Western Short Story
It was the first time Huck had been hunting by himself. He usually went with his dad, Brock, or with his best friend, Tom. But Brock’s duty as sheriff of Dry Springs was keeping him busy today, and Tom was feeling sick. It was time for some fresh meat for the family, and though Brock and Huck’s mom, Sophie, were a little nervous about letting him go alone, he was fourteen years old, good with a rifle and responsible beyond his years.
He left before dawn, dressed warmly against the fall chill, carrying two canteens of water, food for two days in case the hunting was poor and he was forced to spend a night away from home, his Remington 1866 rifle, his 1849 Colt pistol, and plenty of ammunition for both. As he almost always did, Huck was riding Spirit, his mustang gelding and a horse Huck trusted completely.
Huck was about two hours southeast of Dry Springs when he came across a small creek with plenty of cottonwoods to provide cover. He picked an area on the west side of the creek with pretty dense growth to set up his day camp. On the east side, which he could easily watch, there was some open prairie that any animal would have to cross before reaching the creek. The wind was blowing east to west, so it was doubtful any prey would be able to smell him, but he still chose not to start a fire. After letting Spirit drink from the creek, Huck walked him back about one hundred yards and, as usual, didn’t picket or hobble him, but trusted him to stay close.
With that, he settled in and waited. It wasn’t long before a small family of deer worked its way cautiously to the creek, but even the buck seemed too small to provide much meat, at least this early in the day. He also didn't want to scare off any larger prey with a shot, so he watched as the deer drank their fill, ate some of the sweet grass along the creek bank and walked away, never knowing how close they had come to having eaten their last meal.
Another hour passed, and across the plain, a small herd of antelope came into view. They weren’t in any hurry but were moving toward the creek, and Huck had every reason to think they’d soon be in range.
He wasn’t disappointed. After about thirty minutes, the antelope reached the creek, maybe fifty yards above Huck. There was a good-sized buck, close to 150 pounds, almost half of which would be good meat. Huck shifted his position slowly, bringing the 1866 with him. He had a clear view of the buck and took aim at his left shoulder. With his finger on the trigger, he took a long, slow breath, let it out, and before taking another breath, squeezed off the shot. The silence was shattered, and the herd of antelope exploded away from the creek and back across the prairie—all except the buck, which died instantly from Huck’s shot.
Huck set his rifle with his gear, picked up his Bowie knife—a gift from his grandfather Ray—and worked his way across the creek. Huck said a quiet prayer over the fallen antelope, as he did every time he killed something, a habit he’d developed since he’d started going to church on Sundays after Reverend Matt moved to town.
He was about twenty minutes into skinning his kill when he heard Spirit whinny, which was unusual and almost never without a reason. A quick look over the prairie showed nothing, so he quickly jumped to that side of the antelope, dropped to his belly and pulled his Colt. He slowly peeked over the top of the antelope, which was now being asked to provide protection as well as food. As he scanned the tree line on the opposite side of the creek, he saw a slight movement.
As he watched, trying not to move, the movement came into focus. It was a young Indian, Huck’s age, maybe even younger. He had a bow and arrow, but Huck saw no sign of anyone else or of any gun. The bow was at the Indian’s side, no arrow drawn. Huck, with his Colt aimed at the boy, knew that the distance was at the outside of his range, but a good shot could still work. He kicked himself for not bringing his rifle, a mistake he swore he would never make again.
Neither of them moved for more than five minutes, though it seemed much longer than that to Huck. He began to think the boy was alone, feeling that if there were others, they would have already attacked. He could only hope his gear hadn’t been found.
Huck tensed as there was movement from behind the tree and the young man took a slow, tentative step into the open. He was not fully exposed and was clearly ready to leap back behind the tree, but was still not raising his weapon. Huck, fearing a trick and not knowing what else it could be, didn’t come out from behind the antelope, but didn’t fire either.
After a couple of minutes, the young man stepped away from the tree, fully exposed to Huck, and slowly set his bow on the ground. He then clasped his hands together, chest high in what Huck took to mean peace, and followed that by raising his right hand, fingers toward Huck, index and middle finger raised, which Huck took to mean friend.
