Western Short Story
Never had the search for his father seemed so impossible, so calamitous. It was supposed to be a long search, he always believed, but also a fruitful one full of contemplation of what the end would be like, his getting hugged for the first time in more than a dozen years by a soldier missing since the great war a dozen years earlier. Many times he felt that hug, the power of a loving squeeze, the worldly smell of a man surrounding him and his joy.
It would be worth it all.
The noise came first, he always said afterward, before his feet felt the rumble in the earth. Before the rumble there was a concussion in the air that came ear-splitting without the sound, all of it warning him the earth was in an uproar and he was on the perilous side of Cougar Mountain just above the river junction. The town was situated downhill at the junction, a new town born of the times and a situation by the river. Suddenly his horse, in one sideways failing, left him, and slid downhill in the mix of rock and boulders into the gray, dusty morning. Cries of his long-time mount ripped at young Slade’s soul. With steeled hands the young man grabbed a shelf of rock, the rim of it, hoping the shelf would hold itself in place. The world, to his mind, was in revolt, and this edge of rock was the only thing in the world he had to grab onto.
The rumble continued, a roar growing as if from the center of Earth itself, accompanied by higher pitched shrieks of tearing rocks, and occasional trees tossed as easy as the twigs flying by him on their downward plunge. In the midst of calamity he was, death an almost sure ending to the upheaval, and with it the eternal loss of his father, now lost to all time.
It was so unfair after all he had been through.
In his desperate grip he had wrangled onto a long, broad and thick chunk of mountain ledge. Strata of odd colors graced the face of the rock. He saw red and blue layers or tiers laced into its formation. Now, as it too began to slide, he hoped he could ride it safely downhill. Perhaps other rocks on the fly would not hit him. Perhaps they would. It was his only out, riding it like a sled off the side of the hill or mountain or whatever chunk of earth on which he was hitching his way. He remembered an old timer telling him how he had ridden a snowy avalanche clear to salvation. “I rode the crest of that big boy down to the foot of the damned mountain itself, like I was on skis.”
Young Slade, 16 by a matter of days, bound for the town down below to seek out his real father, let his prayers be heard, almost above the storm. “Let me find my pa and let me be happy with him, please, Lord. That old timer said he might be the lucky one got to here. That’s all I ever wanted, to find my pa. I have come so far, ridden so hard, and worked like a fool on an errand.”
In a shredded moment of sights and images and figures, his whole life spun through its orbit; he saw it all again, even as the roar and the rumble and the revolution of the earth continued its threat to his journey, to his young life:
Never sure, he believed he could remember his father riding away to battle, his uniform stark blue against the paler sky, his horse a gallant red stallion that loomed over the child as large as a cloud, shaking off the sun, throwing a shadow on the ground. Again, he heard his mother crying that time, saw her tears. Never before had he seen her cry; and he never saw her cry again, she went in such a hurry. Such sights never left him, and he found them anew even as Earth tossed itself into a mad violence.
The partial images, though, just as now, came back often: his father off to the war, his mother just wasting away in a matter of a few years, his paternal grandmother taking him by the hand and walking away from the burial on the side of a hill in Tennessee. That night he had a new bed, a new roof over his head, a new hand scrubbing him in the morning, folding his hands in prayer at night.
Jeremy Slade, on the side of that Blue Ridge Mountain in Tennessee, grew strong, loyal, with a sense of belonging to the Earth itself because he knew many of its parts. He knew the food chain from the roots up, how to survive, how to behave as a man in the face of odds, natural and otherwise. One day, he was sure, the shadow that his father’s horse had thrown over him on the day of departure would part, and he would find his father in that full exposure. All reports said the officer was lost in battle near the very end of the war, at West Point, Georgia, on April 16, 1865, near the end of many things known to many people.
One message, years after the battle at West Point, said his father, seriously wounded, had been carried off on a wagon by some local folks. A drummer had come into the valley below the Slade homestead saying that Captain Jeremy Slade had survived the battle and had been taken to a private home near West Point. That news rippled through the valleys of the Blue Ridge and made its way to young Jeremy Slade. When he was 14 he made a trip by himself to find that home, and the family that had cared for his father.
One old man, bushy, dry at the throat, sitting on cabin stoop, told him, after some cajoling and a jug of spirits, “The whole brood of them headed west, ‘bout ‘67, and I heard that one wounded man they took in during the war was with them, still ailing I ain’t got an idea of what. But he wasn’t the only one they took in. There was other wounded men these docile people took to their bosom. They was Quakers to the core. I never knew any of the soldiers’ names, what rank they was, what uniform they chose, for them folks burnt it soon as he got undressed of it.”
