Western Short Story
Cowboy from Afar
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

He knew he had passed out from the pain at least twice. He didn’t know how many other times it had happened. But he was still here, moving a bit though not kicking, at least not with the leg in the cumbersome splint he had constructed. The revolver was in his belt, tucked there for easy transport. The spy glass was slung over his shoulder in its special pack. He thought: “I am on another excursion, as short as it is.” The journal was under his shirt, it too in a protective pack, but a soft one. He looked at the scratches on the wall of the cave. He had his schedule noted. He had theirs noted too. ”Today the red men will dance. Tomorrow they will start their hunt.”

His grandfather, far off in deep Europe (he hoped he was still alive) had said, “Yesoff, know where you are and when it is. Mark your times. Your life is as important as anybody’s life. Watch the curve of the moon.” The old gentleman was a mystic and a master at getting his attention. His voice he could still hear, the haunting of it, and the forecast.

More than once in the cave he suspected that an Indian, or someone who knew his way around the mountains, had been at the entrance, possibly smelling the smoke residue from his fires, or an odor of cooked meat. He’d heard them moving about outside and used the rattle in the depths of the cave, not shaking it with vigor but with a definite sound of a rattler hidden in the darkness of the cave. It had worked each time and had frightened him too with its natural sound, but there was no way of knowing how long the ruse would work.

For the start of a new day, Yesoff Zingelarq crawled out of his cave in the Davidos Mountains, the small fire behind him doused, a meal under his gut. He’d keep looking for help to get him out of this bind he was in … the self-constructed splint on the broken leg he’d set himself, unable to walk far, no horse or mule to ride, hiding from Indians that would not understand his long presence in the mountains.

Perhaps, he thought, he’d see someone today, signal them, get rescued out of this mountain range. The cold weather would come in time; when it came and he was still here, it would keep him forever in the cave, in the mountains, lost to eternity. He had come to America to be a cowboy, the romance and the adventure drawing him endlessly as a boy in Europe, and now he was an excellent drover. “Make no mistake about that,” he’d say, “six trail drives under my belt, wearing two scars left by arrow and slug, and an uncompromising admiration for the tribesmen that circulate the rivers, prairies, foothills and mountains spreading across the land west of the great river I have crossed five times.”

A chance to view the Indians from afar, coupled with word of a gold strike by a prospector who died in his arms, had drawn him into the mountains … gold found, leg broken in a fall, horse also with a broken leg and devoured soon after by wolves or peccaries or the vultures themselves gliding overhead. But he had survived the fall, the break, the long stay, by finding ways to snare or catch food, drag wood for a fire into his cave, crawl or stumble out each day with his long glass and sidearm to signal anyone he saw who might help him.

But in the daily process of studying the Indians in the valley below, he began to understand himself, what drew him, what really interested him, what caused the vacuum in his system to slowly fill with knowledge and wonder. This became a rare satisfaction for him after endlessly driving cows to corrals, to railheads, and to the butchers waiting in Chicago and points east. A certain satisfaction surfaced in the work as a drover … the endless hours on a horse, kinship with the horse as well as with those who rode with him, odd and varied views of a new country and a new culture that he vaguely had dreamed about.

And there were these Native Americans whose lands they often drove herds through. The colors and customs came at him in huge gulps. He loved all of it, and it balanced the agonies of long hours of bouncing on a horse, though he came to love also the animals he rode.

So, whenever he could, he watched the Indians in rituals, habits, and in their proficiencies. Their lodges and teepees of one tribe were now spread in a ring down in the valley below him, a valley green as a new bud, a continuous waterfall coming off a rocky crest adding to the comfort of the location. They could pass the winter in this place, he believed … but he could not.

His favored possession was the spy glass or looking glass made by a French company, Bardou & Son of Paris, that his grandfather had given to him on his 12th birthday. It was brass, 10 inches long when closed and 31 inches when extended and had a shutter on the eye piece to close when not in use. The spy glass had a grand magnification caliber. He treasured the piece and loved watching Indians from high and distant places, from secret places, like the current one he’d been forced into by an accident. His admiration of them was unbounded, from their riding and hunting skills, their art of war, culture separation, distinctions of tribes, clans or nations, and adaptability in strange situations that called on native skills of survival. His small journal began to bulge with notes he penned from sights and determinations he had seen or made about Indian behavior. There were times he felt he was at a footnote of history, or turning the good pages.

On this day, he thought it was his 13th day at the same cave, he saw two braves mount their ponies and travel in opposite directions. This action he had not seen on any earlier days, and his intuition kicked in at almost the same time the riders disappeared, east and west of his position. He recalled more advice from his grandfather: “Remember always that a beginning action has a finish; try to see the finish before it comes. If it’s not habitual, try to see what the gain will be, where it will be.”

“They do not hunt until tomorrow,” he offered to himself, “because they only hunt after the ceremony, which they celebrate later today. So it is another target they seek, which can be me.”

