Western Short Story
From the Palisades to the Sierra Nevadas
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Here he was, in a cave on the side of the North Palisade in the Sierra Nevadas, an 18-year old kid from New York-New Jersey and bound by birth, he’d say, to climb this mountain. Beforehand he had been told by good authority, by Cree-born Abel Morningbrook, that it might happen like this, come down to this. He was alone, he was cold, he was wet, but he was under cover. He had to get warm, so he searched the insides of the cave, and found remnants of old nests, an eagle or a hawk nest; scrap wooden chunks, old brush, twigs carried aloft to this place in claw’s clutch, set into the design of the nest or placed willy-nilly, scattered as it was. All of it was dry, ignitable, waiting to serve his needs.

He snapped his flint, lit the small pile. It flamed with a wind-ridden assist, coming from the inner heart of the mountain, from a secret place maybe no man would ever see, ever trespass. But the flames came for him, fire near the heart of the mountain he had dreamed of mounting.

He lay down to rest, exhaustion climbing on him as he had climbed the mountain to this point.

Exhilaration, in spite of all other things, came to him in a rush, and a summons to sleep. Many thoughts filtered in and out. From his uncle, who had a thirst for history and all it had to say, and from Abel Morningbrook who left words and messages hanging in a persistent echo, making him go back to them innumerable times: for one, “There is a place called the Far Land where everything is counted by the ones until the buffalo come.” A dozen times that night he heard the words as clear as if the man sat across the meager fire from him.

Morningbrook had also said he was related to Payipwât, once a prisoner of the Sioux, who, when he was freed by the Crees, was henceforth known by several names; One Who Knows the Secrets of the Sioux or Hole in the Sioux, or later, Flash in the Sky, attesting to his knowledge of the Gods of the Mountains, then Chief of the Cree-Asinboine, and finally a great shaman.

Morningbrook would say, “It is easy to see where I am coming from,” with tongue in cheek, “and how I can talk about the mountains you will climb.”

Once in a while young Derning figured Morningbrook was creating his own mysticism, the ultimate shaman at work. He’d ponder that forever, he guessed. But was it also possible that his uncle created his own version of history with the newspaper? The thought bothered him more than the shaman at work. At length buffeting hours of sleep carried those thoughts away.

Michael Dumas Derning, a native of New York/New Jersey, never sure of which place he liked best to claim as a birthplace, loved climbing a nearly-unclimbable wall of rock any place he could find it. From an early age, before he was 13, it was the Palisades along the lower Hudson River that touched on both “birth states.” Twenty miles of such walls went up like rockets to a height of 300 feet to more than 500 feet along the west side of the lower Hudson River in the northern part of New Jersey. He dearly loved hanging out there on a precipice, an edge, a grasp that had to last. The first concave crevice he backed up into was a tricky one … inching his up the crevice, his back and butt and heels of his hands against one side and his feet, thrust tightly against the other side, making it serve as a vise for his climb. The widest part was the most troublesome, and most dangerous, his toes nearly at total body extension.

By the time of his 15th birthday he had climbed just about every climbable foot of the way, not without some tight squeezes, close quarters to danger, and ultimate exhilaration at every completion.

By choice Derning appeared as hale as a city boy could be, knowing strength as well as agility was required to be a climber. He lifted weights, trained on his own with occasional tips from pulp issues he constantly looked for, and could run with any runner for at least 10 miles. He was “acceptably good looking” according to one uncle who pulled no punches, had thick red hair that sat mop-like atop his head and curled the redness down past his ears. And his grip in a handshake made some people think he was The Man with the Iron Fist. A few of those people referred to young Michael as Iron Mike.

He did not mind the sobriquet.

In September of 1873, celebrating his 16th birthday, he heard from his newspaper uncle about Mount Whitney in the Sierra Nevadas being climbed by three fishermen, Charles Begole, A. H. Johnson, and John Lucas of California. They were the first to reach the highest summit in the contiguous United States. The climbers wanted to call the mountain Fisherman’s Peak. That singular exploit of Johnson, Begole and Lucas turned Michael’s world into a hunger for higher climbs, more difficult ascensions, and the whole of that dream seemed to lie in the west.

