Western Short Story
In the midst of deep thought in the fire-lit line cabin, solitude pleasantly surrounding him, ranch hand Pete Binchey heard the low, menacing, yet alerting growl of Jacques Cree come from the corner where his bed was. Slowly, in the shadows, as if not even disturbing the air or the meager illumination about his body, the wolf dog rose from rest, lowered his head, set his eyes on Binchey as though demanding attention, and stood immobile. In a quick series of images, the middle-aged cowboy saw the past history of the animal and the forebears that had nurtured the wolf dog’s being. Nothing sounded in the cabin, and no sounds came from the narrow pass beyond them, where the Drago Mountain range had once been parted by huge glacier sleds of ice. But Jacques Cree was frozen in place. A bare breath of air moved from his throat, a paw rose in some kind of memory, some kind of message. Pete Binchey trusted every move the wolf dog had ever made.
The day had had such a good start.
Earlier, in the chill of morning, new ranch hand Pete Binchey left the small one-room cabin in the foothills of the Drago Mountains, his two horses heavy with chain and rope for hauling firewood, and the proud and faithful wolf dog, Jacques Cree, loping wide of the horses, forever keeping under cover. No training on Binchey’s part had produced such behavior in the dog. Old survival genes and inherited shyness and slyness kept the animal among trees and boulders, bush and brush, shade and shadow, always on the prowl. Jacques Cree, six years old, part wolf and part herd dog, rescued as a pup from a rampaging bear, hadn’t left Pete Binchey on his own in more than five years. Each one had paid the other with deep investment. To Pete Binchey, dog-doo had greater significance than the silly words frequently used by trail companions and saloon chums.
When the first snow fell before its due date, Binchey felt blind-sided. It was early September and the normal future suddenly had kicked him where it hurts. It had been a long while since he had been in the high country. Two days earlier the range boss told him, with some assurance, that snow was a good two weeks away and he’d have plenty of time to haul in additional wood to keep him comfortable until the pass froze over and rustlers couldn’t use the pass as a breakaway route. As usual, Pete Binchey was aware of his responsibilities and his situation in the on-going world, the two notions often riding tandem with him, working on his consciousness; his weapons were in excellent shape, ammo was at hand, supplies closely guarded, eyes forever on the look-out, and Jacques Cree always his ace in the hole. At that moment Binchey could not see the gray face or the sleek gray body, or the deadly earnest, pale yellow-green eyes of the dog, but every once in a while a shadow would reveal itself with slight movement or a low growl would issue from a seriously dark patch of ground cover. The cowpoke often wished that trail hands had the same qualities as Jacques Cree, but, he’d snicker, that was expecting too much of any human being.
Now, early afternoon, snow coming a little thicker, a little heavier, the skies already dark as axle grease, his horses were straining to get the last of dropped logs back to camp. In one swing of the trail, the final log suddenly slid easier on the snow and the horses found it harder to get good footing. Eventually, with coaxing and a few harsh curses the animals had to understand, they arrived beside the small cabin. Smoke rose a thin, curling wisp into the afternoon air and the rich pine odor seemed to circle his head with welcome. Even the chilled toes in his boots accepted the greeting. With enough wood, he figured, he could hold out until he could scramble down the mountain, him and his two horses. And the wolf dog.
When the snowfall lightened considerably, and then stopped completely, Binchey spent the late afternoon hours working on the logs, sawing, splitting, stacking a decent pile by the cabin door and off the ground on slabs of rock. Jacques Cree, almost invisible, came to feed when Binchey put out a chunk of cow beef and bone.
Silence, after his tasks were done, seeped about the cabin like an invisible mist had settled over them. It seemed to come from higher in the range and also as if rising from the valley floor. In the awed silence, birds quiet, animal calls few and far between, Pete Binchey found an exultation sweeping through him; he had performed arduous but meaningful labor, the horses were rubbed and fed, his muscles felt sound and energetic, his disposition marking him as a happy man, the natural order of things advancing with his efforts.
