Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The fishing has been good and the conversation even better. Huck and I are two easy riding days east of Dry Springs. We called this a hunting and fishing trip, but mostly, for the first time since Sophie and I adopted 14-year-old Huck, it is a chance to spend some time together, alone. Neither of us have been this far east of town before, so we were pleased to stumble across what turned out to be a great trout stream.
The fishing has been so good that sometimes it’s felt like we don’t even need bait, and we’ve caught so many fish we haven’t even bothered to hunt, though we’ve seen quite a few antelope and even a handful of migrating elk. The weather is perfect, warm during the day, but cooling down enough in the evening to encourage a fire and coffee. Huck, having fished often with his best friend Tom, is actually the better fisherman, and he has taught me a trick or two, including a much easier way to clean the fish and prepare them for the fire.
Tonight, as the sun first starts to make its way behind the distant mountains, we already have enough fish for dinner, and breakfast in the morning. Huck loves fishing and is still at it, but I’ve traded my pole for a cigar and am leaning back against a giant cottonwood, sitting comfortably and listening to Huck tell stories about fishing with his dad, before he was killed, thrown from a mustang he was breaking. Huck still rides that horse, Spirit, who is standing just a little ways away, lazily eating grass with my horse, Horse. As usual, neither horse is picketed.
I notice Horse suddenly pick up her head, ears pointed forward, at the same time I hear a low growl from Wolf, who had shaken herself out of her nap and is now standing up, hackles raised. I follow Wolf’s eyes and see the lone rider, a few hundred yards out on the open plain, heading toward the creek—toward us. The way he’s sitting his horse, it looks like he might be an Indian, but I can’t tell for sure.
“I see ’im. Lone Indian.” Huck’s fast response reminds me that he has much better long-distance vision than I do and that for a young man, he doesn’t miss much.
“Huck, why don’t you set your pole down, move away from me and closer to camp, and loosen up your gun.” If there’s trouble, and we become targets, it is better not to be too close to each other.
“You expecting trouble?” he asks, as he does what I asked.
“Always. Make sure your rifle’s close, but don’t pick it up. Unless you need it.”
I stand up, not making any quick movements, and adjust my holster. As the man rides closer, I see Huck was right—he is an Indian. A quick look around seems to confirm he is alone, and he rides in with a feigned casual indifference that shows he hasn’t missed a thing and is fully alert for whatever is going to happen, whether he starts it or not. Both hands are forward and he doesn’t have a weapon in either, but that could change in the blink of an eye.
As he comes closer, I give the universal sign for peace, which isn’t returned. His hands remain visible and empty, and my right one drops down to my side. I see Huck stand up and take the same position. Wolf slips off into the bushes, but I know she’ll stay close.
The Indian stops about twenty feet short of the creek. He has no shirt, and his black hair is long and tied back. There are scalps tied to his horse, and a couple of them don’t look more than a day or two old. Mine starts to tingle, just a bit. Unwilling to take my eyes off of him, I have to trust that Huck will hold his ground and not do anything foolish.
The Indian, still holding his ground and in surprisingly good English, says, “I am Kuruk.”
“I am Brock.” Without turning, I continue. “This is my son, Huck.”
“I know you. You are from the town.” He raises his right arm and points toward Dry Springs. I feel myself tense up as he moves, but will myself to relax—as much as possible.
“And, you are friends of the Weeminuche.” His tone isn’t threatening, but it isn’t welcoming either. It is clear he is watching us both, looking to see how we’ll react, if at all.
Still not moving, and hoping Huck isn’t either, I say, “We are.” The Weeminuche tribe lives a couple of days from Dry Springs, in the opposite direction of where we are now, and they are our friends, having saved my life last year.
Without changing expression, Kuruk says, “I am not.”
Unsure of what to say, I don’t say anything—and I still don’t move. The sun is starting to set, and pretty soon I won’t be able to see as well as I feel I need to.
He leans forward, his hands still visible. “Is the water good?”
“You know it is, or you wouldn’t have ridden here. If you move slowly and keep your hands where I can see them, you are welcome to as much as you like.”
With a small smile, though not a friendly one, he straightens up. “This creek is not yours.”
Running out of patience and less interested in continuing this word play than he seems to be, I answer, “For tonight, this part of the creek is.”
Without a word, he starts to slowly push his horse forward. I sense Huck start to move. So does Kuruk.
