Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Varden DeNoncoeur woke up on a shelf of a cave, in absolute darkness. Perhaps, he thought, the depth of a tunnel, blackness being as thick as a winter coat about him, and not a glint of light showing itself. He had not experienced such darkness because he always knew stars, moon, campfire, torch, or a reflection of last light. He tried to remember the last thing he had seen, but it would not come back to him. There had been noise, lots of noise, like screaming or yells from two separate places. It might have been a chant, a Crow chant, distorted in its hearing.
He was dressed in deerskin from head to foot, with a fur coat bundled with his shoulder pack, leather boots drawn tightly with rawhide string. A single shot pistol was thrust in his belt and a keen knife was slung in a sheath of leather hanging from his shoulder. For distance shooting in a hunt for food, he carried a long rifle. He was rarely separated from his rifle.
About him he gathered the last things he had known for sure, like facts collected for a trial, and not yet presented:
He’d been months on this search, his curiosity consuming him about the Crow stories of the god of the mountains; it had found in him a thirst and an agreement of some of the tenets of that Indian belief, which he wanted to experience for himself.
Other than that he knew the following about his situation:
He was in Montana, after leaving Manitowaning in Canada and Monroe Mary and their son Jacques in a small cabin on the edge of the big lake. Her squaw mother, Two-Tongues-Wise, who had lost her man in an avalanche, was with her.
With great help and great patience, he spoke the Crow language, taught him by Two-Tongues-Wise and One-Who- Speaks-Two-Sides, her elderly father.
He was in the mountains.
He had found a secret entrance to the heart of a mountain he had been searching for.
It was one of two mountains he had seen from a great distance, but he could not say which one he was now inside … he had been underground for such a long while on his latest deep-earth search, for that is where the search would end, not on a mountain but in a mountain, in the heart of a mountain.
And last of all, and perhaps most important, he had been in Crow country for more than two months of his travel, and he had been well-prepared to speak in the Crow language from Two-Tongues-Wise and One-Who-Speaks-Two-Sides who had been saved from sure death when trapped under a fallen stone. His leg was amputated by Doctor Kinsell, a friend of DeNoncoeur’s family.
In short order the Crow language had come to DeNoncoeur from trees and rocks kissed by wind and from the edge of water where the wind parted company, and from the footprints of bear and coyote and wolf where the land accepted them like they were signatures of those who had passed by, in whose tracks he often stood. He was tuned into them even though he was in flight from two Crows chasing him on foot. He heard their names called back and forth as if trying to frighten him, Hides-inside-Rocks and Eyes-see-where-Night-Goes. And both names he knew meant a place deep inside-the-mountain … maybe that is where he was at this minute, at the foot of a god of the mountains. History, he believed, sat around him in the blackness, and he could not imagine it being anything else.
A few days earlier, crawling through endless tunnels and apertures and following a route of caves through the innards of the mountain, he had heard the talk coming from behind him or below him. They, like all Crows, were relentless.
The words they spoke, both in Crow and frequently using words in his own tongue to describe him, seemed to give away secrets of the mountain, secrets that no white man might ever have heard. DeNoncoeur felt privileged. He was in range. He was close to the dream of sharing.
“The captured light comes loose soon,” one said, and the other replied, “And it departs almost too quickly as it descends into the heart of the mountain. There is only so much illumination for such a short time. It would take the time of hundreds of moons to make these signs to Montowanta we see before us. And hundreds of ancestors spent their time here, waiting for the one sign to assist them in their tasks of respect.”
There was silence before he spoke again, saying, “We know you cannot go out and come back in between the holy lights from afar. And there are no torch remnants here and no ashes or dust from a fire. All the signs to the god have been made in the captured light of the sun. The elders told us we would come to this and should never despair. We must go back and get our supplies and wait here until Devil-on-Two -Feet shows. Perhaps he comes tomorrow or tonight, for this must be what he has been looking for all this time. Let us go now and we will be back before all is black outside and in here at the same time.”