On the edge of a steeply inclined ridge rim, not 20 feet from the narrow opening into his cave, Yesoff Zingelarq adjusted his spy glass and looked at the last places where each of the braves had disappeared. Trying to remember what trail he had taken up here, the left one seemed most likely the one. That meant the rider on that course would end up here. It was simple to envision the second rider coming up from the other side and arriving at the same point. The two braves would meet near here, near the cave, near where he had used the rattles to throw off the unseen searchers. It was a cinch to believe that they were looking for him then, and looking for him now. He must have left a track, a trail, a minute sign that gave him away at some point.

Zingelarq estimated it would take each man at least two hours to reach his position. The internal clock turned itself on at that very moment, and he set the glass on the chief’s teepee where two maidens were twisting some kind of fabric into 6 or 7 foot lengths. “It must be rawhide,” he mouthed, “or some kind of sinewy remnants or vine work, which they are turning into a rope product. The speed of the two maidens amazed him, for they worked like their hands were made of a silk as rapid and as strong as a spider’s spinning. Once or twice he caught himself trying to focus more closely on the faces of the maidens. That too intrigued him.

The internal clock, in the midst of a reverie or two, made known its alarm and he withdrew to the cave, even though he had seen nothing or heard nothing. From the inside he pushed a rock larger than the opening as close as he could to the opening. Three smaller rocks were wedged under the bigger stone so that it would be most difficult to push the stone into the cave. From a shelf of sorts Zingelarq retrieved the rattle and put it near the opening. If necessary, he’d use that ploy again if any intruders succeeded in pushing the rock inwards.

In the cave, not aware of any disturbances outside, Zingelarq finally went to sleep, the rattle in his hand. Sleep, after a fashion, was deep and pleasant. He woke hungry, lit a small fire, and heated a remnant meal and a tin cup of old coffee. As he prepared to leave for the morning look down into the valley, he gathered his gear … the spy glass, the pistol and a few rounds of ammunition, and the journal in its wrapper so he could add to it during the tribe’s hunting day.

His newest lesson was learning of the patience of the Indians.

After Zingelarq rolled the rock away from the opening, and slipped outside with his gear, he was immediately accosted by the two braves who had waited all night for the chance to catch him. They were rough with him. Knocking him down, picking him up, studying his gear, and laughing at his little pistol. Both braves carried bow and arrows, and one carried a big ugly knife that looked like it had been beat out of another metal application. It was once pressed against Zingelarq’s throat so that he could feel the keen edge.

When the other grabbed the spy glass in its case, he could not figure it out, and he spoke to his tribesman in a tongue Zingelarq could not begin to understand. The two jabbered and laughed and jabbered again. Zingelarq tried to read their body language and failed to dent it at all. When the Indian with the spy glass case seemed poised to throw it over the edge, to certain ruin, Zingelarq screamed. The scream was enough to deter the brave from tossing the instrument to certain destruction. That brave now looked at the instrument with more curiosity and interest, and spoke to his companion in a subdued tone. At least, that was Zingelarq’s interpretation.

They had made much of his splint in a tone of voice that sent various messages for Zingelarq’s further interpretation. He thought some of it to be curiosity, and then admiration, and then, perhaps because he had been captured so easily, disdain. The two braves walked him, half pushing him and half carrying him, to their horses. A third horse was there and Zingelarq learned a new lesson in Indian confidence … it was apparent that they knew they were going to catch him and bring him back to the village. He was disappointed and elated at the same time, for he’d see their village as close as he’d ever get.

One of the braves untied the string on his bow, pulled Zingelarq’s arms behind him once he was on horseback, stuck the bow behind his back and in the crook of each elbow, then tied his hands in front with the bow string. He was completely helpless now, and had to press his knees against the flanks of the horse to keep himself upright.

But they were not done with him yet. One brave pulled his boots off, looped them with a piece of rawhide and threw them over the neck of his horse. For all matters, Zingelarq was immobile in the terrain; he’d have difficulty, if he was loose, going anywhere.

The ride downhill was frightening at first, but he became used to it, and seemed to sense that the two braves would assist him if he was to fall.

They brought him eventually to their village, to a quiet and reserved reception, where he thought it would be a victory of sorts, and so celebrated. But the Indians all remained more curious than excited. It was he who was excited, getting so close to the villagers, seeing close at hand their clothes, their gear, the children, especially the babes, and the women of the tribe. Most of the women wore the same type of deerskin dress, with only adornments being varied.

They pulled up in front of an older Indian who Zingelarq took to be the chief, wearing a long war bonnet that Zingelarq had seen enough times to be able to identify the wearer, this man, as chief. He also wore a fringed shirt decorated with animal teeth, quills and some red beading, a breechcloth, leggings and tan moccasins with the same red beads on the instep. The chief would be amazed, Zingelarq decided, if he was to open the journal with a drawing of him that took an entire page, all that he had observed from afar with the spy glass. There was another page with a drawing of a woman in a fringed dress adorned with elk teeth, he had assumed, shells, and some porcupine quills. There was a subtle difference in her dress from the other women and he figured her to be the chief’s woman, for the beading on her dress was a mix of orange and green colors and no other women wore that combination of colored beads.

These observations would be heightened by the explanation and use of the spy glass. He couldn’t wait for the lessons to begin, but he’d have to initiate it carefully in light of the brave who wanted to toss it off the mountainside.

