Western Short Story
He rolled over in his blanket and watched the false dawn migrate from behind the mountains. A sense of peace prevailed about him, the last sound a distant coyote selling his wares, or claiming them, being part of dawn’s celebration, as his sleepy self was. The single howl settled into a canyon and was lost forever; had run its course this time out. In the shadows the hills were still locked into, shapes and shadows of no description but which everything fit into including the steep hills he’d have to climb before the day was done, life was bent on moving at its pace. He was at peace with that, as though it might be a compromise on what was coming his way; as if he’d take whatever was coming along.
He was not hunted. He was not hunting.
He was waiting.
From under the cover of the blanket he withdrew his boots, covered for the night, warm beside his legs instead of on them. Tethered to a bush, his horse nickered, acknowledging him and the coming drink and the romp on the grass. A star was brightly visible in the western sky, out of a steep reach of the Teton Range; it was a grand hello for the day, from the day.
He put all the parts together; pre-dawn, horse, coyote, the smell of the grass and the odor of a dead fire that would soon come back in coffee’s breakthrough, the squeeze of boots settling their wrap about his feet and ankles, the sure touch of stirrups as if welded in place, his rump promising the horse’s bounce and run.
The new day.
The new hope.
The horse, as golden as the sun would promise the day, tossed about a rich palomino’s mane that’d dance in the wind before the day was an hour old, the mane like a golden fleece. That dance would be a renewal, he believed, as he tried to think back to more than two weeks earlier. The memory of the time was dim, shaded or shielded, still caught up as parts of the old day and the old shadows, the old shapes of what was, what is, what had become.
The ledge trail was narrow, tricky at times, but he’d made the trip a half dozen times without one incident. The cave, its mouth as narrow as pursed lips, had been there for a few thousand years, he surmised. He’d never paid much attention to it, other than agreeing that it was there in stone, a slight slit in the stone face. The river was there, too, a precipitous 300 feet down the palisaded side of the mountain, sheerer than a chance at a Royal Straight Flush, a pot looming in the middle of a table, all hands at work.
“Never look down,” McKusker had told him before the start of his first trip. “I been there a hundred times, kid, and I never looked down and I never fell. The trip saves you a half day, rather than run around the mountain. That’s one whole day saved for town. Special is what it is.”
McKusker was an old hand at the Double Star Ranch. Some said he was there longer than the owner, had lost it to him in a poker game. Life, many of the hands agreed, could turn on the flip of a coin, a single draw from the deck, an errant shot awing on chance, a dead trigger when you really needed one more shot, a look a girl might have thrown your way once and you had a speck of dust in your eye and never saw the message she had sent your way.
A thousand chance things could happen one at a time.
But McKusker never had a cougar scream at him, at his horse, on the narrowest part of the ledge, from where that slit cave mouth was. McKusker never went off a saddle as the horse reared, slipped, fell away like a side of the mountain itself, like a damned landslide or a chunk of cliff sheared off by an earthquake in the heart of the mountain. Down. Going down. All the way down.
He had lost his ranch in a corner of a saloon, at a table of chance, the crowd squeezing in on him.
The fall of the horse, off the ledge, made him shiver again.
The incident flashed back to him in pieces. “Don’t fall under the horse,” he had told himself as he too fell away, in air, in space, in the once pale gray day with his horse. “You’ll fall safely into the water, and then the damned horse will fall right on top of you and kill you forever.”
He felt like he was swimming in the gray air, waving and wagging his arms, sending signals, praying for help, wondering where the horse was. His hat was gone. His side arms. The canteen sounded tinny as it hit the back of his head. He’d have no need of water anyway. He caught no laughter on his part. He thought about the horse in a flash; would the horse survive? Had the cougar, so close, nearly into the grip of the stirrups, scared the horse to death? Would he be dead, the horse, before he hit the river? He remembered the expression being said a dozen times in different stories in the bunkhouse; “He was dead before he hit the ground.” Would it be the same with water? With a horse?
He couldn’t hear the river as he fell, not the way it always sounded, a roar as steady as wind in the tunnels of the mountain, never letting go as the temperature fluctuations changed the rush of air into sounds full of mystery, of unknown sources, as constant as day start.