When he had done all that he could on his home turf, his eyes indeed went west. That’s where he wanted to climb places like the North Palisade, the 14,000 foot peak in the Sierra Nevadas, which was 3rd in line after Mount Whitney and Mount Willamson. His experience would grow from such a climb. And to be there, to face those challenges, it was necessary to become a good horseman; a western traveler like he’d become, more times than not, needed a good horse under him.

At 18 he set out to fill all his needs, his dreams.

The first stop on his journey, paid for by his unassuming uncle, a local newspaper publisher, was seeing a corral of horses in western Pennsylvania, where one black stallion, looking as strong as a mountain, caught and kept Derning’s eye. That black horse made him, on the spur of the moment, leap from the train as it went by the corral of horses. He would never forget the feeling that overcame him on that day.

Rising from the ground along the track bed, he brushed his clothes by hand, retrieved his small travel bag, and stared at the big black horse in the nearby corral, and he would henceforth swear to his last days that the horse kept looking back at him, the great eyes steady on him, on a young man who had made one desperate and sudden leap off one of the trains that passed by the corral every day.

His insistent arguments with the owner about buying the horse, along with his promise to be able to ride as good as any horseman before he left the corral with his new purchase, sealed the bargain. The discussion was amiable and informative … both ways, from prospective buyer to selective seller.

“What kind of a horse is he, sir?” young Derning said to the owner.

“Hell, son, he’s a stallion, and you’d agree with me that he’s black as we’d hope Hell’d be before we get there.” An open and admirable look at his black stallion crossed the owner’s face. His name was Abel Morningbrook and he had already admitted being an Indian of sorts because of the colorful and beaded vest he wore. “I’m one of those tribes out there,” to which he waved his hand at the rest of the country beyond the Pennsylvania-Ohio border not far off, “but likely part of more than one tribe. My mother was a Cree and I don’t know who and what was my father. She was taken by the Soiux like Payipwât was taken, and also freed like him.” His thumbs hooked under both armpits to puff the vest with pride at what might have been a possible running encounter between his parents in a tented village in a wondrous western location smothered in softly golden moonlight half a century earlier.

Derning, letting his imagination go free, nodded before he said, “The horse, sir, what kind of a horse is he, what breed? I understand there’s a lot at stake about a horse and the line he comes from.” The question might well have been caused by Morningbrook’s tilt at his own lineage.

“There sure is, son,” Morningbrook said, “and this one is an American, like we all are, crossbreeds in the grand mix we have become. All my horses are like all my friends, all crossbreeds from one place or another, one group or another, one tribe or another, one homeland or another. All you have to do is give him a name and that’s what he is. But make no mistake about it; this animal is on for the long ride, the hard ride, and the end of the ride.”

His thumbs hooked again the cut of the vest. “This horse is no different than you and me are, all mixed up but going our own way, making our own demands on us, like I suppose you are. One of my men, I’ll have you know, said he saw you jump right off the train that’s still heading west without you on it.” He laughed a loud but joyous laugh and shook his head in wonder and a quick and agreeable assessment of the young man.

“He said you landed hard and rose up quick as a mountain lion. That’s goodly for a young man from way east of here, nearer the Atlantic than the Great River down the middle of the ways west. Shows some kind of readiness I’d judge. You make demands on me too. Ride that horse the way you say before you leave and we have a deal between adventurers in the land.”

Morningbrook let go a quizzical look at Derning. “Where you headed out there, son?”

“I’m going to climb some mountains, like the North Palisade and then Mount Whitney that three fellows, all of them fishermen, just climbed not long ago. You ever do any of that out there?”

“Well, I’ve been in some tight places. All I got to say is what the elders told me before I left the village with my mother.”

“What was that?”

