Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
Available Now Site-wide ad space Top right corner, replacing the ad to the right. $25 per month. Click HERE to find out more.
Western Short Story
The Indian papoose was found tucked between two rocks in a copse of cottonwoods and pines in the Utah/Idaho territory by a mountain man, Tall Lennie, so named by Indians of the area, who was following a deer he had shot. He found that a wounded dog had fallen at the baby’s side, which from the signs he read told him the dog had been badly hurt in a fight protecting the child and possibly had run off whatever creature was too close. But two other dogs were torn to pieces. Not far away a dead Indian pony had been scavenged by the same fierce creature and perhaps by vultures also.
The scene, in some manner, was re-created in Tall Lennie’s mind, and nothing would ever change it. The papoose was lost and protected by dogs of the tribe, the mother might be dead somewhere, or chased off or carried off if she had hid her papoose from harm.
The moon made the time exact for Tall Lennie. A few days after the new moon, the waxing crescent moon appeared in the western horizon soon after sunset. That was the night the baby was found. Two weeks later, to the day, the full moon would rise in the east and be visible all during the night, to set in the west near sunrise. It was like a clock of days in Tall Lennie’s head. He’d mark the Indian baby forever by the moon and its time, though he could not tell to which tribe the papoose belonged. It made a great difference to him where the child should be brought for caring.
Tall Lennie, named by some Shoshones with whom he traded, picked up the child, named him One-Dog-Left the way his mother might have, and headed for the Webster settlement on the big river, where the baby could be cared for. One couple he knew without a child of their own seemed the most adaptable to taking in the baby, and the most welcome. He had sat a few times at the Vickers’ table when the talk came up about no children in the house. Martha Vickers was comely, adjusted, and hardworking, the western life suiting her appetite for life, but she wanted a child. Her sister had been carried off by Indians five years earlier, on her way to visit Martha and her husband Jon. She too had been childless. The void in Martha Vickers’ life had been filled by her energy.
Now that void had found a new cause for directing energy … and love. In one momentous swing of time, chance and good fortune, her life changed when the baby napped for a while in her arms. Her husband eventually made dinner for Tall Lennie, as his wife fed the infant and moved things about the house so quickly that Tall Lennie’s head began to spin.
“She move this fast usual?” Tall Lennie said to Jon Vickers.
“When she’s a mind, Lennie, which is usual, as you say. Plumb glad you thought about her and me and not some that would’ve turned their nose up at an Indian papoose.” The two men had a mutual liking for the other, both of them different in the way of life, the difference acceptable to the other.
“Seems like I ain’t seen that kind of happy since old Jack Mellon found his daughter in Ogden just walkin’ down the street in front of him. Caused a happy ruckus they did and Jack near got to huggin’ me, if you can believe that, and him not seein’ her for most five years.”
“You know Martha’ll protect that child with her life from this moment on, like the good Lord left him in her care, with your help of course.”
“I don’t know that He touched me, Jon, but He sure touched that papoose and Martha too. They’s like poison ivy and white skin getting’ locked up come spring in the air.”
“Tell me again about the name you gave him, Lennie. It come on you quick?”
“Like this, Jon,” he said while snapping his fingers in the air, “with the dog passin’ like he did and me holdin’ him and the babe at the same time, and I spilt some water on him by accident and called his name right out like I was Injun myself right in their tribe.”
“Then you can be sure, Lennie,” said Martha from the other room, “that we’ll call him by his blessed name and won’t ever try to hide he’s Indian from him. Not on this ranch. Not in this house. Not by his new parents. Not ever.”
Tall Lennie knew he had brought One-Dog-Left to the right place.
The boy, not without some concern on the part of the Vickers about his relationship with others in the settlement, grew apace of his years. He was adept at all duties and implements of a cowman, from horse and cow to rope and weapon. He showed skill and courage many times over, and was elated whenever Tall Lennie came to visit, usually once a year, now and then twice on special occasions. One of them being the birth date Tall Lennie had settled on the boy from the best he could figure. Once he told Martha and Jon about the moon on the night of discovering the boy was the first quarter of the crescent moon, in the month of June. That determined the date of birth in his mind.
One-Dog-Left was fifteen years old on the second year that Tall Lennie failed to show up. It was June 6, 1876, his birthday, and he sat on the corral fence most of the day, gazing off to the foothills and the range beyond, expecting to see Tall Lennie, like a tree shorn of all branches but one, come riding out of the foothills the way he had so many times, slim, ramrod straight, a hearty wave of one arm that made him look like he was 10 foot tall in the saddle and his horse a miniature pony.
He had not eaten since breakfast, skipping two meals as he sat, near motionless for hours at a time on the rail. Martha watched him from her kitchen window, knowing what was in his mind, what the urges were that passed into him, deep into him, for resolution. She had been there many times herself, knowing the drive that kept her alive, the hope for a child, for her lost sister, for the goodness that one might have in this life.
