Western Short Story
“The boy’s got his Pa’s talents locked up in them hands of his. Fastest draw I ever seen on a man, but somethin’ mean’s drivin’ him and he won’t say what. I plain can’t figure him out.”
Old Guy Prestle, older than any building in sight, because he was the first man to come into Wachoo Valley in 1828, stood in his stirrups while talking to the Wachoo Valley sheriff.
“That grandson of mine won’t budge a fly’s worth on what’s got into him. I just got the idea he’s not goin’ to be bound by the talent he come by. Whoosh! And them guns are out and blazin’ away. He scares some folks soon’s he comes around, but he don’t appear to be bound by them hands, as I say. He ain’t but shot one man and him a road agent tried to hustle the stage he was on. The extra rifle told me hisself. He was sittin’ topside and before he got his own shot off, the kid blew that road agent right off the backside of his horse. And shot him three times before he hit the ground. Now tell me he ain’t got some fierce thing workin’ hisself lathered.”
His grandson was Angus Johns, son of his daughter Elsa May, and Iron Johns, one-time sheriff back in Lacosa East and now just a ranch owner, holding onto a chunk of life, letting the cows and horses run that life, pushing the cows and horses while he could and can’t do any more, his family all raised nearly, and passing on some traits to his sons who really run the ranch, biggest yet in the valley.
Angus Johns was nearing his 19th birthday, and for a year he’d go off on a Friday evening or early Saturday morning, no one knows where and none asked, and he’d come back on Monday time for work, sometimes back into it soon as he arrived like he didn’t miss a stroke. This was after both parents had given warning about the dangers that await young men on the loose.
His father would nod to him, figuring he had a girl somewhere in a half day’s ride, a day out and back, and let that settle his mind, though he never knew for real. The boy’s mother figured the same thing and was content with it. She’d look at the younger son, Alec, seemingly crawled into his 14th year before he began to blossom, and she wondered, “What will be next?”
But every so often, often weeks apart, Angus Johns returned with a distinct aura of sadness about him.
All the silent types about the ranch, including mother and father, never asked about the cause, the quick change in his person.
His grandfather Prestle, old as the hills and the valleys and almost the mountains themselves, caught the first hint of the problem after a few months of such trips in a short discussion of promised weather on one of Angus’ returns.
“That old friend of mine, Two-Hills-Burnt, says he’s seen somethin’ in the animals and the birds hereabouts tellin’ him an awful time of weather’s comin’. He says nobody should get caught alone out there on the grass or any place with no cover.”
“Grandpa,” Angus replied, “don’t worry none about me out there, ‘cause I’ll have the whole mountain for cover.”
“Boy may be minin’ on his own,” the grandfather said convincingly to himself later, but also bound not to say anything to the others. “Must have a cave he’s workin’ in and gets real upset he ain’t findin’ what he expects to find. At least, not yet. The pick, if it don’t make a hit, often makes a scowl. I seen all that afore.”
With solid clarity he recalled his own shot at the mountain the Indians had said held riches enough to fill the eyes of any man up to where he’s drowning.
The promise of those few words drove him on.
It was only after he pulled that promise apart that he left the mountain and went back to the grass, back to the trade-off, back to cows, to promises of northern sales, greater markets, a different approach to riches, though both asked for and then demanded hard labor.
The older man saw himself in his grandson’s saddle, promise pushing him and his hopes. In a bright sunshine one day, when he was alone on the grass, letting his horse have his way for a while, he thought it would be best for his grandson if it was a girl that he was involved with, that could level the happiness in him, bring out the sadness. “A girl’s better than gold anytime,” he argued. “Gold gets spent easy. But a good girl will last a lifetime with some luck on both parts.”
He had no idea how close he was to the truth.
Her name was Gretchen Tree-Bends-Low, half Sioux Indian, half white girl, the Indian half winning the division so far in her life, getting first choice in selective matters.
Angus Johns, in a tight little valley chasing down a deer he had shot, found her in poor straits from a rock fall. With care and a little knowledge, he brought her back to health, and good spirits, in the course of which he fell in love with her.
“Gretchen, I know it has come awful fast for me, but I know, down deep, that I love you, that I’d take you back to our ranch and get married as soon as possible.” He studied her beautiful face, the new luster on her cheeks, and the dark sincerity of her eyes. Even in this short time, he knew he had never met a girl like her, and life, in a hurry, was different for him.
She said, “My father has the final say in my marriage. He favors alliances with chiefs, gifts or dowries, as you call them, singers of songs of the Nations, a Cree potion from a medicine man they call the Elk Long Winter Drink. My mother has no say in the arrangements or the suitor who always had to be a marked warrior or a great hunter. That, more than all things, is what my father wants for his only daughter. As for me, I must wait for my man.” Her eyes flashed her love for Johns with those words.
