feel or see somehow that a change had come to the course the two horses of the kidnappers were on. I didn't know if he was able to peek outside the blanket he was rolled in, knew the terrain from limited sight or a familiarity with the whistle of winds through tunnels and crevices. They carried known gusto and echoes, notes that old prospectors could recognize in a jiffy; not like the notes on a saloon piano shared with women, whiskey and noise, but the way windy rocks can bring a song to a real songsmith, the tune coming off sheer and thin edges, no less than from the strings on a west-trekking wagoner's violin, a midnight banjo upgrading a campfire, or a man with a secretly-held affinity for a song and a sweet voice.
This next discovered miniature critter was an amputated cowboy, some accident within the mold, or close after it was retrieved from the iron grip, being the cause of a missing leg. Why hadn't the kid tossed him away, or back into the melting pot? But he looked like a good old boy, a drover, a horse-breaker, not a gambling townie, but a cowpoke just cut short on prime activities ... no more dances, no partner, no chasing the girls, stuck in place with his tongue hanging out for the rest of his life. A ream of fictional sadness thumped me with its honesty, the kind that blazes at the back of your head at surprise revelations. The truth of that kind of stuff gets to me, I swear on my sleeve.
Still, I wondered what was next for young Chase; if he was running out of lead. I swear, that made me quickly check my guns, even as a hint of laughter slipped out of me ironic as hell, my horse Scallywag shaking his head in attention or appreciation of circumstances. I was in with a pretty good set of friends, Scallywag and a kid who without a doubt knew his way around most things, and me hoping Saucer Canyon was one of them, me wondering again how he got along with his father, if the clutching, money-hungry gent ever rode up here with his son, sort of a Father-Son outing on horseback; I doubted it, but hoped it was possible - at least once anyway.
Ahead of me, the trail bent a number of ways through masses of fallen rocks, sheered slabs that hundreds of years earlier had slid down the face of the mountain to stand erect in earth, like slabs of pie off a tin oven plate. Scallywag, on his own, was slowed down and picking his way through rugged terrain on the canyon floor where the sun seemed to have collected a sudden ball of heat. It made me check my canteen to make sure it was filled. Long ago juice had advised me, "Water and your horse are more important than any girl you'll ever meet."
I used to laugh at Juice. But the advice seemed factual now, foretold, as the heat magnified in places, only to drop away again, and that made my mind switch to tunnels and crevices and caves without ends. I wished for a map that could expose all the secret places where the kidnappers were holed up. They had to be here, I argued with myself, because sooner or later they'd have to get in touch with Chase the elder, get into town in the darkness, hide their intentions, get their demands across to the paymaster, and get back out of town to hide and not have to ride 100 miles to do all that ... and keep a bright kid tight in place. I could imagine him being a handful to his captors.
The hoof beats of Scallywag echoed as we moved along, sounding as loud as alarm signals. If they were listening, my prey, they'd hear me; if they were too deeply hidden in a rocky chamber, they might not hear the near-rhythmic hoof beats. The whole musical presentation of Saucer Canyon was both mysterious and commonly usual for windy, rocky places, though I hoped that such salient expositions might somehow be curbed under the conditions of search.
Such an appreciation for the landscape stressed around me, made one helluva target for any shooter hiding behind a big rock slab, prone in a dark cave with his rifle trained on me tall in the saddle.
I swept myself off the saddle and alit nimbly, ducking at the same time behind Scallywag, hiding the target of my heart, my gun hand, dead center in my Stetson holding the sun off my gaze.
Stopping now and then seemed wise, and I progressed in meager steps, listening, harkening to windy sounds the way they moved, emanating from a thunderous collection of stony paths, cliff walls, hidden ways more secret than ant trails once under cover of earth. And I thought more often of the $1000 reward for getting young Chase back home to his mom's kitchen than I did about the $2000 for getting the scoundrels that had drawn me out here, sooner or later to get shot at than I figured earlier.
It was at that precise moment that I saw, not one, but two lead--cast toy wranglers, unpainted as yet in ranch colors and but feet apart, without the distances between them like the others I'd found. Chase had dropped them to alert a posse, perhaps his father, or some head-strong idiot like me, hell-bent on heroics and money-grabbing for the moment. Instantly, I tucked Scallywag behind a 12 foot slab standing about 8 feet away from the cliff face, patted him with love and tenderness, let him lick my hand, muttered, "Good old boy, you hide awhile in the shade. Good old Scallywag."
Something told me, young Chase told me, in the unspoken words of these tiny critters, strangers becoming my friends, that I was pretty close to where I wanted to go. Big hints, big clues, from the little ones of his own, somewhat private world; the world of discarded lead, old inker's lead dumped for some reason, clumps of lead from odd fire-sights, lead from a long standing target range might have stood behind his pa's barn longer than his toy-favoring son had lived; the kid had brought it all to one destiny of little critters of his own choice. And they were working for me now, my posse of sorts. I had to hold back another small titter of irony.
