Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
We left Snake River. We went up Pacific Creek, and through Two Ocean Pass, and down among the watery willow-bottoms and beaverdams of the Upper Yellowstone. We fished; we enjoyed existence along the lake. Then we went over Pelican Creek trail and came steeply down into the giant country of grasstopped mountains. At dawn and dusk the elk had begun to call across the stillness. And one morning in the Hoodoo country, where we were looking for sheep, we came round a jut of the strange, organ-pipe formation upon a longlegged boy of about nineteen, also hunting.
"Still hyeh?" said the Virginian, without emotion.
"I guess so," returned the boy, equally matter-of-fact. "Yu' seem to be around yourself," he added.
They might have been next-door neighbors, meeting in a town street for the second time in the same day.
The Virginian made me known to Mr. Lin McLean, who gave me a brief nod.
"Any luck?" he inquired, but not of me.
"Oh," drawled the Virginian, "luck enough."
Knowing the ways of the country, I said no word. It was bootless to interrupt their own methods of getting at what was really in both their minds.
The boy fixed his wide-open hazel eyes upon me. "Fine weather," he mentioned.
"Very fine," said I.
"I seen your horses a while ago," he said. "Camp far from here?" he asked the Virginian.
"Not specially. Stay and eat with us. We've got elk meat."
"That's what I'm after for camp," said McLean. "All of us is out on a hunt to-day--except him."
"How many are yu' now?"
"The whole six."
"Oh, some days the gold washes out good in the pan, and others it's that fine it'll float off without settlin'."
"So Hank ain't huntin' to-day?"
"Huntin'! We left him layin' out in that clump o'brush below their cabin. Been drinkin' all night."
The Virginian broke off a piece of the Hoodoo mud-rock from the weird eroded pillar that we stood beside. He threw it into a bank of last year's snow. We all watched it as if it were important. Up through the mountain silence pierced the long quivering whistle of a bull-elk. It was like an unearthly singer practising an unearthly scale.
"First time she heard that," said McLean, "she was scared."
"Nothin' maybe to resemble it in Austria," said the Virginian.
"That's so," said McLean. "That's so, you bet! Nothin' just like Hank over there, neither."
"Well, flesh is mostly flesh in all lands, I reckon," said the Virginian. "I expect yu' can be drunk and disorderly in every language. But an Austrian Hank would be liable to respect her crucifix."
"He ain't made her quit it yet?"
"Not him. But he's got meaner."
"Drunk this mawnin', yu' say?"
"That's his most harmless condition now."
"Nobody's in camp but them two? Her and him alone?"
"Oh, he dassent touch her."
"Who did he tell that to?"
"Oh, the camp is backin' her. The camp has explained that to him several times, you bet! And what's more, she has got the upper hand of him herself. She has him beat."
"She has downed him with her eye. Just by endurin' him peacefully; and with her eye. I've saw it. Things changed some after yu' pulled out. We had a good crowd still, and it was pleasant, and not too lively nor yet too slow. And Willomene, she come more among us. She'd not stay shut in-doors, like she done at first. I'd have like to've showed her how to punish Hank."
"Afteh she had downed yu' with her eye?" inquired the Virginian.
Young McLean reddened, and threw a furtive look upon me, the stranger, the outsider. "Oh, well," he said, "I done nothing onusual. But that's all different now. All of us likes her and respects her, and makes allowances for her bein' Dutch. Yu' can't help but respect her. And she shows she knows."
"I reckon maybe she knows how to deal with Hank," said the Virginian.
"Shucks!" said McLean, scornfully. "And her so big and him so puny! She'd ought to lift him off the earth with one arm and lam him with a baste or two with the other, and he'd improve."
"Maybe that's why she don't," mused the Virginian, slowly; "because she is so big. Big in the spirit, I mean. She'd not stoop to his level. Don't yu' see she is kind o' way up above him and camp and everything--just her and her crucifix?"