Gretchen went on: “My father, Iron Eyes, has seen no man worthy as yet and I don’t want to share my husband with another woman, which happens a lot in the tribe. That’s from my mother’s side of things. There are many parts of Sioux life she does not favor but has always kept them from my father but not from me, not after I realized how she had come to be my mother and would never leave me, no matter what came on the horizon. She promised that to me many times in my life. I came from her and she stayed with me. For her, I will make my stand.”
“If we got her away from them, would that be a good thing?”
The determination showed on his face, for she had learned that he showed his feelings in a very open manner, which also warmed her heart; she was long tired of secrets. Here was a handsome young man who was as open with her as he could be, who surely loved her, who undoubtedly would show her the other side of life her mother had spoken of in secret more times than she could remember.
“It would be difficult,” she responded, thinking how much danger would be met by an attempt to rescue her mother from Iron Eyes.
For a frightful moment she seemed quite fearful, showing true concern not only for her mother, but for anyone trying to get her away from the tribe, where the woman had been a virtual prisoner for over 18 years, with chances to escape but never taken. Gretchen repeatedly said how many times she had seen a sure chance for escape by her mother and none were ever taken.
“Any time she was away from the village,” she said while nodding her head, “it was made certain that I would not be with her, that one of the other women in the tribe would take care of me. It was part of their grip on my mother. She would have gone at first chance if I was with her.” A small sigh escaped from her, and Johns was able to read it as a niche in the Sioux armor Gretchen had been raised in.
“Does she know where she came from, who her people are? Or were? I guess she’d been taken in a raid.” His hand came soft but sure on her shoulder, the way he shared things, she thought.
“Right off a stagecoach,” Gretchen said. “She was on the way to be with her husband who had gone ahead to set up their new ranch, make arrangements, hire hands.”
“Do you know the name of her first husband? Where his ranch was? Where he was from?”
“All I know is Marrlowe, and spelled that way.” She read off the letters from memory including the double-R, pausing after the first syllable of the name. “I know little else. My mother made sure something of her past was alive in me, but did not set me up to crowd my life with curiosity, but rather to enjoy whatever was to come to me.”
The pace sought a change, and talented and smart and witty Angus Johns broke into a cowboy song, the lyrics near a ditty bouncing about in the rock confines like a series of echoes broken loose from a whirligig.
Gretchen the maiden laughed heartily, her eyes again making announcements; and Angus Johns, truly in love, let that laughter settle into his memory forever.
But a sudden new look came over his face, the look setting off a new appearance for her in his behavior.
It moved her into a delirious joy as his voice changed and he said, and she said, in unison, with a grand sharing of a single thought; Johns saying, “She’s probably looking for you right now,” and Gretchen saying, “She’s probably looking for me right now.”
They each laughed and hugged in a minor celebration, and Angus Johns knew that he would love her forever despite any and all obstacles. And he marveled that he had not even brought into his thoughts his skill with the weapons on his belt, the skills that had come down to him from Iron Johns. Iron Eyes and iron Johns. The incredulity of it all hit him squarely, but did not destroy his thoughts of rescue.
Instead he said, “Do you really think during this time you’ve been away from the tribe, she has taken herself away from them to find you? Would she do that rather than get help from them?”
Gretchen Tree-Bends-Low, minor euphoria riding in her body, said, “She would have been looking for a chance to get away at every moment of day or night. I will swear that she’s out there looking, for she has learned much from the Sioux way.”
She allowed a smile to cross her face and added, “Just as I have.”
“What kind of routes do you think she would pursue?” he asked.
“Mother was always thinking that water would save her life, almost like a kind of holy water. I am thinking she’d try water for her escape, and she’d think I might have been near water. I remember her saying water has all the power we can imagine. She was saying something else then, I am sure. Water has all the power.”
“Well,” Johns said, “you still need a few more days of rest before you can leave here, so I will search for her the rest of this day and I will be back, but in a few days this time. I will not ever leave you for a whole week again. Not if I can help it.”
He left with her lips in his memory, on his lips, the way a butterfly lingers with softness. No matter what he did, where the trail took him, he would never be able to get her out of his mind. He was content with that ultimatum.
As soon as he was back at the ranch after a fruitless search for Gretchen’s mother, his grandfather said to him, “Well, Angus, I see you’ve had another turn out there in the middle of it all, the prairie and the mountain and all that goes with ‘em. You find what you been lookin’ for?”
“I found it way back, Grandpa.” It was time to let loose. “I found my woman and she was hurt and I have brought her back almost to her best. I love her with all my power. She’s half Indian and half white and her mother, the white part, is probably alone and out there in the mountains looking for her. I’ll be going back in a few days.”
“Back to that cave?”
“Yes. She’s near good enough to travel and to get married.”
“Why do you wait then? Go back right now. I’ll go with you, and no questions asked.”