I left my rifle in the sheath of my saddle, took pistol to hand, and saw the crevice where I could have brought my horse ... and where their horses might have been lead, Chase aboard lighter than he started, with them. It opened , the crevice, not directly to me as I faced it, but at an angle, appearing much slimmer than it was, like an illusion of sorts, a game of shadows and light engaged for surprise. With the sudden appearance of the slot in the wall, I slipped my spurs quickly from my boots and tucked them in the saddle bag. This close, I thought, and Chase telling me so by the close placement of the last two lead toys, that they had directed me to the hidden entrance, like scouts out ahead of the patrol ... and that this pair of them would be the last such alerts ... that he had no more lead miniatures to track his trail.
I moved slowly, quietly, edging my way on, my hands always on a wall, keeping low, trying not to be a target. Time dragged along with me. I wondered how the kidnappers were treating the kid, wondered if they knew who they really had in tow; probably not what they thought in the beginning.
Suddenly, I was into the heart of the mountain it seemed, as it broadened out and up, yet continued to be, even in singular presentations, a huge, formidable labyrinth, most definitely a place not to get lost in, get separated from your senses. I was surprised, and pleased, to smell smoke, burnt food smoke, beef, pork and bread. Coffee was on, too. The sense of smell, at least, was working well. Then, I heard voices, undecipherable at first, mumbling mostly, words being cut up by jagged rocks, sharp turns, and with a further few steps into the apparent opening of another room of the mountain, I heard a strange voice say, "What do you do with it then, kid?"
Oh, boy, it sounded like the kidnapped kid had the kidnappers in tow.
"Oh," came the voice of Chase Holman, Jr., young and spritely and carrying no fear, but full of honest interest, "then when the whole pot is melted, I pour a certain amount, not too much of it, into as many of the molds as I can. You know, those are the molds Mr. Sligo the blacksmith made for me just the way I drew them for him."
Another voice said, "He already told you that stuff, Cage. Didn't you hear him? The kid's too sharp for you. You gotta watch your step or he'll dump the whole damned thing right on top of us. We'll be stuck in a cave without a paddle."
"Oh, shut up, Scotia, that ain't so funny. You're always worried about something going wrong. Any little thing throws you right off the saddle. Be loose, man, he's only a kid, but I wish I knew what he knows when I was kid. Just look at this. Why this one's the perfect little drover of the herd. Everything about him is perfect. Look at that, will ya!"
I could imagine the sight, Chase already owning one of them, and using the last miniature toy cowboy as his last argument, his final deal, throwing the other one into befuddlement, worry, capture, the rewarding end of the line. He'd be in his Mom's kitchen in a matter of hours, having three-minute eggs or a day-long soup off the back end of her stove, sure as shooting.
It all went through me in a hurry. I saw all the pictures, all the images, all the ideas taking shape, saw young Chase hug his Mom, saw his father hand over the reward money and hating to do so, a grimace accompanying each and every note of currency passed over to me. I managed to entertain myself with a thought, "That's a lot of frown for one man," and the giggle was honest.
I thought it all over; handling the two of them, once captured, would be tough getting them into town. I had to wing one of them, keep him out of it, and just worry about the other one. Chase had to know where their horses were; I couldn't lug them out or walk them out, not out of Saucer Canyon.
One shot and it had to be good, had to be a surprise, had to make sure Chase was out of the way.
It was perfect ... when I stepped slowly out and into view, my pistol aimed at them, their backs to me, Chase seeing me first, dropped the last lead wrangler at his feet, went to his knees to retrieve it, and I shot the right hand of one of them: I didn't know which one. But my aim was immediately on the other.
I wagged the gun for a slight move. "Drop your gun belt or you're dead right there where you stand."
The wounded one, Scotia by name by his voice now screaming with pain, made a left-handed drop of his gun belt. It fell to the rocky floor with a solid sound. Chase grabbed it and ran to one side. The kid was quick, I thought, in admiration. He'd be ready for grow-up time before it came down the road to him.
The other kidnapper, now known to me as Cage, and to the whole town soon enough, and to the paymaster, dropped his belt too, pistol still in place in the holster. Chase scurried and got that one too.
"Chase" I said, "my name's Edjo Dundeen and I came because your Mom really misses you, and your father, too, I bet." I kind of hung my head on that mouthful. "We gotta get these two back to town and we need their horses. You know where they stashed them, these kîhkwahâhkêws, these wolverines, these quick-hatches like the folks in Hudson Bay talk about all the time? The Cree folk got them pegged, alright."
"Yup," the boy said, "over in another cave. It's attached to this one, but off in there." He pointed to a dark end of the cave. "Indians marked it all up a long time ago, all the walls with animals on them. Some of them I've never seen. Later on I might live in here for a whole year, copying things down." He tipped his head and asked, "Wolverines? They drew them on the walls, too. Smooly-looking things." His smile was as bright as a summer morning in spite of an ordeal lots of kids his age couldn't have handled.
After that, it was as sweet and smooth as eating lemon meringue pie. We had 'em bound and mounted on their horses and headed back to town. I sure hoped we wouldn't meet any of the posse on the way; I wanted Chase's Mom to see him first; and if you don't know the reason why by now, I'm not about to tell you.
But I'd see his father later, for sure. The paymaster.