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
An hour's ride from get-up brought Dorbruk Malkev to the crest of a hill in Oregon, one of the states for less than a year, where he heard a fusillade of gun shots, the last one practically visible as the lone man standing in his sight fell to place alongside other victims, all dead for certain, grounded forever in an irregular and highly skewed valley that was perfect for murder or bushwhacking of choice, their horses scattered or fallen in place, the fusillade of gunshots sounding like the handclapping of a huge audience hidden away, tucked into shadows waiting for sunlight and, likely, their quick disappearance.
But there came, unbelievably at first, a spasmodic after-death movement generated by the last man gunned down, a cowboy in the midst of surprised terror loose as a scythe at rampage. It was a sign of signs, a shudder, and an ungodly stuttering leg kick at nothing at all, lest it was at life itself. Later, in reflective moments, Malkev, with Mother Russia far behind him with its mystery, murder and mayhem, thought of it often.
There are things in life that are borne, it seems eternally, by certain souls. In time, Malkev would look at that late leg-kick with succinct and crisp curiosity, no doubt a classroom in the making for him, a new country for him yet the old doubts persisting, counterweights calling for attention.
It was 1860, the gold rush a dozen years from its noisy inception in this part of the country, and history, good and bad, still fast in the making, the books being kept, and there was Malkev, a new arrival, mounted gallantly on a gallant animal.
In a sign he hoped was not an omen of the future in this land new to him, the victim was shot again for the apparent after-death movement as the ground hugged him deeper, closer, in life's audacity ... as though he was then dying twice and twice moving on to heaven; the final bullet coming from a hidden shooter, from a shadowed niche within a cliff-side darkness of that irregular place. Its selection as a place of murder had been chosen to guarantee success, no miss, no chase, no wanted posters plastered on legal walls or boards, the deeds crying for a hero: "Perhaps," as said by Malkev, "the newest arrival mounted gallantly on a gallant animal."
It was a fact, in this state as in all states and territories west of the Mississippi, and some still east of it, that any place of any size, any town or village or borough, contending for a future, had at least one man of the law on hand. That man should be courageous, tenacious, skillful at side arm and rifle use, at mounting swiftly and riding a horse, at reading trail of those he had to pursue. He also should be armed with a mind quick at determinations while in transit, on desperadoes' or criminals' tracks, or fleeing for his life when it was appropriate, experience weighing in with a solid kick in the pants.
These attributes, most all of them, were lessons learned by Malkev by the time he was 18 years into life in his raucous homeland, and brought with him in their eventual polish to America by the time he was 26, the 8 years time enough to get a solid grip on the ropes.
A handsome young dude, he was blessed with a ready smile, dark hair not parted as it was wildly curly, solid cheekbones and jaw indicating to most observers a strength of character as well as body. His exposed skin appeared hued deeply by the sun and long exposure to wind and weather. Carrying himself with an obvious pride and confidence, he was easy to note, the way some men are known by the guns they carry or the way they enter a crowd, face front but fully alert. His horse bore some of that confidence seen by others. The nature of horses, as can be said, was second nature with him.
The area of Oregon he was in, he supposed, was covered by the territorial rules of politicians before they muscled their ways into odd controls by high-handedness and low-down tricks. He had seen the machinations before, the heavyweights of gold dust, coin or persuasions understood in a hurry ... for they came upon people, when unleashed, with death, capture or prolonged flight.
Also, in America, a new word had arisen for him, bushwhacking, (he had heard it in the old language as skryvat'sya v chashche ) and here was his first experience of it; life just gone and the cause hidden on the side of a mountain, with no silhouette, no facial marks, no name or names to remember. "Skryvat'sya v chashche," sounded itself out again, almost like a school lesson being stressed, being repeated for a full life's memory.
It also said, in its own manner, the way his grandfather had told him, "Learn all the bad ways as well as the good ways, for this life demands you know the difference between them." That old man, without a hair on his head but his beard a bush, eyes as he spoke deep as gun bores, let his advice hang in the air one more time in a true echo of the old tongue: "Uznayte vse plokhiye puti, a takzhe khoroshiy sposob, dlya etoy zhizni trebuyet, chtoby znat' raznitsu mezhdu nimi ."
In the midst of the murders out in front of him, he sought more of the old images.
This lone Russian rider, mounted on a black Percheron standing 17 hands, death visiting blatantly and suddenly in the morning, and sure to hang on for a long day with curiosity and cause, the opposites at work in his mind.