In part of the fall he wondered how many had fallen from this ledge in a thousand years. How many cowboys on the way to town? How many Indians, in a sudden storm, lightning coming down on top of them, the mountain shaking as Mother Nature made another pass at some small, indeterminate life on the move? As she drew on fate?
Finally, he did not remember hitting the water. No pain. No slam. No submersion in the midst of a new wilderness he had never known, the clutch of water, the iron grip of it deep in the body of it. Or being drawn out of the river a half mile or more down past the rapids and falls he had gone through, upside down, inside out, head or feet first, obviously not conscious, for none of it had come back, none of it would come back. Should he try to bring it back? he thought seriously. A part of his life gone forever, as simple as that last coyote’s howl went away down in a canyon, lost.
The old Indian, the one who pulled him out of the water, who saw him fall, who saw his horse fall and knew the horse would not survive, who knew the man had a chance if he carried enough air in his lungs. The Indian said he did not jump into the water to save him because he was too old, but snagged him with a long stick, dragged him close to the bank, then pulled him up from the reach of water to lie on the ground, to find one breath that brought him back.
“One breath. It was close,” he said, nodding as serene as the mountain, being spokesman for the mountain.
His name was Buffalo-Die-Hard, an elder, a shaman of the Blackfeet nation, older than some of the trees that swayed in the breeze around him, yet strong enough to haul him up on the bank of the river, once he had floated past the wildest part of the rapids and the falls, barely alive.
“You come to me from the God of the Mountain and the God of the River,” Buffalo-Die-Hard had said when he came conscious. They promised me, as old as I am, a chance to save a life and you are indebted to me forever. But you are on the short side to owe me.” There was humor in his few words, a twinkle in his eyes, the way one owes up to a mystery, and then lets it go as a judgment is concluded.
That’s when Buffalo-Die-Hard drew everything into focus. “The cougar was born of the two gods to do their bidding. The cougar use his roar to drive the horse to his death and leave you for me. Tell me why you use this trail alone. Why do you not go with others around the mountain? Other Blackfeet, younger, much younger, find life different, seek excitement, danger. They try to measure man out there? They only will know what I know when they come to this edge of a long life.”
“I go to visit a woman who will become my wife.”
“Does she agree with that?”
“She doesn’t know it yet.”
The twinkle came back to the eyes of Buffalo-Die-Hard. “Does she wait for you now? Does she know you are late to see her?”
“I’ll tell her when the time comes,” he replied to the old Indian, as good as he could make on a promise, and he meant it. “It was my turn to go to town. They will miss me, at some ranch, even if she doesn’t. But I’ll tell her everything when the time comes.”
“Will you tell her about Buffalo-Die-Hard? How the God of the Mountain and the God of the River told me about you?”
“Yes,” he said to the wise one, “I will tell her all that I remember when the time comes.”
“What is my name?”
“Buffalo-Die-Hard. You are a Blackfoot Indian, a shaman or wise man.”
“Yes, I am a wise man. I know my own name as well as you know my name Buffalo-Die-Hard. You can tell her that.” The eyes were speaking again before his tongue. “What is your name?” He laughed. “You think Indian has no laugh in him? You think Buffalo-Die-Hard has no humor like white man has, man who does not know his own name. Will you tell her when the time come?”
“Tell her what?”
“Tell her what your name is.”
“When I remember it, when the time comes, when she promises to marry me.”
“What will her name be then?”
“I don’t know. Not now, but it will come back to me. I can feel it coming back. I’m scratching for it. I lost my horse and I’ll never get him back. But my name’s right there someplace.”
“When it come, tell me who you are, what is your name, so I will know whose life belong to me.”
“My name is Larry Pumphrey.” It was the first name that came to him. Larry was an old pard. He had not seen him in years. He wondered what had happened to good old Larry. What did Larry call him?
“If her name is to become Pumphrey,” Buffalo-Die-Hard said, “you are in trouble with her. She would be named Lady-with-Husband-with-No-Name.”
He had been waiting for so long he had forgotten how long, but, as if a miracle had come upon him, he said, “My name is Clifford George Cagney. I am a drover at the Double-Star Ranch.”
The old Blackfoot Indian said, “All of Cagney owe life to Buffalo-Die-Hard, until lady say different. Then all Cagney owe the lady.”