Western Short Story
Amos Case was a callous man. Callous and brutal. He possessed such a violent temper that no white man dared share a camp with him. He was a suspicious man. When a dispute arose involving him, even the tough, venturous men who shared the mountains with him would drop their gaze from his and back off, content that all they were losing was a small portion of their pride. He was paranoid and could not long be in the company of his own kind before inventing difficulties he could develop into blood-lustful events. He was a hard-faced man, filled with gloom, living in the past reliving slights and events he made out to be slights. If he even seemed to be in high spirits, it was only at times of altercation when he turned loose and raged away without restraint at the unjust way fate had indiscriminately dealt him the cards, he was forced to play out….
“Sounds like I got callers,” Amos Case said under his breath, hearing the muted hum of voices coming from his camp.
He paused, realizing he should have given up the fall hunt earlier, when his instincts warned him, he was staying with it too long.
He did indeed have callers and knew that they had not come just to visit. He moved on, crossing the scant snow cover quickly. Case carried three traps in his left hand, and from habit pressed them against his hip to muffle the jingle of the chains.
Now, much closer to camp, he heard laughter, and wished there were no more than two or three of them, which would give him a decent chance. If there were more than three—well, he was ready. Amos Case had always been ready. The breath from his mouth gathered in a dense cloud that stood in front of his face like smoke from damp leaves smoldering. He felt calm on the inside, but the clouds of his breath revealed the tension he felt. Tense, yes, but never fearful. It was they, the intruders, who needed to fear.
The three beaver traps in his left hand weighed perhaps fifteen pounds, but, in his intense expectancy, they felt weightless. He did feel the weight of his rifle in his right hand, however, and this was his comfort.
Joyful, his wife, had refused to join him in the fall hunt. She was usually such a great help to him and was as good a hand as a many a seasoned white trapper. For some reason though, this time she had resisted his request. He had felt her strong resentment but did not accept the reasoning of it. He could have commanded her companionship but had not. For some reason, unknown, even to himself, he had always treated her fairly; had even taken her to St. Louis after she had given him a second son and had had a proper marriage ceremony performed. He had slipped his dead mother’s thin golden wedding band upon her finger with deep respect. He was especially proud of her, even though his fellow trappers had ridiculed him—behind his back—for legally wedding an Indian. He felt at times that she feared him perhaps even hated him, and this puzzled him.
Case stepped inside the area of his small camp as if nothing were wrong. He saw three Indian youths roasting a meal of elk meat over a small flame outside the entrance of his tiny lodge dug into a small hillside. He had an excess of arrogance, confident in his ability to defend himself anywhere, and used the same camp through several seasons when he felt like it, risking his life in a brash, go-to-hell manner. Case stepped around his visitors as if they weren’t even there, and placed his traps just inside the dugout, in a pile of three others he had taken up earlier. His trapping season was over, and he was ready to pull camp, go home to his wife for the harsher months of winter.
One of the youths smiled at him and spoke in a tongue Case did not know.
He was not sure, but felt they were Piegans. One of them sat especially tall and erect, wide-shouldered, with a face made fierce by paint composed of the ash of burnt grass mixed with buffalo blood. This youth smiled and Case noticed that one of his upper teeth was missing. He wore a heavy wool capote that once had been gray but was yellow now from the grime of use. A wide red stripe ran horizontally around the upper arms of the garment, and a yellow stripe traveled horizontally around the bottom hem, with a hood that peaked in an elf-tassel hanging down his back. An ancient rifle in a sheath of elk skin was strapped across his wide back. The other youngsters were similarly dressed. Case held out a hand, palm up, and shrugged to indicate he did not understand the language and to use sign. The black-faced Indian tossed a fine ermine fur at Case’s feet and signed for tobacco. Case took out a twist of tobacco, pitched it to the squatting youth, and watched as his dark eyes light up.