The old timer, sipping on the given jug, eventually scratched his mind for any word of the family. “They had sons left here back in ’58 or ’59, before the war, and was headed with the family for a town in Utah called, and I ain’t sure of it, but it did sound of hell, a place called Oblivion. That’s all I know, son. Oblivion. I’m pretty sure that’s the name. And them folks was the Murchins, every last one of them.”
Oblivion came up awfully fast, rising from the river junction where two streams converged, like a pair of bridle reins in a fist. It was anew town, breathing like a new-born, coming into its own, and here came Jeremy Slade, out of the mountain range and down into the heart of Oblivion itself. He was a mere mile from the heart of the town, from the saloon, and was saved and thirsty. He could taste the first beer, the only way the desert or fear can appease themselves, by drowning a drink at a time.
That’s when the whole Earth began shaking.
The great chunk of ledge, as much a sled or a ski, rode the tumult and the calamity to the ground. At the abrupt end of its journey, it stabbed the earth and shook young Slade loose. He fell at the base of the ledge as it buried a massive portion of itself into the ground and halted its journey well short of Oblivion. It would, in the end, stand upright, possibly immoveable for centuries.
Jeremy Slade, alive though skittish for a bit, walked into Oblivion looking for the livery, the hotel, the saloon, and the first person promising familiarity with the town. The saloon came first, his throat dry as ever, his hands frozen yet in the grip he had exercised on his impossible ride. Two ladies, in choice clothing, walked past the general store staring at him. Then the saloon seemed merged at the hip with the store. A young boy, no older than 6 or 7, yelled loudly as he pushed a hoop in the road. He wore knickers with red suspenders, but was shoeless. A man in a battered hat sat whittling at the corner of the general store’s porch, his knife blade catching the sun in small pieces, flashing speedy movements. His hands were quick and he did not look up from his task as Slade walked past him.
Slade’s throat was burning and he stepped into the saloon to put out the fire. Behind the counter a broad-smiling man worked the bar and put out his hand in welcome. Yet Slade found something else in the air, an essence or an aura that suffused what he had first sensed in the town, the particular odors of an area, and the identity of a town at first call.
Something known hung in the air.
“I say, son,” the barkeep said, “you look like you could use some wet down that throat of yours I’m feeling is on fire. Your face, boy, is red as my pappy’s suspenders. What you been up to? I know you’re new hereabouts.”
A tall, sudsy beer came onto the countertop, as his stare made it appear he was looking at some person he had not seen in a long time.“My name’s Wilcott, Mark Wilcott, this here’s mine,” he said, motioning around the saloon, “and you look like hell. You seen the devil, have you?”
The stare continued as he said, “Or did you come over the mountain? I’m betting you saw a bit of Old Rocky clawing to be free of the mountain, falling down like it does every once in a while. Like to scare the hell outta me my first time coming this way. I won’t go back up there. Once is enough of Old Rocky. It keeps trying to get back where it was all them centuries ago, before it got pushed up out of where it really belongs, right down here beside Oblivion.”
Slade let it out. “I slid down the mountain on a sled of ledge, clear to the bottom. I never want to do that again.”
“I can believe that, son. Mine weren’t that bad, but like to scare me to death.” He nodded a kind of welcoming salutation, like a club membership had been invoked for the young newcomer. “What brings you into the heart of Oblivion, son?”
“I’m looking for my father who was last heard of in the Great War, at West Point, Georgia. I haven’t heard anything about him since ’65 and the battle there in Georgia when the war was about over. “
“What’s his name, son?”
“Captain Jeremy Slade, same as me.”
“Name is new to me, Jeremy. Never heard it here. What was it brought you all the way here from Georgia?”
“From Tennessee really. Just heard that he was taken by a family of Quakers when he was injured. He was declared as missing in action. We’ve never had a word about him, except some drummer years later said the Quaker family took in a few wounded back there.”
“I don’t know any Quakers hereabouts, Jeremy. Sorry about that.” He poured another beer. “Here, this one’s on me for your long trip. I got to admire you for the search. I can get you work here if you want, and you sure look like you can use it.”
The two chatted while Wilcott served other customers and they were about to part when Wilcott, with a sudden inspiration it seemed, said, “What was the name supposed to be of them Quakers that came this way, Jeremy?”