The bow behind his back was removed and the rawhide string taken off his wrists. Zingelarq rubbed his wrists and nodded to the chief. He still had the journal inside his shirt. He hoped it was his out, or his rabbit’s foot. And supported, in a way he might maneuver it, by the spy glass.

The chief, his war bonnet full of bright feathers, at least 6 inches taller than Zingelarq, a sudden smile on his face as he looked at Zingelarq’ splint, followed by a knowledgeable nod, said, “Cartier teach me you talk. Talk like wolf or talk like owl when meet white man. What you want, hide like prairie dog in mountain, let vulture eat your horse, not you? What your name? I am Three Stone Tall, chief of Cheyenne.”

At that moment an Indian woman, most gorgeous, in a dress he remembered having drawn in his journal, came out of the teepee behind Three Stones Tall. Her elegance was beyond anything Zingelarq had ever imagined for a Native American, in her face, in her shape, in her obvious charm. She wore a long deerskin dress with a running border of orange and green beads. With no disdain, she looked at Zingelarq and said, “Chief think sun shine on you, man who walk tall on bad leg.” Staring at his splint, she said, “He lose son, Beaver Tail, from bad leg in horse fall. You fix more than medicine man. He see it all. Teach him what you do. Why you live in mountain.” She pointed off to the distant peaks.

With a slight twist of his body, trying not to surprise any of the Indians, Zingelarq reached inside his shirt to draw out the journal. He’d show her something.

Twang! A sudden movement at the edge of the crowd and an arrow landed right between Zingelarq’s unshod feet, a sound of swiftness arriving after the arrow did. There was a hush, a fearful look from the chief, who said, in so many Cheyenne words, “Do not hurt this one,” as he stepped forward and held up his hand, stopping any more threats to Zingelarq.

The situation came at Zingelarq rapidly. He pointed up to the mountain, then at the woman, doing it repeatedly until he thought she, the chief and others, might have gotten the idea of seeing things at a distance. He pointed at his eyes and then at the mountain and then at the chief and the woman. He did it again and again, much as a marionette on a string while the chief, his woman, the two braves who had captured him, and the entire village by this time, were staring at him like he was a clown.

When he opened the journal and showed the chief and his woman the drawings of both of them, there was a hush from all close enough to see the drawings, and then a flurry of excitement on their part. Colors on the pages leaped at them, all the oranges and greens and reds and yellows. The woman smiled widely, spoke in the Cheyenne language words that Zingelarq could only guess at, as if she had seen herself in a mirror.

Zingelarq pulled the arrow from between his feet, raised it only to the level of his eyes and drove it back into the ground. With that movement he pointed overhead, and then at the chief, and then at his chest, and said, “Yessof Zingelarq does not fight the gods or the chiefs of the Nations. Yessof Zingelarq does not fight the gods or the chiefs of the Nations.”

There was silence in the village, a question caught on the last breath taken in.

The chief said, “Jessop Single ark?”

His woman, putting a hand on Zingelarq’s shoulder, said, as clearly as possible, “Yessof Zingelarq.” The smile was still wide on her face.

Zingelarq knew this was his chance. He looked around him, mostly at the sky line, and at distant trees at the edge of foothills. In the top of a tree on the edge of the grass, on a bare branch, he saw what he thought was a hawk sitting and watching for a meal, his head probably turning slowly in a sweeping search.

He took the spy glass from its case, extended the scope to its full length, amazing all who looked upon him, focused and found the hawk, and let the chief’s woman look through the scope as he did. His arms flapped in mild capture of wings.

The woman shrieked in a most pleasant manner, spun about, aimed the glass at the mountain top, exclaimed in the Cheyenne language again and again some kind of delight, her face crowded with surprise and joy. She handed the spy glass to Three Stone Tall, who followed her example. For a solid ten minutes, uninterrupted by any of the activity about him in the village, Three Stone Tall observed distant objects with the spy glass.

The village again was silent, caught up in question, newness, and interest in the momentarily unknown.

At length, with an excitable voice, the chief directed a brave to his tent. The brave returned with the chief’s smoking pipe, his peace pipe, and for the better part of a month, while his leg fully healed, Yessof Zingelarq became a guest of the Cheyenne chief, Three Stone Tall. The two men saw and journalized many objects, tools, weapons, and animals important to Cheyenne history and survival.

At the end of that period the chief closed the cover of Zingelarq’s journal and handed it to him with a smile. Zingelarq handed his spy glass to Three Stone Tall, and the two men shook hands.

Yessof Zingelarq rode off on a pony with his original saddle retrieved from the mountain. A beautiful young maiden rode off with him, only looking back once at her village as she and her betrothed headed toward another life.

Someplace in Wyoming today or tomorrow or next month, in a small room set aside for collected antlers and other artifacts in an old ranch house at the end of a pretty valley, a young man reading this account will smile as he holds in his hands the journal that was once the property of his great grandfather. He will study it again for the thousandth time, sense the connection through his fingers, and understand the connection. He allows that it vibrates within him every day of his life.

He knows he will never part with the journal, which very few people know about.

It is best that way, he believes.


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