Still fearing a trap, but knowing he couldn’t stay hidden behind the antelope forever, Huck nervously stood up, hand on his Colt and eyes scanning the tree line. The Indian didn’t move and, as far as Huck could tell, neither did anything else. Unsure of what to do next, he waved the Indian toward him. As he crossed the creek and drew closer to Huck, practically dragging his bow, Huck saw that they were almost the same age. The Indian was very skinny and had no arrows, but he did have a small knife tucked into his right moccasin, which, like the left one, was worn down to almost nothing.
They stood that way, about fifteen feet apart, for a minute or more before Huck spoke.
“Do you speak English?”
The Indian responded by shaking his head no. He pointed to the antelope.
“Are you hungry?”
No response, so Huck rubbed his stomach, which was met with an enthusiastic nod.
Huck relaxed just a bit, believing now that this young Indian was on his own, out of arrows and hungry. He didn’t have a way to find out what had happened for him to be in this position, but he also knew that he could help. Wanting to trust, but knowing that hungry people can be desperate, Huck made a decision.
He indicated that the Indian should pick up some of the antelope meat that he had already cut out and follow Huck back to his camp. The Indian started to reach for his knife, and Huck quickly pulled his Colt. The Indian signed that he was going to cut more meat, but Huck made it clear there was plenty already cut.
Leaving the knife in his moccasin, the Indian picked up some of the meat and started walking back to the creek, followed by Huck. As they got close to the creek, the Indian spotted Huck’s camp and turned back, and Huck indicated he should keep going. They crossed the creek, and as they walked into camp, the Indian set the meat on a flat rock.
He turned and looked at Huck, unsure of what to do next. Huck, using his non-gun hand, pointed to himself and said, “Huck.
The Indian then pointed to himself and said what sounded to Huck like “Kuckunniwi.” Huck did his best to repeat what he heard, and he must have been close, because for the first time, the Indian smiled. Huck did the same. Both seemed to relax at the same time.
Huck indicated that Kuckunniwi should gather up some firewood and walked over to his gear and took out some bread that Sophie had packed for him. He walked back and offered half of it to Kuckunniwi, who took it gently but ate with the enthusiasm of someone who had missed more than breakfast. Huck offered him the other half, which was refused at first but, with very little prompting, was then accepted and eaten.
The bread finished, Kuckunniwi got to work on getting a fire started. Huck, still a little wary, watched him closely as he carved up some steaks from the antelope. As Kuckunniwi started cooking the steaks, Huck went back to his gear and brought out some beans and coffee, and working together, they prepared quite a feast. They ate in silence, but in growing comfort, and the Indian ate almost twice as much as Huck. Huck could see a visible physical change in Kuckunniwi when the meal was done.
When they finished eating, they sat and drank coffee, still unable to talk, but communicating at some level. As it crept toward midafternoon, Huck indicated they should go back to the antelope and finish skinning it. They walked back, this time side by side, and Huck started back to work. Kuckunniwi stood quietly, a few feet away, clearly unsure of what to do. Huck thought about it for a moment, then signed for the Indian to use his knife and join him in the work, which he did. Working together, they made quick work of the antelope and carried the meat back to the camp. Huck took some of the meat and packed it in the burlap he brought, and then indicated the rest was for Kuckunniwi. He gave him a second piece of burlap so he would have something to carry it in.
With about two hours of sunlight left, Huck decided it was time to head back to Dry Springs. It was getting cold, and Huck wanted to be back in Dry Springs before dark. Though Sophie knew he might be gone for the night, he also knew she’d sleep better knowing he was home. He left camp and Kuckunniwi and walked back to get Spirit. He brought Spirit back to camp, where Kuckunniwi waited.
Huck started to pack up his gear, for the first time turning his back to Kuckunniwi, and was done in a couple of minutes. He started to mount Spirit, looked back at Kuckunniwi and stopped. He reached into his pack and took out all the extra food he had brought with him, turned, and gave it to Kuckunniwi. He then went to his other pack, took out an extra shirt and his good pair of moccasins, and untied one of his canteens, walking back around Spirit and handing it all to Kuckunniwi.
He offered his hand, which Kuckunniwi took, and without looking back, Huck jumped up on Spirit and started the ride back to Dry Springs.
Kuckunniwi watched until Huck was out of sight, and then called out in a series of loud whistles. A couple of minutes passed before two young Indians, Kuckunniwi’s eight-year-old brother and six-year-old sister, emerged from their hiding place, ran into camp, hugged their brother and started eating.