This innocent on-looker shuddered his belief. Then, to his astonishment, his horse began to shake as if privy to all Malkev saw and believed he saw in reflection... theft, robbery at some level and gang-style murder, had taken place but minutes before his arrival. Patting the horse to quiet him down, he drew him behind a mound and a section of earth-heaved rock, not at all sure where rifles were pointed, from what edge of darkness, at what target of witness.
The old wars he had known in odd parts came back to him, all of them, where friends and comrades were killed or taken as prisoners or trophies. The old faces returned momentarily to him. Nothing back then was hidden like this scene; the old wars and battles were entirely visible from the outset, the first name called, the first shot fired, the first body down, the face long remembered at campfires, at the end of long rides.
Now no living thing appeared to him; no shooter or shooters, no gang spread in the shadows, no chief or leader directing the murders from a protective vantage.
In deep thoughts he found himself at these revelations: This new land, this wide America, had come at him in great slashes of vision and the clutter and symmetry of the same view, often disturbing him with peaceful scene and sudden violence upon any and all kinds of life. Here again before him was death of no person he knew or had ever spoken with or split bread with, as a few of the new folks said to him on occasion. With it all came a sadness he had hoped to leave far behind in a village now on the edge of nowhere, his family gone with it.
The sea he had crossed, brazen, brash and beautiful, its torment wild with destiny, loaded with fate, was behind him ... now new terrors were sure to come in new waves, new motions, ulterior sounds often announcing a change in the landscape, as much as the seascape had changed with a whim of wind, a storm's harsh eye, or the rocky promise of a landfall.
The captain of the ship thought him crazy when he'd pointed at the site beyond a storm of rocks: "Set me in here if you can. I choose to land here." His voice was firm, guttural, and too familiar to the old captain, half a lifetime from departing his own village at the edge of mountains he could no longer see, but held in his mind by sight and odor and the feel of the wind on many a sleepy night.
"By the good God, " the captain said to himself, "I will set him onto the beach or shore of his choice."
Malkev, Dorbruk to parents, came to his second home at 26 years of age, his family erased from the land by two fighting bands of marauders, horse-mounted, loose cavalry, mission-pointed, and defined by death in the constant struggle for possessing the land one more time. He worked his way to get aboard a ship bound for new worlds; destination could be island, peninsula, cape , a bend in the earth ... he cared not where, but how then to move on from that landing.
Looking up from his series of charts, the captain said, "Go east one hundred miles, Dorbruk, and stay away from the coast, then south to where the weather warms for you. Get a horse the first chance you can barter for it, and find where the gold fields are in California, or the deep canyons painted with traces of gold, or where a river pushes it into your pockets when you swim or wash the dirt from those same pockets. Some say gold shines in moonlight, in the light of a single star or those twinned in heaven for safety. Gold is no net, but will pay passage to wherever you choose to build a stone hearth, find a woman for life, become what you will be.
The ship was the Kurda Star, the captain's name was Otto Kars (which obviously was shortened from some family name), the landfall was the coast of the Oregon/California territory. The area, as heard about in the seaports all the way to the north, was made of gold.
The ship, bound for Mexico, had sailed from the Russian settlement Nikolayevsky Post, once known as the Manchu village of Fuyori, then renamed by Gennady Nevelskoy and had leaped to become a main economic center on the Russian Pacific coast, becoming Russia's main Pacific harbor (supplanting Petropavlovsk) a few years earlier, after a siege the year before. Renamed Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, it became a naval base.
Malkev was one of the 300,000 folks and hunters who moved into the western part of America, largely in California/Oregon, when gold was discovered, and those people came from all over the globe. He was new to America but now, after this sighting of outlandish murder from secret, markedly like old home stuff, so he felt an old hand governing his moves and his thoughts ... including plans and ideas he entertained for his own explorations in a new land.
One thing was sure, chaos would toss its gloves at him more often than not.
Gold discovery in California vastly accelerated changes that had been coming on since the 1760s. As the area became a regular melting pot of sorts for people from many countries and natives, the gold rush turned the west coast into a global bastion where immigrants came with their own established hungers from most of the continents. More than 300,000 seekers of gold rushed toward and into California and nearby locations in a few years, bringing with them a manifest variety of customs good and bad, languages roughly adapted but colorful, and religions glorifying the One God or no god. Many of these visitors had little interest in permanent re-settlement, intending only to return home with pockets and bags laden heavy with gold. This panorama had sufficient impetus to change California into a place of a chaos, broken laws, and the attainment of any edge over a person or a group by any means; law was on a strange move for all involved, and Malkev saw it early with this view of gang-style murder and theft out in front of him.
