Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Darkly Armitage, astride Bullet, a magnificent stallion he had corralled himself when he was just 16 years old, sat atop Dead Pony Lookout, a two day ride from the Bar-B ranch where he earned his pay and keep these days, just a scad over his 20th birthday. Rustlers had been active for more than three months in many points of the territory and cautions were about. The marshal said he thought all the troubles were being done at the hands of different pieces of the same gang. Their timing was more than adequate to fluster posses and private searches, “coming,” like he said, “at opposite ends of the clock and the compass… morning here, night there; northerly here, southerly there.” Darkly had been posted by Bar-B boss Devon Armstrong and his wife Barbara to a week long search for any signs of the gang.
“Why’s the place called Dead Pony Lookout?” Darkly Armitage said. “I’ve seen the place from the top of Crater Peak and that’s got a better and a longer view, but I never heard why the name and no interest until now.” He shrugged his shoulders the way cowboys use physical punctuation at times.
“Sure,” Armstrong replied, “and it’ll take you a whole damn day just to get down from the peak to flat side. So, get yourself up to Dead Pony Lookout when you’re ready, but here’s what I know.” He then told Darkly, in some detail, what he had heard from others about dead Pony Lookout. It was an extensive story.
To Darkly’s inquisitive mind, Dead Pony Lookout appeared to be nothing but a story that had come off the big grass and a late campfire, or a late jug of good tastin’. When he got to the Lookout he found no way to get Bullet up to the top, no way at all. Darkly tied him off below, gave him some water and spent half an hour in the climb, on a series of steps and small recesses carved into the stonework. At the top was a small flat butte area no bigger than a barnyard, with a long view across grass and a river and a ravine siding the bigger climbs into the mountain range in the distance.
Talking to himself, he said, “There’s no way anybody found a pony up here, dead or alive. Some injun types long ago made the climb up here by cutting or chipping their way up, with those stairs or what’s left of them now. But there’s no way they got a pony up here, or anybody after them. It ain’t proper belief.” All that talk echoed in the back of his mind, the way some things never let go, like a girl’s name way off in another territory or a past lifetime, or a horse’s name, or a pard that did a big favor one time when trouble came around like a tumble weed on the prowl, or strays after wild lightning cut loose on a whole chunk of territory.
He tried to remember everything that Armstrong had told him about The Lookout. “A couple of troopers from the cavalry heard about the place from an old Indian guide. ‘Bad medicine for any people go up there,’ the guide’d said. ‘Pawnee people make medicine to pony that die up there, hit by lightning after getting to top with chief. Both chief and pony die, but the tribe bring the chief down to put him in special burial ground. For a long time they make medicine at the top around the dead pony.’ Anyway, the troopers who went up there and found the dead pony skeleton were killed a few days later by injuns, like the bad medicine promised for anyone who climbed to the top, the holy ground for injun animals. Bones of the pony were found where he fell down dead in the beginning or was killed by some evil means, any guess would do. But the word about the place kind of spread itself around a long time ago before you came into the territory. At first it went from fireplace to fireplace, saddle to saddle, ranch house to ranch house and then died out. Others had died after climbing up there, they say, but that’s all from a long time ago. A long time ago.” Armstrong tossed off the last part as if everything up to then was just a joke.
Darkly understood it all as a challenge to him, because Armstrong then said, “Of course, if you believe all that kind of crap, it’ll get under your craw. Otherwise, it’s just another long view of things that litter the mind.”
In the recesses of Darkly’s mind, he promised himself to think real heavy about all the stuff he had heard, whether any of it was true or was a made-up thing. He told himself to be aware of all options that could find a place to work.
Quickly back on the job, Darkly ran over the necessities of the day; he had to keep Bullet watered, keep his eye out for rustlers or strange bands of riders, figure out how many times he would have to make the climb up and down and keep it at a minimum, keep moving while on top because the buzzards from a hundred miles away could spot a still body. At length realized he’d have to spend the night below and not on top of Dead Pony Lookout. A coffee fire up on top was an alarm signal to those he was looking for. It would also demand a load of firewood be carried up, which he could do without, in a whole hurry.
With nothing visible on top of the butte, no remnants of any visitors, including the dead pony, he began to look around the site. It was one way to keep moving because he had seen one buzzard in the far sky, and one buzzard meant dozens of them in a matter of minutes.
Then, in one small recess at the edge, as if tucked there by someone or had fallen into that place, or actually dropped by one of the vultures, he found a bone, a large bone. It was not human, he was sure, and then thought it was actually from a small horse… or a pony. A pony’s leg bone. It creased his mind with heavy thinking, even as he watched the far skylines, the sky, the spread of the earth below as it swept off to the far mountains. He’d descend soon, he decided, as evening offered its small announcements; a bird’s song not far away, a cloud appearing thicker than it really was, a shadow astride an edge of the land at a distance.
Darkly pictured himself tossing the bone over the side of the butte, but thought better of it: if the bone was part of a ceremonial act, it had a right to be in its own place. He felt adamant about that, believing the one God above set the store for all those who roamed the earth seeking their final elsewhere.
At that moment, as if all things were so ordained for him on this day, including some strange answers, he saw a small cloud of dust rising on the far horizon. He went prone on the top of Dead Pony Lookout, his eye steady on the dust as it swirled higher, thicker, less than an hour’s ride from where he was. At a point where evening began and day ended, at the mark of a mountain turning in on itself, he could make out the dust, and attached cattle or horses, disappearing into a point between two very similar peaks. He could mark them from any where he might choose.
His report to Armstrong back at the Bar-B ranch was hardly finished when a whole posse of lawmen, volunteers, cattle men in particular, mounted en masse and rode out, Darkly Armitage out front like a bird dog or an injun scout.
It ended up in a shoot-out of some great proportions, in a blind canyon in the mountains, about an hour’s ride from Dead Pony Lookout. A lot of lead was thrown around the hidden canyon. A few gents on both sides got injured, and one magnificent black stallion, not Bullet, was killed by a rampaging steer. Over 1000 head of cattle were recovered from the canyon, as were a hundred or so horses from various remudas, with every local brand visible. There followed the incarceration of a dozen rustlers who threw down their weapons as the heavy numbers of cattle owners and ranch hands moved in on them.
When all the fighting was finished, the cattle settled back with their owners, as well as the hundred or so horses, the rustlers awaiting their fate in jail cells, Armstrong said to Darkly Armitage, once they were back at the Bar-B ranch, “What do you think about the story of Dead Pony Lookout now, Darkly? Can you believe some of that injun stuff? Remember, they were here long before we got here.” He had struck a pose between the real and the mythic, about as far as some arguments can get about Indians, and about as close.
“The whole thing was a set-up, boss,” Darkly said. “I figure them injuns, smarter than some of us by a whole wagonload, found a dead pony, let the meat go as carrion to the vultures or whatever eats dead meat, and then they carried the bones up to the top of the butte and dropped them in some kind of skeleton remainder or form, like the pony hisself had died on the spot from a bolt of lightning, along with the famous chief of some name. The truth gets staggered from then on, but we make of it what they want us to.“
Darkly Armitage had covered a lot of ground and decided to finish. “All kinds of stuff like that come into play. There’s no ghosts out there, and no magicians, and no tribe’s witch doctors, only thankful people who make sense at times, or make it seem so, for their everlasting benefit.”
Armstrong nodded as if he had an understanding of the whole charade.
“It’s as simple as all that,” Darkly Armitage said, ending in his mind any argument about Dead Pony Lookout.