Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A feeling that he was not alone came as broad as the breeze touching the tall grass, whispering and yelling at the same time; downright chilly it was, ominous ... and hiding something or someone, known or unknown, here in Comanche country, in this sudden range he was riding on as if it had spilled like a river from the mountains running off to places he had never seen. His slightest nerve edges sharpened themselves on an unseen but fine and keen wheel of stone, fingers gone to itching, eyes gone searching deeper, measuring, leaving him in a bind again, alone amidst space, mystery and the rest of the world. He liked new things, but realized some of them promised trouble right from the start.
He, Just Luke, was known wherever he went, which wasn't far from where he was born and left, still warm, in a clutch of hay at the front door of a small ranch in Texas, as Just Luke. It was a silent entry into a new family until he started to cry. A note, blood-smeared, in a faulty hand, was tied by a thin strip of leather to one of his scrawny ankles, and simply read, "This is Just Luke cuz I'm hurtin'." From that simple and fearful start the story ran ahead of the boy all the way into his young manhood, carrying his scribbled name right along with it.
Just Luke, yes, that was his name all the way to this point in his story, and where he had come out of the tight little valley with a dozen ranch cows idling before him as though tethered, the small herd tight as a noose, when he realized that something other than his and his horse's promptings had knotted them in close quarters. He'd never come across this many cows on the loose, unbranded, and in a place he had not visited in his young life, up a long-hidden and twisted trail as if dug into the broad range of mountains twisting high and imposing in his own part of Texas.
The Secret Valley he'd call it when he got back to the ranch: that is, if the way out would come as miraculous as the way in, a bunch of blind canyons suddenly not blind, each one opening into the one that followed by the most discreet and hidden way popping open by accident, by a nervous twist in the saddle and a quick glance to one side, the left side, as he leaned away from dangerous looking overhangs almost prowling for ways loose. Those precipitous walls reached for sunlight like a jailed man would reach awake or dreaming.
Common sense, and a sense of eerie wariness, told him to listen to sudden crunches and full punches on the air, as if the overhangs might send out warnings of doom; he'd noticed many clusters of fallen rock in all these new places he'd entered.
Each of the openings came wide enough for man and horse ... and no wider, as though the old people of centuries back further than he could think had chiseled them to a mere single file passage. Curiosity hit him, wondering if any of the cattle, those with bigger horn spreads, might get stuck or find a way through by manipulating their branch-like horns in more twists and turns and poke-throughs.
Sense and acute awareness, a double-edged sword of sorts, told him these tight squeezes should be the last places in the world to get caught ahead of beef on the run.
The walls of each canyon leaped skyward, night's darkness still remaining on most all the canyon walls as though daylight, if it ever came, would come with quick surprises, quick changes, and no visitors except for ... and he did not say the word too quickly ... ghosts. That single word made him think of bodiless creatures, voices, shadows, spirits unseen but heard, a mixture of unknown critters that Broken Head, an old Comanche at the ranch, had told him about, "some of them for you, some of them not for you," once said in careful explanation, careful warning. The old man, it seemed at times, knew everything that a younger man had to know to make his way in the world.
The odd feeling, as though a sensation had fallen on top of him like a storm or circulated around him like a whirlwind, swept him further along into old superstitions, bringing sudden new ideas, beliefs, changes in all the world around him.
He searched for a few more words about surprise or alert from Broken Head, his life-long friend, teacher, wise man, words that stayed long after they were heard, and came so quickly when summoned. The voice of the old Comanche, continually sounding with the deep resonance of a judge pronouncing a harsh sentence, was remembered as saying one time in Just Luke's special teaching conducted by the old sage, "Do not shoot at shadows or ideas or faint images. And always measure first the life out in front of you." His words, always spoken with quiet force, and often loaded with double meanings, made such teaching worthy of echoes, "heard down the line." as was often counseled on long trails and wide grass.