He had made up his mind very early that he was going to be on the right side of the law; he'd earn the right to wear a badge.
Past experiences, piled up in him in a variety of ways, harsh memories, good memories of comrades, a few cantankerous wounds and remnant scars marking him an honored veteran of some kind of affairs of family or patriotism, some visible and some not. The incident at Ravellskurg snapped at his attention, leaping from the recent past, dozens of scoundrels on the loose, armed, ridiculously loose and often on the trigger of rifles and small arms, not caring one bit for women, children and old men, never mind the healthy warrior types who'd often fight the tooth of the tiger, and send him off tamed.
He'd run the course there, in his first attempt at indignation and righteousness, from tyro to veteran in one night, making stand after stand against the village enemies, finally capturing singlehanded the leader of the band, tying him up and escorting him, at continual thrusts of the nose of his pistol in the back, into the middle of the square.
He screamed to the outlaw gang as he shoved their leader ahead of him, " Otto has something to say to you." The simple but harder nudge with the pistol, as promised, was enough to shake the gang leader from silence into a sudden loud-mouth: "I have been captured by Dorbruk Malkev, a better man than I am, and to whom I have sworn my loyalty. He will not kill me, as he has slain almost a dozen of our comrades, and will allow us to leave this place and never to come back, or he will come back and visit each one of us personally."
He had said it loudly in the old tongue, emphasizing the important parts: "Ya byl zakkhvachen Dorbruk Malkev, luchshego cheloveka, chem ya, i k komu ya priszyazhnym svoyu loyal'nost'. On ne ub'yet menya, kak on imeyet pochti desyatok nashikh tovarishchey, i pozvolit nam pokinut' eto mesto i nikogda ne vernut'sya, ili on vernetsya i posetit' kazhdyz iz nas lichno."
The square in Ravellskurg went silent after weapons were dropped or placed slowly at the feet of the invaders, and Malkev, with hand motions, guided his people to lead the enemy from their midst, all accomplished in quick order. But heroes, he discovered, have quick receptions that linger mainly in memories and not always on the same path a hero travels.
What came back to him quickly was the recognition he had of that other encounter, seeing the arcs of protection that rolled out in front of one man, posing as a god, like half circles in a human game ... and no arcs behind him, as though there was nothing else to fear on this bare earth. And that's where Malkev, no hero in the beginning but an observer, saw his opportunity to help his village.
He accomplished his capture, the assault leader unaware of any threat behind him, by circling outside the arcs and coming directly behind the oblivious leader who was barking out orders and demands upon Malkev's people ... until the pistol found the middle of his back. It was the simple perception that Malkev was one of them coming up from rear!
Now, in this new land, all faces strange, all recognitions abounding on appearances, course or direction of appearance being primarily conditional, sudden arrival from the rear was accepted as mutual support. Once his mind was made up, Malkev studied the opposing area, detected rifle fire that showed a stationary issue, he began his approach, galloping behind hill and mound until he reached an open route to the stationary firing point.
In a sly move, on foot, he was behind the gang leader in a matter of quick strides while waving his hat in his hand and looking over his shoulder in a warning manner and excitedly pointing behind him, as though he was being chased.
It was an easy impersonation, quick, surprising, complete with pistol jabs. One knock on the head and the prisoner was down and out of the encounter. Malkev took his rifle and his supplement of ammunition, and began firing from the backside of the attack. To a man the attackers thought they had been brought into a trap, as men fell from horses, horses scattered wherever there was flight room, and strings of curses rose from their midst as betrayal seemed to come off as their deadliest enemy.
It was over in short order, the roped gang leader, hands bound to the pommel and lead by a neck halter into town by Malkev, the foreigner, still waving his sombrero, as though he already was the local law all on its own.
This, as observed by one and all, was a two-way introduction of Dorbruk Malkev as an enforcer of law, and a man of inner substance, to the boisterous gold camp settlement known as Keeping Waters, a name derived from the Tolowa language, a tribe nestling along the Rogue, Elk and Sixes Rivers in those harsh days.
The land, it was said by many, will change because of outside forces. And some say yet that Dorbruk Malkev served such causes long and well until he disappeared into the history he was part of.