He wondered how many men could enjoy the solitude that he found here in the foothills. On the wide prairie it was another kind of solitude that a man found, vaster, wider, but not as imperial. The domination of mountains would do that, he surmised, and then let the equation balance out. Of course, men in either situation would have to accept their place, or make changes. His own pass at sitting still, at an earned rest, allowed this revelation.
Jacques Cree breathed again. Binchey heard nothing. The paw came down; a half step had been made. The rifle was in the man’s hand as the dog looked at him again, a half move to his head, the way a shadow moves in shade. For a moment the man marveled at the instincts the wolf had brought to this breed. Then he heard, over the cool earth, the distant neighs of two horses, one answering another. The live round was already jacked into the chamber; anyone friendly would have announced themselves a hundred yards earlier.
“Here, Jacques,” he whispered. The dog brushed against Binchey’s leg.
The first round came through the door, as if the intruder had figured the door would be opened directly, catching him in the act of opening the door or waiting for it to be opened with force. A horse snickered fairly close to the cabin. Binchey, settled in a corner, watching the one window, the rifle in his hands aimed at the door, guessed the horse to be thirty or so yards away. The bushwhacker would be in the small gathering of rock fall near the cliff face. It would be good cover against bullets but little against the weather. Night, with any kind of early vengeance, would make demands. He chanced a look out the one window and saw snow had started to fall again. Out there in the cold, whoever they were would soon get cold. He could count on that. He’d also count on any stalemate as one that would force them back to where they had come from, or rush him.
Realization said a bit of imagination often paid more dividends than bullets, of that he was sure. And all the tools were in his hands.
He whispered, “Jacques, the horses.” With those words, and a sniff at a leather trace Binchey had used before, the wolf dog slipped out the door the way he was born to such movement, a shadow in shade, a piece of darkness in night, to do what he had done before for the man who fed him, wrestled with him, rubbed his head during the night, was ever his trail companion.
Binchey could imagine the situation with the bushwhackers; cold setting in, toes feeling it first or the fingers, bent in an uncomfortable crouch so as not to catch a bullet, their horses standing apart. If the intruders had donned ponchos or great coats, their mobility would be seriously hampered. All of it registered with the cowboy, the methods and reasons all predetermined.
The snow kept falling. Minutes passed as slow as the snow fell through the air. Another round, then another, hit the cabin. Binchey kept low, avoiding the door, realizing that impatience was at work, as well as the threat of a freezing night coming upon the shooters.
Another shot hit the door. A voice yelled out, “C’mon, pardner, get yourself out here or we burn you down. It sure ain’t worth holding to this place. You gettin’ a sawbuck for your time?” Then a second voice said, “He means all of that, pal. We ain’t sittin’ out here all night. You’ll see that.”
Pete Binchey could have counted, could have seen the whisper of gray slipping through the night, a thin coat of snow settling on the gray coat, as Jacques Cree moved in a circular fashion from the cabin to get near the bushwhackers’ horses. If he had a watch, he could have picked the minute.
It was all simultaneous, the wolf howl almost on top of the pair of skittish horses, a cry that bounced off the cliff face and ran over the pair of horses like a terror let loose. The second cry was barely let out when the two horses bolted and ran right past the two men and went on downhill, the wolfish cry sounding behind them, bouncing off the rocks as clear as if from a megaphone.
A deep voice set a new tone. “Dammit, Harv, I told you to hobble ‘em off to good size rocks. Now look at ‘em. We got to quit this place now. Try to get ‘em back. T’hell with this job.” He started walking straight down the trail. “We got a couple tough hours ahead of us.” Then, a bit farther off from the protective rocks, he added, “We’re goin’, mister, sorry for the inconvenience. We won’t bother you no more. Was that your dog? Are you the hombre that once worked for the Bent Hook spread? Over Beaufort a ways? Don’t have to answer, mister. Must be you. Give that hound a good hunk of beef tonight. He sure is worth it.”
The silence came back, the pillow of it piling on. And the snow continued to fall as snow always falls on its own, without a wind, without a sound, being silence itself. Even in the darkness, the night swelled with it. And the wolf dog, back at wrestling, getting his head rubbed, leaned his weight against the man who kept on rubbing, who whispered his name over and over… Jacques Cree, old boy, Jacques Cree, Jacques Cree.