“Watch the sky. Listen to the wind. Don’t let go. Don’t fall. And don’t get wet up there on the side of a rocky road. You lose your grip that way, which is the way down.” Morningbrook stopped his litany, paused en route to some new point of advice, but finally said, “That’s all sure enough true, son. Not a lie in the bunch.”

The look came again on Morningbrook’s face, and Derning was aware that he was being given a few lessons out of history.

“What we knew, what was told us, came from the egg men of the tribe who climbed up walls steep as the sky itself to look for eagle eggs and hawk eggs or any kind of bird eggs when times were tough. The hides they wore or carried were as important as the grip they could get on any edge of the mountain. Some of them had their names changed because of their deeds; Great Skyfall made about 30 trips and fell when he was almost near the top of one giant mountain and in front of his woman and two papooses. He was first remembered as Tall Eagle who moved into the heart of the mountain when he was 70 years, with my people all those years. He spent half a moon run on the mountain when the snow and the ice came, trapping him up there. He was hailed though he had no eggs when he came down. He had lived on his catch. He was ready for the mountain.”

At another moment, Derning recalled Morningbrook carrying on about the two of them. “We share one stick, Michael,” he had offered along with coffee. “You are at the thin, newest end, pending new buds, and I am at the thick end, pinned to the aged tree, thicker at my end because I am loaded with all my time and all my learning. Both of us, though, can be envied from several vantages, like the other end of the same stick. But we must remember that we are parts of the mother tree.”

Derning tried to remember all that was said by Morningbrook, but at that time the horse he looked upon had captivated him. In dozens of pulps he had read about the horses that carried the men who made the west. One piece from a pulp story stayed with him always where a wounded and lost cowboy finally rode into the ranch yard, teetering in the saddle, eyes gone hazy and loose in his head, but managed to say to his mother as he slapped his horse on the neck, “He brung me home, Mom. He brung me home.” And fell off when the horse trembled under him and fell dead as though he was struck by silent lightning.

He thought he might name his first horse Thor or Odin. He had read about them too.

His sleep in the cave was a bothersome one, full of thoughts from every field. Getting some warmth in the cave, and going back to all that Morningbrook had told him, he heard the wind whistling a simple song from the heart of the mountain and saw a slight film of smoke from the fire pass onward into some other parts of the mountain. Obviously it went into the mountain and came out above, perhaps at the peak. But he had come to scale the mountain, not search its guts.

In the morning he would return to his climb, began to inch and work his way upward. When he was done he would go back to Thor down in the valley in the hands of a mountain man, Grover Parsons, in a small cabin hung against the mountain. From where the cave mouth was, where the morning sun came loose on his face, he could look down and see the cabin and the lines of the small corral where Thor was penned up. The name had come on him from choices provoked by several passages carried from recent readings.

The horse, as it turned out, had become all he desired in a horse. He could recall little else that pleased him so much as Thor running at full tilt under him and the wind in his face. Only the mountain could compare, in the ascension, at the peak, which for now was directly atop him in this range of the Sierra Nevadas.

Derning was musing about the horse and the old Parsons and Morningbrook and his own uncle, feeling the sun as much as he felt the meager fire the night before, when a bullet from a rifle banged crisply off a piece of ledge somewhere near him, sounding as an impossible shot at reaching its target, a guess and shoot kind of shot. The shot, he correctly assumed, had come from the area of the cabin. A picture of a possible crime in process came to him … old Parsons was captured or killed, Thor was to be stolen, and the criminal wanted to warn Derning not to come looking for his horse, or try to rescue the old mountain man who’d had a good and neighborly heart.

The choice, in the face of his feelings, his loves, his sense of fair play, his honor, his sadness, fell with darkness down through him. It would be hours and hours before he climbed up to the peak and went down the easy way. He could not climb down. The wisp of smoke signaled again and he thought he’d best give its route a try.

The mountain would always be there … as long as he was around.

The mountain, from long in its past, perhaps in other millennia, gave its assent, and he managed to find not only the cavernous heart of the mountain, but an ancient passage downward to the valley. Indians of yore had found their way here and had created certain parts of the passage. In mere hours, he was down off the mountain and approaching the cabin, keeping himself under cover, afraid of what he might find.

