Western Short Story
One of the members of the army patrol, lead scout Sgt. Jacques Emberly, who had rushed far ahead when he heard the first fusillade of gun fire, came over the brow of the trail well before the other troopers would get there and saw the gun flashes and the cloud of rising gun smoke and realized he was looking at a small war. Sounds of rifle fire, repeating in waves, rolled over him, uphill from the circled wagon train on the wide grass, and the smell of the burnt gunpowder assailed his sense of smell as if he had already known the dead lying about and set the statistics for the report he’d have to write. With the smoke from at least a hundred rifles and the constant noise from the wagon train and from the attacking Indians, Pawnee most likely, his mind flew back to Chicago where he grew up, not far from the rail yards and the smell of slaughtered cattle and beef burning on hasty spits not far away where lost and disparaged people scrounged and lived on cast-offs from the endless slaughtering.
How he gotten out of there hit him with a sudden slam, as it always did: he was lucky. It was as simple as that … he was lucky. He had gotten this far in three enlistments and would soon be due for a fourth decision. It would not be easy this time. He looked back at his luck and it told him so.
Even as he looked at war, at another level of survival, at another cast of luck or chance or karma riding on a black horse or on the cast of the dice, he was lucky.
He reflected on luck and its apparel, its manner of visits. Luck came in disguises, over-dressed or under-dressed, masked or unmasked, on the seat of a saddle or the bare back of an Indian pony, in a sure shot from a slow gun or a lucky shot from a fast gun, in an arrow with someone else’s name on it. Luck appeared in all shapes and sizes, and all costumes and rigs, and it often depended on how you looked at it. Don’t knock that, he would allow, not any part of it; there were times when luck looked back at you with a scowl, a smile, a face full of ponderous thought or touched with the simplest curiosity.
It likewise said there were choices to be made.
Just like it said his mind would jump around on him, seeing other things, knocking down other ideas and images, going elsewhere in this wild world; luck had control.
He raised his rifle overhead in a hurry-up motion and saw the responding wave from the patrol’s guidon bearer. Deciding to find a short haven in the midst of a new war, he made for a single mass of boulders that might have rolled here, in the middle of the prairie, from a high spot, perhaps with the shove of an old-time cataclysmic change from Mother Nature, perhaps the thrust of a glacier as slow as a lost thought coming back from partial oblivion. He thought of time standing still, caught up to itself where it stood in one moment, as if posing to be remembered. Hell, making its own demands.
Draping the horse’s reins under a chunk of rock, he sat himself behind a prominent boulder leaning against another, with sufficient view of the battle scene to keep alert. In one sweeping scan, but not a casual sweep, he spotted one Indian, distant from all the others, on a black and white pony looping around to the left, riding low on the back of the pony the way many Indians did to keep a low profile ... and that path would bring the Indian in behind him … and in front of the patrol.
His mind jumped again. For brief seconds, full of white pictures, he was back in the mountains again in the middle of winter watching again yet another Indian; a lone Indian moving on the edge of vision, at once seen and then not seen; a moving, unseen enemy at times loaded with a threat to the life of others as well as his own.
The scene came back with full details: the sun burned on the edge of a mountain peak even as the cold snapped through his legs, went onto his hands trying to make fists, like a pair of unwanted gloves; onto his face as he felt the cold and saw the heat of the sun in one remarkable and dual sensation, thinking of opposites that ran alongside him in this life, ran without being deterred the least bit, ran with the speed of a runaway horse or a team of horses with the reins flapping loose in the air.
Thoughts ran toward duplication.
He tried to remember what he did that time; what made him do what he did; what pushed a decision to the top of his mind already clouded by disparate sensations from entirely different conditions.
The mountain Indian, obviously, had contraptions of some kind on his feet that allowed him to move on top of the deep snow, He had seen them before on mountain men, thinking they looked like flattened baskets. Something about that was working a similarity on him. He could feel it, even though the weather and the landscape and all the conditions were as different as they could be.
Now, as he looked again for the Indian, he saw him again as he dipped into a wadi, stayed out of site for a few minutes, re-appeared again, his form straight up in the saddle, only to duck again out of sight. The motions were repeated several times.
Luck came on him again as he thought about the sightings, the re-appearances, the sly acts not being so sly, or slyer than all of them together. The ruse of ruses, as old as the hills for sure.
By God, he said to himself, he wants me to see him. He wants to be seen. Immediately he thought again about the snow-runner in the mountains drawing his attention away from something else … and he thought about a mother bird faking a broken wing and drawing the fox away to wide grass, that near-broken wing flopping on the ground, looking helpless, flight an impossible outcome, fate sealed, all the while leaving her little hungry beakers in the nest further from danger with each minute.
There would be an attack from another quarter, he was positive.