“Your boy is brave, but maybe foolish?” He’s still looking at me as he speaks.
“You seem to know me, which means you probably also know my son. And if you do, you know he is neither a boy, nor foolish. He has taken a likin’ to this fishing spot though.”
Kuruk doesn’t respond but rides forward until his horse’s front hooves are in the creek. As with most Indian horses, they are unshod. This is a beautiful Appaloosa gelding, and he lets him drink his fill before he dismounts. Without a look at either of us, he drops to his knees and uses his hands to scoop the cool water, taking his time drinking. When he is done, not too much before my patience is, he stands up and looks at me.
“The hunting has not been good.”
He doesn’t look underfed to me. “We have seen plenty of antelope in the last couple of days.”
“I have no ammunition for my rifle,” I don’t believe this for second. He goes on. “And so I am hungry.”
So far this has not been a pleasant exchange, but since between the two of us I am the only one within inches of a weapon, I feel pretty good. I also hate to see a man go hungry and can’t see how turning him away is going to improve our relationship.
“You can tie your horse over there.” I point to another cottonwood, maybe one hundred feet down creek, same side as us. “And if you leave your weapons with your horse, we’ll be happy to feed you. Huck, you get that fire going again and break out some of the trout.”
Kuruk’s response is to walk his Appaloosa across the creek, which never gets above his knees, and tie his horse off at the tree. He starts to walk toward camp, but I hold up my hand to stop him.
“I mean the knife too.” He has a knife showing at the top of his knee-high moccasins.
“Won’t I need my knife?”
“My son is a very good cook, and the trout will be tender enough. As for anything else, I give my word that unless you start it, you’ll have no call for your knife.”
With the same smile as before, he asks, “You will set your gun aside?”
“I don’t think I will. I have given you my word. If that is not good enough, you are welcome to ride on, but if you return after leaving, I’ll take it as an unfriendly gesture.”
He seems to think about his options, turns back toward his horse, and quick as a snake, pulls out his knife and plunges it into the dirt, up to the hilt. He turns back and walks to the fire, taking a seat as if we were old friends. His back is to the creek, and he’s sitting on the opposite side of the fire from Huck. I watch closely, but Huck seems to know enough not to get too close to Kuruk, or even open up his gun side to where he could be jumped. It took Huck no time at all to get the fire going, and he quickly drops the first two trout in the pan.
The smell reminds me that we skipped our mid-day meal, and I’m pretty hungry. The trout don’t take long to cook up, and Huck hands me a plate with one of the trout and sets another plate with the second trout next to the fire, where Kuruk can reach the plate, but he can’t reach Huck. I eat mine with my left hand, keeping my right hand free at all times. Huck throws two more trout into the pan.
When these are done, Huck takes one for himself and gives Kuruk a second one, which he eats just as quickly as he did the first one. We do this five times, going through ten trout, three each for me and Huck and four for Kuruk. I now believe he was hungry, but I’m still not convinced that he’s out of ammunition.
It took less than an hour to cook and eat everything, during which time there was no conversation, not even a thank you. After Kuruk has finished our last trout, he walks back to the creek, drinks deeply again and then walks back to his horse. He picks up his knife, slides it carefully back into his moccasin and climbs easily onto his gelding.
He looks at both of us. “I think we will see each other again.”
I still haven’t warmed up to the idea of him being around here, though that still might be better than not knowing where he is.
My tone no more friendly than his, I say, “It had better not be tonight.”
He responds with the same arrogant smile we have seen twice before. Without another word, he turns his back on us and starts north, in no particular hurry.
As soon as he is out of sight, which isn’t long with the sun now fully set for the day, I turn to Huck. “Start packing up our gear.”
It’s only when Huck answers that I realize he hasn’t said a word since Kuruk rode into camp. “Do you think he’s coming back?”
“He might be. And if he is, he won’t be alone and he won’t be coming for dinner.”
Huck starts to kick dirt on the fire, but I tell him to stop, that if Kuruk does come back, I want him, for as long as possible, to think we’re still here. Huck turns to start packing everything up, and I walk out of camp, away from the fire and in the direction Kuruk rode. I listen for a while, back in the shadows of the cottonwood, but don’t hear anything out of the ordinary. Maybe he is just going to ride away. But, maybe not.
Huck quickly finishes packing up both horses, and with one last look around, we head out, south.