"Her and her crucifix!" repeated young Lin McLean, staring at this interpretation, which was beyond his lively understanding. "Her and her crucifix. Turruble lonesome company! Well, them are things yu' don't know about. I kind o' laughed myself the first time I seen her at it. Hank, he says to me soft, 'Come here, Lin,' and I peeped in where she was a-prayin'. She seen us two, but she didn't quit. So I quit, and Hank came with me, sayin' tough words about it. Yes, them are things yu' sure don't know about. What's the matter with you camping with us boys tonight?"
We had been going to visit them the next day. We made it to-day, instead. And Mr. McLean helped us with our packs, and we carried our welcome in the shape of elk meat. So we turned our faces down the grass-topped mountains towards Galena Creek. Once, far through an open gap away below us, we sighted the cabin with the help of our field-glasses.
"Pity we can't make out Hank sleepin' in that brush," said McLean.
"He has probably gone into the cabin by now," said I.
"Not him! He prefers the brush all day when he's that drunk, you bet!"
"Afraid of her?"
"Well--oneasy in her presence. Not that she's liable to be in there now. She don't stay inside nowadays so much. She's been comin' round the ditch, silent-like but friendly. And she'll watch us workin' for a spell, and then she's apt to move off alone into the woods, singin' them Dutch songs of hern that ain't got no toon. I've met her walkin' that way, tall and earnest, lots of times. But she don't want your company, though she'll patch your overalls and give yu' lunch always. Nor she won't take pay."
Thus we proceeded down from the open summits into the close pines; and while we made our way among the cross-timber and over the little streams, McLean told us of various days and nights at the camp, and how Hank had come to venting his cowardice upon his wife's faith.
"Why, he informed her one day when he was goin' take his dust to town, that if he come back and found that thing in the house, he'd do it up for her. 'So yu' better pack off your wooden dummy somewheres,' says he.
And she just looked at him kind o' stone-like and solemn. For she don't care for his words no more.
"And while he was away she'd have us all in to supper up at the shack, and look at us eatin' while she'd walk around puttin' grub on your plate. Day time she'd come around the ditch, watchin' for a while, and move off slow, singin' her Dutch songs. And when Hank comes back from spendin' his dust, he sees the crucifix same as always, and he says, 'Didn't I tell yu' to take that down?' 'You did,' says Willomene, lookin' at him very quiet. And he quit.
"And Honey Wiggin says to him, 'Hank, leave her alone.' And Hank, bein' all trembly from spreein' in town, he says, 'You're all agin me!' like as if he were a baby."
"I should think you would run him out of camp," said I.
"Well, we've studied over that some," McLean answered. "But what's to be done with Willomene?"
I did not know. None of us seemed to know.
"The boys got together night before last," continued McLean, "and after holdin' a unanimous meetin', we visited her and spoke to her about goin' back to her home. She was slow in corrallin' our idea on account of her bein' no English scholar. But when she did, after three of us takin' their turn at puttin' the proposition to her, she would not accept any of our dust. And though she started to thank us the handsomest she knowed how, it seemed to grieve her, for she cried. So we thought we'd better get out. She's tried to tell us the name of her home, but yu' can't pronounce such outlandishness."
As we went down the mountains, we talked of other things, but always came back to this; and we were turning it over still when the sun had departed from the narrow cleft that we were following, and shone only on the distant grassy tops which rose round us into an upper world of light.
"We'll all soon have to move out of this camp, anyway," said McLean, unstrapping his coat from his saddle and drawing it on. "It gets chill now in the afternoons. D' yu' see the quakin'-asps all turned yello', and the leaves keeps fallin' without no wind to blow 'em down? We're liable to get snowed in on short notice in this mountain country. If the water goes to freeze on us we'll have to quit workin'. There's camp."
We had rounded a corner, and once more sighted the cabin. I suppose it may have been still half a mile away, upon the further side of a ravine into which our little valley opened. But field-glasses were not needed now to make out the cabin clearly, windows and door. Smoke rose from it; for supper-time was nearing, and we stopped to survey the scene. As we were looking, another hunter joined us, coming from the deep woods to the edge of the pines where we were standing. This was Honey Wiggin. He had killed a deer, and he surmised that all the boys would be back soon. Others had met luck besides himself; he had left one dressing an elk over the next ridge. Nobody seemed to have got in yet, from appearances. Didn't the camp look lonesome?