Not once during the day did she call him for a meal.
When he did move off the rail, near dusk, she knew he had made a decision whose effect he would carry all his life.
One-Dog-Left entered the barn where Jon Vickers worked with two ranch hands. “Pa,” One-Dog-Left said, “I’m going to look for Uncle Lennie in the morning. I’m going alone. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone or what I will find. I’m going in to tell Mom now.” He turned and left the barn, a decided adult stride in his walk, a man’s stride. Jon Vickers remembered the day he had come to them in the arms of the man he’d now go looking for. To a certain degree, he understood the swirl of life about them all.
“Mom,” One-Dog-Left said to Martha Vickers, “I’m going out in the morning to look for Uncle Lennie. It’s been too long this time. I don’t know where I’ll go or what I’ll find, or even how long I’ll be, but I’ll be back.” He hugged her and sat down to eat a late meal she had ready in minutes.
Silently, without motion, she watched him from the other room, the love still shooting through her, the pride she had taken in raising him, all the while knowing that someday something in him would call him elsewhere. She had talked to other women who had lost their children, not to war or strife or a life of crime or sitting a sheriff’s saddle, but of a choice that rose in the spirit of the person, a choice that demanded or looked for answers, opportunities, or new love. None of them ever fully understood the loss. It was at this moment that Martha Vickers knew hers so completely.
Before dawn, before the rooster sounded his alarm or the guinea hens in the tree tops were squawking at false dawn’s gray entrance, One-Dog-Left was away from the ranch, and no one behind him risen yet, though Martha Vickers knew he was gone. The emptiness filled her as she wondered when, if ever, she’d see her son again.
In the Uinta Mountains, two days ride from the Green River, he found an old Shoshone Indian who gave him the first news about Tall Lennie. “Man ride high in saddle. Saw him one time, six moons ago, with Black Quiver. Leg broke. Get carried away by squaws to Black Quiver lodge up there.” He pointed deeper and higher in the mountains. “His horse dead from bear. Stay all winter in mountain place. But not there now. One Wing tell me he is in a new place in mountains. Has new Indian wife, but no Shoshone.”
One- Dog-Left said, “I will go look for him. Thank you.”
“Are you the papoose he find years ago, mother dead from bear also? Tall man take you to white ranch. Are you that Shoshone papoose, now try to find tall man?”
“That is who I am.”
“If you find tall man, you can take new name. You can pick any name. You can think about it long time if you find tall man. He tell story about you all the time in the mountains. Shoshone never bother him. Never take game from his trap. Never steal his horse. Fix broke leg so he can get new woman.”
The old Indian looked into the boy’s eyes. “I see big battle coming. Big chiefs fight past mountains. Woman fights with her husband, saves life of brother name Chief Comes-in-Sight, but she will fall down from sickness. Woman is not tall man’s woman, but a Cheyenne woman. Woman make man many ways. Strong is one way. Cook meat is another. Carry arrows another. Chief Washakie, with his woman, white woman, make war on Blackfeet, Cheyenne and Sioux. He has room in heart for tall man who save Shoshone papoose. He will know you in the mountains.”
One-Dog-Left rode north, climbed trails, dipped into valleys and canyons, followed what came to him as Shoshone trails. The signs appeared to him as if he had seen them all his life … where a summer tipi had been set up, lived in, taken down … where game had been dressed down from a kill, treated, or cooked over an open fire, where a night guard had lain for hours on the watch for tribal enemies or army scouts, where a dance had taken place on the long grass. The unknown chants came to him the way they would in a dream.
Uncle Lennie had spoken of all such things on every visit, as if he knew the day would come when One-Dog-Left would need such knowledge.
The time was here. It was happening, and the boy who’d become a man thought often of the man that brought him to a new home, from out of the desperate wilds, his mother dead, her horse dead, the dogs gone in their last fight. He wondered what the dogs had been called. Dog-Stand-On-Two -Legs sounded as good as any name he thought of.
From one point, as high as he had been in the mountains, and from a distance, he saw several Indians, hours apart, walk up to and disappear as if a wall of rock had swallowed them whole. He marked the wall in several ways so that he could see it from other points, and eventually look directly down on the place where the Indians seemed to disappear … though he knew it was into the mountain somehow. Uncle Lennie had told him of the many places where man and animal lived out the harsh winters … with water available, a cache of firewood set aside for cooking and warmth, food, fur or skins for comfort, and means to replenish the food supply.
And all the time he suddenly realized that when Uncle Lennie seemed to be telling the most thrilling stories, he was telling him how he himself had survived in the wild mountains, or how it might be done.
He was glad he had listened to the man of the mountains. Now he hoped he could find him, and alive.
A day later, from another lookout point, he spotted the entrance into the mountain. It had to be behind a huge sheaf of rock that had peeled off the face of the cliff.
