Western Short Story
Mahan's Lake
Don Emigh

Western Short Story

Mahan slumped in his saddle, now totally discouraged. He had topped the rise only to look down on a sere and wasted valley white with alkali and shimmering with heat. The same as yesterday. The parched, bare hills across the valley were exactly like the hill his horse had just climbed. Methodically, carefully, Mahan looked up and down the valley. There was no tell-tale stand of cottonwood or willow. The valley gave not the slightest sign of water anywhere within its basin.

Mahan lifted himself in his saddle and threw back his head and shouted a stream of curses. He yanked off his hat and slapped his horse's neck, once, twice, unthinking. Tears of frustration came to his eyes.

He put his hat back on and whispered, leaning close to the horse's ear, "Sorry, Jim. Got carried away." He patted the horse. In another emotional outburst he threw his arms around the horse's neck. "There's water down there somewhere, old friend. There has to be. We'll find it."

Mahan urged the horse down the slope. The bitterness he had felt returned as he recalled the old frontiersman's cautionary advice to never trust a flintlock or an Indian. He had thought the Shoshone's were his friends. He had trusted them. The medicine man, with several braves nodding solemn agreement, had told him of the days that could be saved by cutting across the hills and valleys and intersecting the meandering Humboldt far downstream.

What a fool he had been to leave the wagon train and the Humboldt river. He had thought he could make a name for himself by finding a new cut-off. "Mahan's cut-off" it would be, just like "Sublette's cut-off," or "Hudspeth's cut-off." Or maybe it would be an entirely new trail -- "Mahan's Route," just like "Carson's Route" across the Forty-mile Desert. He had pictured emigrants on Mahan's Route in his mind's eye the instant the medicine man had told him of a short-cut. His name would be on the lips of every emigrant bound for California. He would be remembered -- respected, even -- as the man who had cut days of killing heat and hardship from the overland journey west.

Well, he had been a damn fool. Here he was, days later with his provisions run out and riding a worn-out horse across an arid wasteland. He was to have intersected the Humboldt a couple of days ago. Where was it? He figured he was well past the point of no return. A half canteen of water swung from the hook attached to his saddle.

Fear had been with him for some time, but now panic bubbled at the surface. True, he might stumble across water -- there was always that chance -- but he knew very well that he had no control over the matter. He had not the slightest idea of where water might be found. Mahan became aware that he was moving his head back and forth in quick, sudden jerks, his eyes fixing in a reflex of search and hope on every large stone or straggling clump of greasewood or mesquite.

They stopped in the meager shade of a mesquite after traveling perhaps a mile to the valley floor. Mahan dismounted, brought out the canteen and wet his lips. The horse smelled the water and moved his head around to where Mahan stood.

"No, Jim. I'm not drinking our water. I'm just taking the cotton out of my mouth. You'll get your share, believe me. Tell you what, old boy: I'll walk for a while. You need your strength."

The horse's reins slack in his hand, Mahan walked, resting now and then in the porous shade of a mesquite. They reached the western ridge just as the sun slid behind the hills. It was Mahan's notion to hunker down for the night on this side of the ridge. The valley began to cool but there was little relief in this as Mahan's thirst had become an agony. He could think of nothing else. His lips were cracked and bleeding and his tongue was heavy in his throat. Jim, who had been tethered to a mesquite, was nickering in obvious misery from thirst and exhaustion.

Mahan had second thoughts. "This won't do, Jim," he said, walking over and simply jerking the reins loose from the bush. "We can't stay here all night. We got to move while it's cool. There'll be water on the other side of this ridge. There will be, Jim, I know it. But we got to go while it's cool."

Mahan took the canteen off the hook and swallowed just a mouthful of water. He then started up the slope leading the horse, stumbling and hesitant in the dark,. They had to stop often for a rest and each rest became longer than the one before. Almost at the top of the ridge Mahan simply fell to the ground in total exhaustion. How long he slept he never knew but when he opened his eyes the sun was up and the desert was already reflecting a furnace heat.

Mahan could go no longer without water and he knew that Jim, too, had gone as far as he could go. Mahan got the canteen. He took three swallows for himself and poured the rest of the water into his hat and held out the hat for the horse.

The horse plunged its nose into the hat and in one intake drank the water. With the water gone the horse grabbed the damp hat in its teeth and began chewing on it. Mahan let out a hoarse croak and tried to get his hat free, but it was no use. Soon there was nothing left to call a hat and Mahan gave up. He took the bandana from around his neck and tied it over his head like a bonnet and they started out once more. Jim continued chewing on Mahan's hat as they scratched their way to the top of the ridge.

Cresting the ridge, Mahan stood motionless, his hands at his sides, the blowing and heaving horse behind him. The valley before his eyes was longer and wider, but otherwise it was exactly the same as the valley of yesterday -- a sere and alkaline wasteland, lifeless and broiling under a pitiless sun.

"There'll be something down there, Jim. I know it, Jim. It'll be there, Jim. Come on!" Mahan had become suddenly animated, energized. He seemed to have tapped into a hidden source of strength.

He started down the hill in frantic excitement, his thirst forgotten. He tugged at the horse's reins, pulling the now reluctant animal along, and thus they progressed for the next hour, stumbling and staggering down the hill.

But then it happened. Jim snorted once and whinnied and the reins were suddenly yanked from Mahan's grasp. Mahan looked around just as Jim slipped from his knees onto his side. He lay there, his sides heaving and his eyes staring. A thick black tongue hung from his open mouth.

"Jim! You've given up? No! No! Don't do that! We're almost there!" Mahan waved in the general direction of the valley. "Just try a bit more." He reached down and gave Jim's ear a playful tug. "Up! Up! On your feet! What do you think you're doing?"

For a long time Mahan talked to the fallen horse -- cajoling talk; talk describing the water that was to be found just a little farther on; talk reminding the horse of the good times they had had together. But the time came when he took out his revolver and put a bullet through Jim's head. That's the way it had to be done. It was almost an instinctual thing.

Instinct it may have been, but Mahan could not accept Jim's death. He threw the revolver as far as he could throw it, cursing, but he continued to talk as though Jim were still alive, still with him.

He made it finally to the bottom of the hill and his wandering, fading attention turned once more to his conviction that water was to be found close by. "It's here, Jim. Real close now. I can almost smell it -- and you can too, can't you?! Come on!"

Mahan ripped the bandana from his head. Ah . . . he felt a lot cooler without it. And his shirt, too. And the heavy belt and holster. He had them all off and he felt a lot better and . . .

He couldn't believe his eyes. There, shimmering maybe a hundred yards away, was the most beautiful lake he had ever seen. He started to run -- he looked around, "Come on, Jim!" -- and it wasn't very far, it was just a little farther. He ran some more and then, because the lake was farther away than he had figured, he stopped for a few minutes rest. After all, now that they had found the lake, what difference would a few minutes make?

Mahon wearily stretched his length on the ground. He looked up at the sky and closed his eyes.