"There's somebody, though," said McLean.
The Virginian took the glasses. "I reckon--yes, that's Hank. The cold has woke him up, and he's comin' in out o' the brush."
Each of us took the glasses in turn; and I watched the figure go up the hill to the door of the cabin. It seemed to pause and diverge to the window. At the window it stood still, head bent, looking in. Then it returned quickly to the door. It was too far to discern, even through the glasses, what the figure was doing. Whether the door was locked, whether he was knocking or fumbling with a key, or whether he spoke through the door to the person within--I cannot tell what it was that came through the glasses straight to my nerves, so that I jumped at a sudden sound; and it was only the distant shrill call of an elk. I was handing the glasses to the Virginian for him to see when the figure opened the door and disappeared in the dark interior. As I watched the square of darkness which the door's opening made, something seemed to happen there--or else it was a spark, a flash, in my own straining eyes.
But at that same instant the Virginian dashed forward upon his horse, leaving the glasses in my hand. And with the contagion of his act the rest of us followed him, leaving the pack animals to follow us as they should choose.
"Look!" cried McLean. "He's not shot her."
I saw the tall figure of a woman rush out of the door and pass quickly round the house.
"He's missed her!" cried McLean, again. "She's savin' herself."
But the man's figure did not appear in pursuit. Instead of this, the woman returned as quickly as she had gone, and entered the dark interior.
"She had something," said Wiggin. "What would that be?"
"Maybe it's all right, after all," said McLean. "She went out to get wood."
The rough steepness of our trail had brought us down to a walk, and as we continued to press forward at this pace as fast as we could, we compared a few notes. McLean did not think he saw any flash. Wiggin thought that he had heard a sound, but it was at the moment when the Virginian's horse had noisily started away.
Our trail had now taken us down where we could no longer look across and see the cabin. And the half-mile proved a long one over this ground. At length we reached and crossed the rocky ford, overtaking the Virginian there.
"These hawsses," said he, "are played out. We'll climb up to camp afoot. And just keep behind me for the present."
We obeyed our natural leader, and made ready for whatever we might be going into. We passed up the steep bank and came again in sight of the door. It was still wide open. We stood, and felt a sort of silence which the approach of two new-comers could not break. They joined us. They had been coming home from hunting, and had plainly heard a shot here. We stood for a moment more after learning this, and then one of the men called out the names of Hank and Willomene. Again we--or I at least--felt that same silence, which to my disturbed imagination seemed to be rising round us as mists rise from water.
"There's nobody in there," stated the Virginian. "Nobody that's alive," he added. And he crossed the cabin and walked into the door.
Though he made no gesture, I saw astonishment pass through his body, as he stopped still; and all of us came after him. There hung the crucifix, with a round hole through the middle of it. One of the men went to it and took it down; and behind it, sunk in the log, was the bullet. The cabin was but a single room, and every object that it contained could be seen at a glance; nor was there hiding-room for anything. On the floor lay the axe from the wood-pile; but I will not tell of its appearance. So he had shot her crucifix, her Rock of Ages, the thing which enabled her to bear her life, and that lifted her above life; and she--but there was the axe to show what she had done then. Was this cabin really empty? I looked more slowly about, half dreading to find that I had overlooked something. But it was as the Virginian had said; nobody was there.
As we were wondering, there was a noise above our heads, and I was not the only one who started and stared. It was the parrot; and we stood away in a circle, looking up at his cage. Crouching flat on the floor of the cage, his wings huddled tight to his body, he was swinging his head from side to side; and when he saw that we watched him, he began a low croaking and monotonous utterance, which never changed, but remained rapid and continuous. I heard McLean whisper to the Virginian, "You bet he knows."