While the two braves were gone, DeNoncoeur scoured for rocks and loose boulders, piled them at the edge, and set them tenuously atop one another so that with little effort they would all cascade down the wall of the cave. If nothing else, the cascade of rocks would send his own sign to the braves awaiting his arrival.
In a matter of hours, he heard them coming back to settle in for the wait.
“Well, Eyes-see-where-Night-Goes,” said Hides-inside-Rocks, “we should be adding our signs to the god, but we are not so gifted. We are just protectors for the God of Two Mountains. If Devil-on-Two -Feet, enters this tepee of Montowanta, we shall bury him in here. He shall not carry the heart of Montowanta away from here even in the smallest piece he might try to steal.”
Later, after the Crow braves had eaten in darkness, DeNoncoeur heard a different sound, not the noise of men moving, but something strange and full of promise, of enlightenment. The mountain did not shake but there was a moving presence all around him. It emanated off the walls. Perhaps, he thought, a revelation of the true mountain or the true god. An image came to him of the old iron stove in Manitowaning warming up in its promise. On raw days it carried its own blessing and now and then was as red as a sunset between peaks.
Hides-inside-Rocks said, “Get ready. The captured light comes soon. The air gets warm with the new respect as the mountain itself awaits the light, welcomes it, like a squaw welcomes her man back from the buffalo hunt.”
There, in the midst of blackness, below him and his fellow brave, and below Varden DeNoncoeur hiding above them on a deep shelf, a light came rising as if from a great depth. It came up through a pool of water in the heart of darkness and it lasted only for a short time. But it threw light outward in that darkness and DeNoncoeur saw magnificent etchings or drawings or paintings on the inner walls of one of the two mountains of one god. The decorations, or signs of respect, covered the walls and must have told the story of infinity and the beginning of the Crow existence when the noble black bird first flew out of the darkness of the mountain carrying all the blackness elsewhere in the world for a full half day before it flew back again at dusk.
The sudden illumination made DeNoncoeur think about the source of the light that dropped perfectly vertical out in front of him and the two Crow braves. He suddenly realized that it came from overhead, directly overhead, and it could only be a transfer from sunlight coming down a shaft into the heart of the mountain. He wondered how many days in the year the light would last. How long it lasted on other days, if it did last any longer on another occasion. And he imagined no other light source was allowed for this dedication and honor by which the drawings or etchings or paintings might be completed, accomplished, the Indian way; it was a testament to the God of Two Mountains, one light from the sky, where that god sat above all the tribe, above all the Nations.
DeNoncoeur held his breath an interminably long time, the amazement building in him, the passage of eons of times sifting through him swiftly, him trying to measure the impossible, and finally yielding to the realization that all this about him, about the two Crow braves below him, was as old as mankind itself and only took one’s faith to know it.
DeNoncoeur waited in the darkness on the high shelf of the cave, not daring to eat any food, afraid the aroma would reveal his hiding place. Then the short, silent, explosion of light happened again a few hours later, as if it had slanted into the cave from another direction, another angle. He envisioned the passage of the sun overhead and figured there had to be more than one shaft into the heart of the mountain, more opportunities to pay homage to the god. He wondered how many shafts would be needed to pay proper respect.
DeNoncoeur heard Eyes-See-Where-Night-Goes say, “This day already, Montowanta allows us to pay our respects for the second time in one sun. How wise he is, knowing the difficulties in getting here. We must sit and make sure that Devil-on-Two –Feet does not disturb this place. His skills have been sharpened by a guiding hand.”
“The god’s work is not yet done for this day, as the elders say,” Hides-in-Rocks said, and DeNoncoeur could envision him nodding his head.
Getting groggy from his adventure, DeNoncoeur, feeling like he would soon fall asleep, worried about snoring. He did not fear the two braves might climb to his hiding place, for the wall was too steep and too smooth. But they might trap him in here, starve him into capture. In order to capture him, or kill him, they’d have to go back out all the way to find the other entrance he had taken. That would take time, lots of time.