“I know I have things to do here, Pa getting on too, oh the pair of you.” Angus Johns clapped his grandfather on the back. “You two gents keep me wound up all the time. I was fooling myself that I’d only stay a few days, but I’m heading back tonight. Gretchen, that’s her name, figures her mother’s moving on or near the water. I’ll begin looking that way, the way the river comes down those two chutes.”
“Them ain’t the only ways, Angus. Long time ago, some of them Sioux chasin’ me for horse and rifle, I went down below the falls near Chicken Henry’s Well and found a trail they must have lost when an elder died on them in a hurry. Them chutes is too much for anybody no matter how good they swim. Or how good they can handle a raft. I’d look there first, from Chicken Henry’s Well down along the Welby Hills and come in from the other side of east branch. Some ‘it’s under stone and mighty scaresome, but it’s the best way to get out of the high country.”
“Is it possible she’d know that way?”
“Course it is. And she prob’ly had schoolin’ and might see some gain in it. Never can tell. But doin’ the chutes leaves you wide open to sight even before you toss your life into the wildest waters this side of Port Henry. I know. I been there.”
Before dawn rose over the mountains east of the ranch, Angus Johns was out on the grass, heading into those mountains, heading back to his sweetheart bound to a cave, her wounds near cured, her heart half full of her new love, and deep worries about her mother making the other half feel like it was empty.
The young cowpoke, having explained his recent behavior to his parents, felt himself preparing for a long search, but hoping it would be a successful one. The first rays of the sun crossed his face in the middle of the prairie and they provided him with a sudden optimism for a bright and happy day.
Yet, with that feeling in him, his hand unaccountably fell to his side arms and then touched the butt of his rifle. He vowed to be ready for whatever came at him, but wanted to do it alone. A smile toured his face as he thought about his grandfather’s volunteering to go along on the hunt. The realization surged over him that he came from good stock, and was mighty proud of it. That thought brought him back to Gretchen and her mother and their long plight; it would demand much of him to pull off this search. He touched the side arms again, saw an eagle or a hawk float across the early sky, saw the last star close its eyes for the day, and felt a sense of urgency vibrating in his saddle.
In the cave, with water and food at hand, hides and furs for good bedding and warmth, she was asleep when Johns arrived. He kissed her good day, hugged her, and promised he’d do his best to find her mother.
It was mere hours later, following the directions his grandfather had set for him, he spotted two actions on the river below Chicken Henry’s Well … an Indian woman in a canoe on the water and two braves shooting arrows, in high arcs, hoping to hit her. Two of the arrows had punctured the canoe and it was taking too much water, it showed as it listed at one end. The woman went into the water, disappeared, while the Indian braves looked for her from up high.
Johns figured she might have been wounded and was now drowned or near to drowning. The braves, seeing nothing moving below, mounted their ponies and left. Moments later, her head broke water just under a ledge hanging over the water, its underside obviously eroded by years of water flow. But there was no way for her to climb the steep walls around her.
Johns saw that she started floating downstream, on her back, saving energy for the long run. He retraced some of his steps, mounted his horse and headed downstream.
Well downstream, at the first break in the cliffs and palisades siding the river, she came ashore exhausted, climbing slowly onto land, falling once, then again, to the ground, where Johns came upon her.
“Do not be alarmed,” he said. “Gretchen sent me. I am Angus Johns and I love her and I am going to marry her. She was hurt during a rock fall and I have nursed her back to health. She’s safe in a cave waiting for us. I promised I’d do my best to find you. She was positive, once she was lost, that you would come looking for her. My grandfather sent me this way.”
“If she is alright, that is my wish,” said Gretchen’s mother. “Bless you for that, and bless the grandfather with all the wisdom that sent you this way. We have to leave quick because those braves from the tribe will come down here as soon as they get past the end of the mountain.”
In short order they were at the cave where a joyous reunion took place, both women ecstatic over seeing each other again, and the coming nuptials.
Johns, once they were off the mountain ledges and high passes, put both women on his horse and led them out across the wide prairie. They were spotted by Johns’ grandfather and two hands from the ranch.
“We’ve been watchin’ for you folks, and mighty glad to see you and make your acquaintance. My deep pleasurin’ to meet the newest bride in the family and her mother. My name is Guy Prestle, grandfather to the newest groom in the family. We’re gonna have some hootin’ and hollerin’ amongst us, that’s for damned sure.”
Then he looked at his young grandson, master of the gun, and said, “How did it go, boy? You do okay?”
Angus Johns fully elated, and aware of the older man’s curiosity, said, as he patted his holster, “Didn’t even have to take them out of the leather, Grandpa. Not a once. It was just like I gave them time off for good behavior. ”
The two women were also elated and whispered their joy to each other on the long ride to the ranch, as the men, bunched up on their mounts, did their own brand of talking.