The Virginian stepped to the door, and then he bent to the gravel and beckoned us to come and see. Among the recent footprints at the threshold the man's boot-heel was plain, as well as the woman's broad tread. But while the man's steps led into the cabin, they did not lead away from it. We tracked his course just as we had seen it through the glasses: up the hill from the brush to the window, and then to the door. But he had never walked out again. Yet in the cabin he was not; we tore up the half-floor that it had. There was no use to dig in the earth. And all the while that we were at this search the parrot remained crouched in the bottom of his cage, his black eye fixed upon our movements.
"She has carried him," said the Virginian. "We must follow up Willomene."
The latest heavy set of footprints led us from the door along the ditch, where they sank deep in the softer soil; then they turned off sharply into the mountains.
"This is the cut-off trail," said McLean to me. "The same he brought her in by."
The tracks were very clear, and evidently had been made by a person moving slowly. Whatever theories our various minds were now shaping, no one spoke a word to his neighbor, but we went along with a hush over us.
After some walking, Wiggin suddenly stopped and pointed.
We had come to the edge of the timber, where a narrow black canyon began, and ahead of us the trail drew near a slanting ledge, where the footing was of small loose stones. I recognized the odor, the volcanic whiff, that so often prowls and meets one in the lonely woods of that region, but at first I failed to make out what had set us all running.
"Is he looking down into the hole himself?" some one asked; and then I did see a figure, the figure I had looked at through the glasses, leaning strangely over the edge of Pitchstone Canyon, as if indeed he was peering to watch what might be in the bottom.
We came near. But those eyes were sightless, and in the skull the story of the axe was carved. By a piece of his clothing he was hooked in the twisted roots of a dead tree, and hung there at the extreme verge. I went to look over, and Lin McLean caught me as I staggered at the sight I saw. He would have lost his own foothold in saving me had not one of the others held him from above.
She was there below; Hank's woman, brought from Austria to the New World. The vision of that brown bundle lying in the water will never leave me, I think. She had carried the body to this point; but had she intended this end? Or was some part of it an accident? Had she meant to take him with her? Had she meant to stay behind herself? No word came from these dead to answer us. But as we stood speaking there, a giant puff of breath rose up to us between the black walls.
"There's that fluffy sigh I told yu' about," said the Virginian.
"He's talkin' to her! I tell yu' he's talkin' to her!" burst out McLean, suddenly, in such a voice that we stared as he pointed at the man in the tree. "See him lean over! He's sayin', 'I have yu' beat after all.'" And McLean fell to whimpering.
Wiggin took the boy's arm kindly and walked him along the trail. He did not seem twenty yet. Life had not shown this side of itself to him so plainly before.
"Let's get out of here," said the Virginian.
It seemed one more pitiful straw that the lonely bundle should be left in such a vault of doom, with no last touches of care from its fellow-beings, and no heap of kind earth to hide it. But whether the place is deadly or not, man dares not venture into it. So they took Hank from the tree that night, and early next morning they buried him near camp on the top of a little mound.
But the thought of Willomene lying in Pitchstone Canyon had kept sleep from me through that whole night, nor did I wish to attend Hank's burial. I rose very early, while the sunshine had still a long way to come down to us from the mountain-tops, and I walked back along the cut-off trail. I was moved to look once more upon that frightful place. And as I came to the edge of the timber, there was the Virginian. He did not expect any one. He had set up the crucifix as near the dead tree as it could be firmly planted.
"It belongs to her, anyway," he explained.
Some lines of verse came into my memory, and with a change or two I wrote them as deep as I could with my pencil upon a small board that he smoothed for me.
"Call for the robin redbreast and the wren, Since o'er shady groves they hover, And with flowers and leaves do cover The friendless bodies of unburied men. Call to this funeral dole The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole To rear her hillocks that shall keep her warm.
"That kind o' quaint language reminds me of a play I seen onced in Saynt Paul," said the Virginian. "About young Prince Henry."
I told him that another poet was the author.
"They are both good writers," said the Virginian. And as he was finishing the monument that we had made, young Lin McLean joined us. He was a little ashamed of the feelings that he had shown yesterday, a little anxious to cover those feelings with brass.
"Well," he said, taking an offish, man-of-the-world tone, "all this fuss just because a woman believed in God."
"You have put it down wrong," said the Virginian; "it's just because a man didn't."