“Murchin is all I ever heard. Murchin, from near West Point in Georgia.”
Wilcott almost leaped over the bar top, exclaiming, “Dammit, boy, there’s Murchins here, out the valley about ten, twelve miles, a covey of them, hard working folk but I ain’t never heard them being Quakers.”
He gave Slade directions to their ranch, then added, “They had some injured kin when they came here, but I’d guess most of them died off. Check them out. I got some horses at the livery and you can use or buy one at a decent price if that’s what you want. Tell Sven at the livery you can use one of my mounts. Northwest about 10 or 12 miles and they work like the world is gonna end before they can get enough for the whole family. I like them even though they don’t spend too much time in here.”
Outside, the sprawl of the town came at Slade. The two well-dressed ladies, coming back along the other side of the road, again eyed him. The barefoot boy with the hoop whooped it up down the center, dusty road of Oblivion. The whittling man, still intent on his piece of wood, worked his knife with ease, the sun still taking part as if at his hands.
Oblivion, for all of that piecemeal exposure, came off as better than he imagined but minutes before, for there came again to young Slade an awed and overpowering sense of knowledge, of acceptance. It was as powerful as what happened on the mountain, and it took his breath away, and was replaced immediately by a whole series of images that had accompanied him since his younger years; the shadow from his father’s horse, the blue uniform against the paler sky, the eerie sense of loss of a man he did not really know, who lurked somewhere in his mind as only an existence … so close but untouchable. His breath went again, in a deep exhalation.
At the livery an old man with a huge mustache and a discernable limp selected a mount for him. “Name’s Blue Boy, a real decent animal. Wilcott, a Yankee man, gives all his horses Yankee names one way or the other, like he’s still celebrating the war. He was in the war and wore all blue, as you might know. But a fair man. I was a Reb and hurt a bit and he let me work here, ever since he come here in ’65 or ’66.”
The old man looked at Slade and said, “So you’re borrowing a horse to ride where? Where you headed, son?”
“Out to the Murchin’s place. Wilcott says its northwest about 10 or 12 miles.”
“Decent ride, son, and them folks’ll welcome you. They’re good hardworking people don’t come into town much except one or two of them. You a relative?”
“No,” Slade answered, “just looking for my father who’s been missing since the war.”
“There’s been enough of that, son. I sometimes wish someone would come looking for me, but I suspect all of them are gone now. Was all old even before the war. That settled down on me when I got here, leaving the war behind. It was a nasty piece of work I don’t miss none at all.” Tiredness, in an odd manner, had becalmed the old warrior, like fishing does or a campfire or a friendly game of cards between saddle pards. Time for reflection is found in each one of them, age having its rewards if taken so.
Slade, mounted on Blue Boy, started out of town, but he had not gone ten hoof beats of Blue Boy and the powerful sense of association hit him again. Again his breath, expelling itself as knowledge and anxiety, hit once more. The long-held images repeated themselves, the power of their recall coming down on him, or up out of him, as if he had been hit with a sledge. Might not it have been easier if his ride down the mountain had not been successful? The thought came on him and just as quickly left him. The sense of belonging came with an added hit; he wondered if he was being told this place should become home to him, after his long journey was over, if his search was fruitless, would this place called Oblivion become his home? There was no denying it had the power to exert a reaction in him.
Blue Boy, stepping off proudly, headed out of Oblivion, his step that of a military-trained animal. A bit of comfort approached young Slade the way pay-back is found in some situations.
The ride was a pleasant one and Blue Boy was a fine animal who had good instincts, knew the reins, and knew the gentle touch of hands and spurs of his rider, an agreement reached.
At least a mile before the Murchin ranch house came into site, Slade noticed how industrious and trim handwork and labor had been used in a number of places. The fence line was as straight as if a ruler had been used to set it, poles were straight as dies, and rails were as smooth as if found in a special forest. A sense of neatness made itself known, and the picture of the ranch house, as he gained a rise and saw it, spread like a picture across the end of a small valley. The scale of a small mountain sat behind it like a backdrop on a pictured scene. All of it warmed Slade as he approached the house and an older man sitting out front on a porch rocker. Nobody else was in sight, though a curl of smoke rose from one of the two chimneys on the house. The aroma of baking bread caught his attention, saying the kitchen was being used.
The old man waved, motioned Slade up to the porch. “Nice to have a visitor, son. I don’t get to see many people. Pleasure to meet you.” He thrust out his hand. “Name’s Abel Murchin. This is home. You on a journey?” His face was round and pleasant and wore his years with a kind of grace that some men can carry with utmost dignity, as if the Lord’s hand had found them.