He tried to keep his mind alert, his hearing sharp, but reality began to fade. Finally, his blanket on the shelf under him, his head on his shoulder pack, DeNoncoeur drifted off to sleep. In a dream that had continued from other nights, he dreamed of Monroe Mary back in Manitowaning, on the other side of the great lake in Canada. Endlessly he had dreamed of her and the God of Two Mountains, both of which were now so entwined in his life he could not think of one without the other entering the same thought, sharing the same image.
In one dream, as he reached for Monroe Mary beside him, his hand found the God of Two Mountains sitting right beside him. For a moment he almost saw the god’s face, but knew it was not true, for Monroe Mary’s face sat in its place, her eyes like the small pretty blue flowers crawling on the bank of a stream, the dawn’s pink glow moving on her cheeks, her fair red lips curving as soft as a crescent moon just rising over a peak of white. When he looked again, the God of Two Mountains, without a face, pointed to the southwest, always to the southwest.
He almost said aloud, “But I am there. In the southwest. In the heart of one of your mountains. His voice would not come. Instead, a cough issued from deep inside his chest. He gagged on the cough, and heard the Crow braves abuzz with anxiety.
“He is here,” Hides-in-Rocks said. “He is here. Devil-on-Two-Feet is here,”
“Quick,” said Eyes-See-Where-Night-Goes, “he is above us. When the captured light comes, we must look for a way up.”
“Why has the God of Two Mountains not punished him, the intruder? Is that what he has left us to do, to punish him in our way?”
Varden DeNoncoeur saw no better chance than to act at that moment and he pushed one stone out of the pile he had made. With a thunderous roar, right on top of the words from Hides-in-Rocks, the mass of boulders and stones and sharp remnants of stone, thus freed of their bind, came crashing down into the chamber of the holy light from above. The cascade was accompanied by a host of echoes that rang into and out of other caverns and tunnels in an ominous whirlwind of threat to the Crows in the chamber.
The two braves scattered, believing that the God of Two Mountains had been disturbed and had acted this way, by threatening their mission and making this deadly sound, the way the whole mountain would sound if it descended from its highest point on top of them.
DeNoncoeur heard the last sound from them as he waited in the darkness to see if he had set loose other parts of the mountain. Swiftly there came into his memory the single, loud yell causing the snow avalanche that fatally buried Two-Tongues-Wise’s man, the father of Monroe Mary and the grandfather of Jacques DeNoncoeur. Now that yell sat in the silence of the mountain.
He slept again, waited an appreciable time in silence, and then retrieved a rope from his gear, looped it on a large rock and slid down the sheer wall in the continuing darkness. Something told him to hurry; he did not know how long he had slept.
But the mountain, as it had on the earlier occasions, was making an announcement of its own, a change in temperature, a “feeling” or “sense of feeling” coming off the rock wall. He thought of how heat made changes in the property of dough, how a clutch of white mud became a loaf of delicious bread.
Quickly, even in the darkness, he was at the edge of the small pool. Dipping his hands into the water, he cupped a handful, brought it to his mouth, drank it off, and filled the cup of his hands again and stood up. The temperature changed again. Energy was loosed, and the shaft of captured light suddenly leaped down the shaft, glistened into his cupped hands, and reflected that energy in a blast of illumination that shone on every surface of the cavern.
And that included his whole person, lit up as if hit by a bolt of lightning.
There, the two Crow braves, standing in awe in the blast light, motionless and dumbfounded, saw Devil-on-Two-Feet catch the signal of respect from the God of Two Mountains as the captured light again flashed off his hands. They fell to their knees as the light lit up again the entire interior of the cavern as it emanated from his cupped hands, just as if a holy lamp had been lit by him, on him, for him.
“This,” DeNoncoeur said aloud, not afraid of anyone ever hearing him, “is the moment of miracle for me, in the heart of a mountain where the sun of the god touched my hands. Wait until I tell Two-Tongues-Wise and One-Who- Speaks-Two-Sides, that I have known their god, that he spoke to me this way. And wait until I tell Monroe Mary and Jacques that I have already been where I will take them in their time, to this holy place.”