The next evening, as dusk settled in, he entered a virtual hole in the mountain and made his way along a tunnel without light to a turn in the tunnel. As he made that turn he saw a sliver of light ahead of him, smelled the odor of burning pitch and heard voices.
One voice said, “Tall man must get boy to come here. He is son of chief and must be told of his place. Tall man owe life to us. We bring you here, fix leg, feed you all this time. Must get boy to come here.”
One-Dog-Left heard Uncle Lennie say, “And you kept me a prisoner all the time. I could have gone out of here many moons ago. If I tell One-Dog-Left how this saving man has been treated, he will burn your villages, bring the devil himself into the heart of the mountain, put the curse of the fire god on all the Shoshones.”
“But he is Shoshone too,” the Indian voice said.
“He is fair before he is Shoshone. The God of all things and all ways is in his blood before the Shoshone blood. You know that and so do I. His true mother is sister of his ranch mother. When he finds that out he will bring fire on you, perhaps a new war. He is son of Chief Washakie and will be a chief of the Shoshones of the Nations.”
“He must learn our ways all the way before he becomes a chief of Shoshone. We all agree new chief must learn our ways.” There was a rumbling of voices that seemed to go the length of the tunnel before it came back in an echo, many voices in the echo.
“Hah,” Tall Lennie said, “all of you know he is as much Shoshone now as you are. He knows all the ways of the Shoshone. Even now he knows I am in trouble and will come for me. That is his way, the true Shoshone way. I know it has been told to you. One-Dog-Left is a Shoshone chief without knowing it.”
One-Dog-Left was stunned in his place, in the darkness of a tunnel in the heart of a mountain. As he envisioned his ranch mother, he saw a dark spirit of a woman enter the picture in his mind. He could not remember her, but he knew her. He could feel his true mother in his blood. There was such a war now breeding in his blood … he was part Shoshone, son of Chief Washakie, and he was part white, as well as a real part of the ranch of the Vickers.
His eyes, sitting so long in the darkness, began to see things around him. He saw a stack of firewood along one wall of the tunnel. A pile of fur stood as high as his hips on the other side of the tunnel. The flicker of a small flame appeared, and smoke swirled upward from the flame, to escape through a hole in the mountain, he believed. No stench of old fire or old cooking came to him, and the swirl of smoke from the fire continued to rise and escape in some overhead manner.
A sense of power began to flow in his blood as he stood there, listening to his past, hearing his future. The power began to mobilize itself, become a conscious part of his thinking. What would a Shoshone chief do now?
The power came upon him with great convincing, the way a weight is known on the shoulders. It pushed itself through his body, into his mind.
The Shoshone spirit ran right up his backside. “Hold there,” he yelled out, in a voice that rang off the rock walls and ran into all the mountainous cavities. He took a new name on the spot and declared it. “Chief Ten-Dogs-Ready comes to speak to all who must listen. The tall man is my friend. He will walk from here as he chooses. No Shoshone will bother him. Chief Ten-Dogs-Ready has made a new law for all Shoshones of his lodge.”
The echo of that voice, its power, ran back and forth in the tunnel and into the other passageways, the whole mountain ringing with the truth from the tongue of a new Shoshone chief.
Tall Lennie, noting who the newcomer was, said his piece also. “Did not I tell you that the new chief would look for me? Now he is here and we will leave this heart of the mountain. He has come as I said and not as you wished him to come. Chief Ten-Dogs-Ready, son of Chief Washakie already with long tooth, and a woman of the ranch, will do as he wishes, will wear the hat or dressed feathers of his choice, ride his own horse, live in the world as he chooses. His lodge will be the lodge he makes, wherever he puts down the poles to hold the skins against the weather.”
The two men, each having rescued the other from peril or pain, from chance or choice, made their way down the tunnel to the entrance to the mountain. No Indian challenged their leaving the heart of the mountain, the mountain range, or the way down to the wide prairie.
Martha Vickers, from her kitchen window, saw them first, the tall, thin man in the saddle waving a thin arm in the air, and the younger one, easily known, riding comfortably on an Indian pony, wearing no shirt but wearing a hawk’s feather in his hair, also waving his arms, each man knowing that the lady of the ranch house was looking for them all the time they were gone.
Tall Lennie died from a fall off a ledge in the Uinta Mountains in May of 1879. He had no known kin except the Shoshone chief, of an eastern tribe and of the widespread Vickers ranch, who would be known, eventually, as Chief Father-of-Three-Vickers-Boys, who died in 1938, killed by a bear in the Uinta Mountains near a copse of cottonwoods and pine trees. When two Shoshone braves found him, a dog, taking last breaths, was at his side, and his horse was a short ways off, being fed upon by the vultures. They found bear tracks in the copse.
In all the lodges his story is told, about One-Dog Left and Ten-Dogs-Ready. The rest is understood as that which might not have happened.