Just Luke could practically see the old man, bent over by life, in the corner of his eye, dressed as always in his shirt and pants of skin, the sleeves of the shirt marked by decorative pieces or remnants, all in testimony of his long and honorable life before he was pulled from the valley of death by the same woman who had also saved him from infant death. Broken Head was an honored brave, as wise as his age, perhaps as old as the mountains too, and was soon attached to the boy who brought out of the old one a lingering charm while in his company.
Just Luke's miraculous start had another page to it, as the infant was discovered in that protective mold of hay by the old Comanche, Broken Head, saved from certain death by the woman of the ranch, Ethel Maye Goodrich, who bound his wounds, fed his hunger, saved his life. These deeds at odd times kept her scrambling to keep ahead of her husband because of her decisions concerning life and death of a squandered baby (not his own son) and before that the weathered Comanche looking as old as the far range gazing down on them from West Texas.
History, as some of us see it, has a kind of plural being ... what you've been told, what you think you have seen in piece and particle, and what is braced by true fact. Many tenets and idioms stand at such attention: There are no new stories for all stories have been told one way or another, or There is definitely another me or another you some place in this wide world and we're bound to meet them one day before we take our leave, and, as Broken Head told Just Luke many times in their double-gripped lives, "The great god of all, the sun king, Taabe Tanasi, is one who talks after he is seen, so he is heard in one place after he is seen in another place. The old Comanche once told Just Luke, in one memorable moment, as if predicting the future, 'Life remains in the hands of the brother who steps up for you when the time comes, the time of need.'"
Broken Head, from the first moment he had come awake from near death, believed himself bound by a demand and a promise. When he heard, from his bed in the barn, the infant crying near dawn, the cause and the delivery came attached. Quickly he checked the child for broken bones, felt for his warmth in the chilly morning even as his eyes followed faint horse tracks leading off to the west. The trail, he knew, lead to mountain and river, but he had no idea of destination other than the other side of life. He called for the lady of the house, "Miz Ethel, little one here," knowing an infant would get the woman to hug it home in a hurry, having none yet of her own.
Ethel Goodrich did hug the child close that crisp dawn, felt his warmth, heard his sudden whimper for food, saw his mouth puckered in waiting and want, even as she too eyed the trail of tracks leading away to the west, the sun touching only the peaks of mountains, who knows what or where the mother would end up, that woman's child now in her hands. She accepted the sudden gift and drew the little one closer to her breast, to her own warmth and entered the ranch house, saying, "Thank you," to the old Comanche as if he was responsible for a precious gift.
Broken Head looked to the rising sun and nodded at the unheard voice. Always driven by pain that kept searching for his final day, he stared toward the east, the sun king making a new statement of tolerance for his lot in life, and the new life come to them as plain Just Luke. He knew of the pairings that had come upon all of them, the infant, himself, the Goodrichs; the great god often making strange appointments, awed arrangements spilling with life.
Just Luke, growing in a hurry it seemed to close observers, heard every word sent his way by those who raised him from that perilous morning. "Eat the food that touches your backbone, sleep when no one needs you, care as much for your own body as you will for your horse," as his new mother often said before he left the breakfast meal, hugging him with the same old message that told him he was still her only son. His new father saying whenever necessary, as Just Luke grew by leaps and bounds, "There's a better way of doing that job if you want to see it," the rope or gun in quick display. It was the old hand for a new hand. And that growing youngster heard every syllable the venerable Comanche said to him in explanation of all reasons and all causes, the way history and knowledge can pair up and move on: "The good man does not need a third hand." ... "The wolf and the cougar have three eyes, two for you, one for tomorrow." ... "Stand still if you can and hear the first word that Kehetu say, not an echo." ... "Kehetu has his people like we have our people." ... "Every Comanche know when Kehetu talk to him in the old voice."
All hints and directions about life and limb spanned his learning as he grew into a confident young man, alert to his horse, to the horizon about him, quick with rope and gun, deadly accurate with a rifle, a valuable commodity of the ranch at an early age ... only this outing finding him in a strange place, the signs coming rapidly saying that he was in danger, that more than the ghosts moving about him, the bodiless spirits that he could not see but whose bones he could feel near him. Somehow, out of Broken Head's vast knowledge, Just Luke felt that he was prepared for whatever was to come his way, regardless of his nerves, the signs, the daytime shadows closing on him.