“I’ve been looking for my father for a long time. His name is Jeremy Slade, as is my name. He was said to be missing in battle almost at the end of the Great War. He was a captain in the Union army and we have never had any final word on him.”
“I’m sorry to hear that about your father, son. We took in a few soldiers who were wounded, but most of them have died on us. Whereabouts was your father missing?”
“At West Point, Georgia, near the end of the war, about the last month, I think.”
Abel Murchin rose from his rocking chair, a huge grin on his face. “Melba,” he yelled, “Melba, come out here quick.”
He had Slade by the hand. “Sit down, son. Sit down. We came here from West Point a good many years ago. Brought a few of those wounded men with us, both Blue and Gray, and most of them passed on to the lap of their God. My daughter Melba can help you.”
Happiness ran across his face as if he had won a long race, just as an anxious but composed woman came out of the house. Her apron was white with flour, as were her hands and arms, much of her face, and a good portion of her blouse. She looked to be in her forties, had a pretty face and wide eyes, and carried herself with a certain charm that Slade saw at once.
“What is it, Father?” she said. “You yelled louder than I’ve heard in a long spell. You have a surprise for me? Or a problem?” She smiled at Jeremy Slade.
“His name’s Jeremy Slade and he’s been looking for his paw for a long time. He went missing at West Point, Georgia almost at the end of the war and nobody’s seen him or heard from him since, except he knows we brought some hurt soldiers to home back there.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” Melba said, “but I don’t remember any Jeremy Slade. We had a few poor boys die after we took them in, but no Slade. What did he look like?”
“Oh, Slade said, “I don’t really remember him. I was real young. The last I saw of him was him sitting his horse the day he left us, and that horse threw a dark cloud down on top of me like the world was going to end soon. But I’d guess he was a good-sized man, broad in the shoulders, was a hunter and a reader and knew his way with animals.”
“Oh, I suppose we had a couple of men that fit such a description, but just about all of them have passed on. Some of them never finished the journey coming out here, but died on the way, none of them wanting any part of the battle anymore.”
Slade, too long on his journey to let go, said, “You said that just about all of them passed on. I would guess that means some haven’t. That’s what I’d like to check before I move on, keep looking.”
“”Well, Jeremy Slade, you come to sit at our supper table, have a meal with us, and we’ll see if we can help any at all. Come along.” She looked at her father and said, “Ring the bell, Pa. It’s time.”
From nowhere is seemed, after Abel Murchin rang a bell four times, six young men and two girls in their teens materialized in the kitchen. The table could have sat half a dozen more guests, it was so long. They were a happy, industrious lot, Slade figured, all bearing the same facial characteristics, all in good health, all showing signs of some kind of work they had been at.
Abel Murchin introduced Jeremy Slade to the family, Melba lead them in thankful prayers, and Jeremy Slade knew a time of thankfulness and total comfort in the company of strangers, a whole family of strangers.
After the meal was over, dishes cleared and tasks assigned and completed, Melba and her father lead Slade into a comfortable sitting room. They had a discussion that lasted a full half hour, and Jeremy Slade, saying his deepest thanks, left for the town of Oblivion. Blue Boy answered his hands and his spurs with fleetness every once in a while.
Yet anxiety sat in the reins, and horse and rider both felt it.
As Slade entered Oblivion, th sun still visible in between distant mountain peaks, the prairie beyond town as if flooded by a golden sheen, he felt again the acceptance, the knowledge, the sense of belonging someplace, the same feelings he had before.
It was Melba’s simple mention of the knife that did it, how it was the one thing that one of the wounded men held onto all these years, though he did not have all his memory.
That man with that knife looked up from his whittling as the young searcher stood before him. The knife with the red and gold handle worked away in his hands even as his eyes poured over a face that he had seen before, hundreds of times. He shook his head, trying to find his way to something hidden the way so many things over the years had been hidden.
Then it hit the whittler broadly, like a revelation. It was the face he had seen so many times in the mirror: the same eyes, the same set of cheekbones like golden twins, the same blond tresses and the same darker eyebrows. Finally, to cap off a full recall, the same tilt at one corner of the mouth where a smile lurked playfully.
Both men managed a momentary grin, and accepted warmth emanating from some dark space just behind the same sets of eyes, dim at first but promising.
And the war came and went again and a little boy down beside a giant horse walked through the opening shadow and hugged his father.