He was elated to see Thor still in the corral, though he was now wearing a saddle. Smoke from a cooking fire lifted into the air, a ripe odor in its body. Thor nickered at his approach, so he stayed hidden.

A door creaked on its leather hinges. Boots sounded on the single stone riser set on the ground at the lone door. A rifle bolt was slammed home as stiff as any warning. Derning did not breathe, and Thor, in a way of horses, nickered at the following silence and the evening creeping up on the cabin on small feet.

The rifle bearer stood in place for a few minutes; there was no sound, no movement, and he at last moved back inside, content that nothing suspicious, or dangerous, was near him.

The shadows, thicker and darker by the minute, came in their relentless way. A mountain sound, one of a plain soft wind, a plain breath of the valleys and the torturous climbs, came like a silent messenger under the half moon and the night sky.

Taking his time, letting the intruder in the cabin nestle into general comfort, Derning neared the side window and peaked inside. Friendly old Grover Parsons sat tied onto a chair, hands and legs lashed tight, his chin nodding on his chest. A dried stretch of blood smeared his face along his left cheek. The fire in the stone fireplace flickered in blue-yellow flames under a pot hanging from an iron arm. The odor seeped through the walls and into the evening. The intruder scooped up a plate full of what looked like a thick stew. None of it was offered to the old man, the owner of the cabin, the man who had promised to take care of Thor.

Without a weapon on him, the young mountaineer tried to remember where the wood pile was and recalled that it was directly on the right front of the cabin. Gingerly, taking elaborate time, he reached the pile and lifted off a log heavy enough to do intended damage.

The halved moon walked closer over the peak of the North Palisade, like a lost child in the wide sky and clusters of stars began their early company as Derning, intrepid mountain climber snuck close to the door, standing at the side of the lone stone riser. The log was in one hand and a small stone, a pebble of a stone, felt diminutive in his other hand.

A voice came from the cabin. “Old man, you’re not much company the way you’re acting. I only wanted a bit of grub and that black stallion out there belongin’ to some climber I knowed I scared back to his roots. He sure don’t want to get nicked up there when he’s hanging on the side of the mountain. He still there in the morning, we’ll have a shootin’ match. I don’t mind lettin’ go a whole belt of your ammo at him ‘cause I can just feel that big black ridin’ hard under me after I put that climber where he don’t want to be no ways at all.”

No answer came from the old man.

“Hell, man, I can eat as well as talk to myself for the matter.”

With a swift toss, knowing the time was at hand, Derning flipped the stone on top of the pitched roof. Its roll was thunderous and a chair slid back, boots sounded, a rifle clicked, and the door was pulled inward and the intruder stepped into the dark evening at the foot of the North Palisade.

The log met him as he looked into the shadows … across the forehead.

The rifle fell clattering on the stone step and the intruder crumpled beside it, light from the lamp inside and the fire falling on him.

It did not take Derning long to make the switch in prisoners, freeing the old man and setting the new prisoner, ropes and all, in his place.

“You know him, Mr. Parsons?” Derning said, as he looked at the pot above the fire.

“Never saw him before, son, but the sheriff’ll be glad to see him when I run him clear into town. You’d best go with me so’s it won’t be me plain against his word. And if you're hungry, dig in. The critter there made me make some stew at the point of his rifle.”

“It’ll be my pleasure, Mr. Parsons,” Derning said, “and I’ll be glad to share some of your stew. We have a long watchful night ahead of us.”

“No worries about that, son. I’ll scare him to Hell with my bear knife,“ which he produced in a moment, a knife with a striking blade shining in the lamplight and the fire light. “What about the mountain?”

“Oh, I’ve already made a new agreement with it. It’ll be there as long as I want to climb it.”

He realized in a flash that when he ever got back to Pennsylvania he’d tell Morningbrook about the other end of the stick they shared, the one in the Sierra Nevadas.