This last secret valley he had entered, which he had thought of as a small foreign country without any rules or demand for rules, a kind of heaven, rose over him with a new sensation, a new odor, a new kind of silence as though a command for it had been delivered. His horse's head snapped up, muscles tightened under the saddle, legs stiffened in their paces, as the agitated animal finally came to a standstill, the animal aware of a primal new presence, a sudden visitor, a new character in the day's action of deeds and doings,
Just Luke'd swear to this day, if he had the chance, that he saw no movement, not a shift, not a gesture in the ranks, not a break in the near circular formation, but suddenly, from nowhere he could explain because of the high and steep walls, and the singular passage he had encountered, he was surrounded by hundreds of Comanche on horseback ... lances, bows and arrows, rugged stone hatchets or tomahawks showing over every rider's shoulder; armed to the bone, as it might have been said. The stillness of the horses, the hundreds of them, caught his eyes completely as he looked around at their formation, like military in their set and rank, the formation as uniform and even as a bird's nest.
Ready for work or battle.
That they had not charged him and wiped him off the face of the plains as quick as thought, made him immediately assume they had other plans for him. He'd be brutalized, tortured, subjected to impossible demands, fall at last to his near death ... and to be left for the high birds of prey, to be ripped apart before his heart had stopped.
The stories of such endings lived on the prairies as live as the message sent ... "This is our land. Not again will you come upon it." The words did not come to him, but the message did, clear as if spoken in his own tongue.
Surely, he also thought, there must be one among them who knew who and what he was, what life had brought him, what connected them all, past the rivers and the grass and the high mountains, the ties that existed between him and them, between him and Broken Head and his mother and them, all the Comanche alive on the grass; they all lived by the gifts of open air, the tall grass, the rivers rushing past them, under the hand of one god above all of them regardless of what they believed of Him.
The words came at him; not from his own tongue, but from theirs, from the Comanche, from the one Comanche he had grown beside, who pulled thought out of his body onto his tongue, onto Luke's tongue, the words so welcome, so warm, so usual, that they came, not at all guttural, but in the chosen articulation of the language the massed horsemen understood at first utterance.
Just Luke, once so thin and near death, once at the mercy of the elements, the world, the kindness of some folks responsive to the land and the elements, spread wide his arms after pointing directly at the heavens, his voice gone sonorous but with the sudden kick of a boom in it, released all his energy, belief, hope into the air about him: "Kehetu, Taabe Tanasi," he yelled, arms wider in the spread as if encompassing all those present and the land they sat on, the words coming loud and swift and as vigorous as a clarion or trumpet, an exclamation of faith and belief along with the understanding force of command.
"Kehetu, Taabe Tanasi," Just Luke said again, his voice melodious, loaded with its own rhythm, a transference from an older supplication, declaring its own sonorous outpouring as if an echo was working its way out of his mind, the words bouncing off shields that were lance-tough, perhaps all of time wrapped in high detonation of meaning and intent. This once sorry babe of the hay pile, this once lonely infant cast from one's breast to another's marrow, this stranger in the holy part of the land, though he was already known to all the Comanche nation as a pupil of an Elder, had spoken, had said words of deep meaning; "Kehetu, Taabe Tanasi."
Those magical words came free with imploration, dignity, and an essence of domination deeply scored with power and everlasting truth, a though clouds had parted for their passage ... words for the ages.
They ran like the wind, those heightened words, wild and suppliant and yet barren of decoration, stripped to their base meaning, and yet clear to all who heard, words that Elders understood at the very first syllable, and babes of them knew in their soft memories of late teepees.
Some Comanche horsemen broke ranks, some Comanche horses knelt on their forelocks as though universally commanded to do so, some Comanche held their breath awaiting the next words from an unsuspecting arsenal of respect.
No other words followed, as plain as if Just Luke had said, "Enough is enough."