Emberly made an appropriate signal to the guidon, noted the subtle response, the swift turn to report, the captain issuing an order by waving his hands, the ranks re-forming to face the left, arms at the ready, just in time to face an attack as a force of Indians rushed from a deep depression and rode in with wild screams and yells enough, usually, to unnerve any man.
The steady fire of the troops broke the rush, dropped some horses as well as riders, poured fire into the sudden messed up attack and drove it off. The scattered Indians rode off in several directions, but all away from the troops, and the lead scout out front now concentrating on the single Indian somewhere behind him.
Emberly’s last sighting of him was behind a set of rocks such as he himself was hidden behind, so he concentrated on that location, eyeing the edges for slight giveaways. A slight movement caught his eye … the motion of a single feather completely vertical, and he knew it was worn by the Indian as a headdress piece.
With his own slyness, his horse tethered to a rock behind him, Emberly slipped into tall grass and came up unawares on the Indian’s left side. There was no way he’d be able to hand-grasp the brave by himself, but he wanted a prisoner, so he fired one round into a rugged thigh. The brave fell to the ground, his rifle out of hand, but no scream issuing from him. As he rolled over on one side, his eyes staring at the soldier who caught him so easily, he nodded his acknowledgment even as he grimaced with the pain.
Standing over the fallen man, his rifle trained down on him, Emberly said, “You talk army talk?” He waited for a response and got none, so he continued, “You talk army talk with me who caught you like a rabbit in a snare and I will have army doctor fix your leg.”
The wounded brave cast a grimace across his face, one first of anger, then of favor, and finally, with a twist of his lips, with agreement.
Emberly thought of a young squaw with a young son, sitting outside a lodge as she worked on the hide of a deer, her hands working it to a pliable touch, her eyes tender as she looked upon her child. The sorrow hit him as he realized there was no one waiting for him like that … the army never gave him the time, or the chance, to do so.
Pointing at the brave’s rifle on the ground, Emberly said, “Where from?” He said it again, “Where from? From what man? Did you buy guns? Trade for guns?”
“Never buy. Get from soldier die on horse. Lose rifle.”
“Where did you fight the soldiers?” Emberly said, looking out over the prairie, the distant mountains, placing his hand over his eyes as if to keep the sun out of them. “Where did you fight?”
The Indian’s face showed a response before he spoke, the semi-smile touching with pride at his lips. “In Valley of the Lost Sun. Up there. In mountains.” He said it as if he was pinning on a medal, a set of chevrons, placing a new feather in his headdress. He pointed to the far peaks.
In a twist of fate and chance, Emberly said, “Did you run on snow? Run fast on snow? Get behind troops? That was long ago. You look too young to be the runner on snow.”
“I run on snow. You see me? You the one in the mountains?”
Emberly said, “We meet again. You have much courage to go alone. Two times you go alone.”
“No. I go alone many times. I run faster than my brothers. Ride faster. Think faster. Brave is easy. Die is easy. Fight is hard. I get to see squaw and two papoose if I fight hard.”
“Why do you fight so hard?”
“Soldier take our land. Our river. Our mountain. Soon our squaw. New papoose is not same papoose.” His gaze was back over the long grass of the prairie. “When new papoose come new land come. New river come. New mountain come. New lodge come made of tree. Deer and buffalo hide go away.”
He stopped talking and kept looking back at some distant sight, his eyes full of a new but old vision that Emberly imagined he too saw.
“What is your name?” Emberly said. “My name is Jacques Emberly.”
“My name is Chase Puma.”
Looking down at the brave, Emberly said, “Many brothers die here today.”
“Die is easy. Fight is hard. Fight to see lodge in first sun. Fight to see squaw and papoose at lodge in first sun.”
The rich thought of luck came on Emberly again. He knew he had another chance. He would not re-enlist, his mind suddenly made up. The firmness of that decision shook him. Down to his toes in his boots he felt it. And he saw the lodge in the first sun of another day. And the young squaw. And the two infants. And the wounded brave in front of him, wounded, that he had encountered for the second time that he knew. Maybe there might be a third time.
The long-time sergeant and scout, admirer of his foes and their bravery, put both rifles aside, dressed the wound as best he could, and said, “You stay here. Hide until soldiers go. Go see squaw and papoose when it is dark so you can see lodge in fist sun.” He looked over his shoulder, saw nothing, heard nothing, and said, “Don’t move until dark. Stay here. We might meet again.”
Chase Puma said, “You see me two times now. I see you three times someday. Tirawa on high say man have second chance, third chance. Tirawa talk Pawnee from stars. Chase Puma hear Pawnee talk from stars.”
Sergeant Jacques Emberly, lucky to his bones, rode off to get his discharge from the army in a matter of days. He never looked back at Chase Puma down in between rocks where he’d never be found by men on horseback, both men sharing the same vision of first sun and where it shone.