Huck asks, “Why we heading south? Home’s east.”
“Kuruk knows that too. I figure he, or they, can’t do much tracking at night, so I’m hoping they think the same thing you did. We don’t want to go north—that’s where he went—and east takes us away from home and in the direction where I think Kuruk has some friends waiting. So south it is. We’ll stick to the creek, leave no tracks and ride all night. Come morning, we’ll turn west and north and, hopefully, be safely home for dinner.”
We ride for hours, sticking to the creek and finally stopping about midnight. Wolf, who joined us just a few minutes after we left camp, takes this time to go do a little hunting of her own. The horses, having spent the last two days eating all the grass they wanted are fine. But I want to keep them fresh in case we have uninvited guests and have to move quickly and for an extended period. Huck’s tired as well, so I let him sleep for about an hour.
I hear nothing that concerns me, but that alone is not good enough. Being trailed by an Apache is like being trailed by smoke, so I don’t figure to relax until we made it back to town.
I wake Huck and we’re back on the trail in minutes, having left the creek about an hour before we took our break. Huck hasn’t said much since we left Kuruk, and I’ve appreciated the quiet, which has allowed me to think a bit and to listen for concerning sounds. But now, with Huck feeling a bit refreshed from his nap, a little relaxed since a few hours have passed and, as always, curious, the questions start.
“Do you think he’s following us?”
“I don’t know if he is, but I am almost certain he wanted to. I’m just hoping that between heading south and riding the creek so long, we may have fooled him. But we need to keep riding as if we haven’t.”
“How did he know who you are?”
“I’ve been thinking about that myself, and I think I know. If I’m right, it’s not good.” I pause, allowing that to sink in with Huck, then start again. “You remember last year, when Cisco and everyone moved here?”
“And you remember me telling you about the battle we had with some Apaches on the trail back to Dry Springs from Santa Fe and how we fought side by side with the Weeminuche in that battle, killing quite a few Apaches?”
“I think Kuruk is one those Apaches. If I’m right, there’s others, and they don’t look kindly on the Weeminuche, or us.”
We talk for a long time about the battle itself. Huck is filled with curiosity and questions, and since there is a chance we’ll be in a similar situation before we arrive home, I can’t see any reason not to share everything with him.
We must have talked quite a bit, because pretty soon the sun creeps over the mountains and across the plains, lifting the darkness first and then the shadows. I figure this is a good time to eat a quick breakfast, give the horses a chance to roll, feed them the last of the grain we brought and then turn west. Seems we’re all talked out, or maybe Huck needs some time to think about everything we’ve been talking about, but breakfast is pretty quiet.
We are back on the trail in less than hour, both of us starting to feel the miles and the lack of sleep. Conversation is sparse, and after a couple of hours, we run into Coyote Creek and turn north toward Dry Springs, still with no sign of Kuruk. This is a familiar trail, since I’ve made the trip south a couple of times before. I know we have less than an hour before we’ll be home. Huck and the horses must sense we are close to home, because the energy and the pace pick up a little.
The last part of the trip is uneventful, and I breathe a sigh of relief as we ride into Dry Springs. We ride through town, saying hello to a few friends along the way, and ride straight home. Together, we brush Horse and Spirit down, feed them some grain and corn, and turn them out to the corral to roll to their hearts content.
We walk toward the house, my arm around Huck’s shoulder, and I notice that I don’t have to reach down quite as far as I used to. Since she wasn’t expecting us back for another day, Sophie is at school, teaching those students who hadn’t been lucky enough to miss a few days, like Huck. Without another word, we walk into the house and straight to our rooms. I want to talk to Huck, to let him know proud I am of him at the way he handled himself, but for now, I’m exhausted—and so is he. So, I take off my gun and boots, crawl into bed and fall asleep in minutes, dreaming of fresh trout—and Sophie.
High on a hill, back behind Brock’s home and out of sight from anyone in Dry Springs, Kuruk sat with three of his Apache braves. He had sat in the same spot last year, the day following the Coyote Creek battle with the Weeminuche and Brock.
Kuruk and his braves had traveled west from Brock and Huck’s camp, expecting the entire time to catch up to them, with every intention of avenging their losses from last year. Kuruk was upset that he’d been outsmarted by Brock and his son, who were now safely back in town.
But as angry as he was, Kuruk knew it was too dangerous to attack them in town, so he turned to leave, knowing they would meet again.