Case had a penchant for naming Indians. He grabbed them out of the air the way a magician performed tricks. He had named his wife Joyful, because when he first met her, her face was always aglow with warmth and friendship. Her father became Rascal because of the way his eyes danced in constant, devilment, and cunning good humor. So now, he named this big youth seated before his hearth, Big Boy. Big Boy was the one to watch.
The others were dangerous, and the fire of their youth made them even more so, but Big Boy, he felt, was in possession of an especially black heart, far blacker than was the facial paint he wore.
Big Boy held the tobacco up for his friends to see and made a comment to them in a husky voice. They all turned their eyes on Case and laughed in communal glee.
Case figured they were unscrupulous thieves, and their pretense of coming to trade stirred a sense of injustice deep within him. He set about the business of pulling camp, attempting to ignore his visitors, but he kept his rifle ready all the same. The small band had been out on a raid of some kind, lifting horses, he figured. He counted six ponies back in the pines, where they were competing with his own stock for the scarce sere grass.
All the Indians Case had ever known were notorious at the occupation of lifting horses, and they regarded it as more sport than industry. To them all horses were fair game. He guessed that this small group had broken off from a larger band, and he hoped they had not found the river camp of his wife’s people.
He bent, entered the dugout, felt beneath the bedding for his extra rifle, and exhaled in relief when he found it still there. He took it up in his left hand. The young men were so confident, that they had not bothered to steal anything yet, figuring it would all be theirs anyway, when they killed him, which he was confident was their plan.
Case took his hatchet from a pile of beaver furs and stuffed it down the front of his trousers. His butcher knife, a marvelous implement, keenly honed, hung from his right hip. With a rifle in each hand, he stepped back outside, and stood off to the left of the feasting Indians.
Big Boy looked up from his meal, smiled at Case, and wiped the grease from his fingers into his long, shiny, blue-black hair. The other two young men peered at Case as well, as they ate, conversing and laughing with what Case took to be contempt for him.
He allowed them to finish their meal, watched Big Boy take up the tobacco, crumpled up a small portion, drew out a pipe of catlinite, filled the bowl, and lit it with a bright orange coal from the fire. He then passed the pipe around. They smoked and joked brashly, and when at last the pipe grew cold, Big Boy shredded another section of tobacco, tamped the pipe full again, and lit up again.
When the second bowl of tobacco turned to ashes, rose to the treetops in smoke, Big Boy spoke to the youth seated directly across the fire from him. He spoke in a command Case knew from the tone in which Big Boy delivered the message. He watched as the youth who had received the demand, a short, stocky man with a plump, baby face, got up, and walked quickly off, headed back into the pines toward Case’s horses and mule.
Just then, a twig in the fire exploded and spewed sparks in a wide fan amongst the remaining two youths seated before the fire. An imposing puff of smoke was born of the explosion, which floated in the still air toward Big Boy. The other fellow smiled like an imp, and watched his friend quickly disperse the smoke with a wild fanning of both his broad, dark hands. The younger man attempted to suppress his laughter by covering his mouth with his hands. Big Boy retaliated, with an obscene gesture, stared sullenly for a time, but finally broke into a reluctant smile of his own, which prompted more good-natured laughter and youthful snickering.
A short time later, Case heard his saddle mount nicker softly and look up. The short, pudgy Indian with the baby-face led up Case’s saddle horse and a spotted Indian pony with a shaggy winter coat. The tall, tan mule followed. It held its head high, and rolled its eyes yellow and white, skittish now because of the unfamiliarity of the visitors. Case cocked the rifle in his right hand. It was a weapon of appalling power, weighing twelve pounds, with a barrel of thirty-four inches—a Hawken .50 caliber that fired a half ounce slug. The sound of the cocking of the rifle in that small tight area clacked mechanically and was unreasonably loud. He leaned the second rifle against his left side, and all eyes rolled upward to track the movement and the sound. Case squeezed the trigger, and the roar of the explosion and the smoke as well filled up all the space in the small camp. The sound, though, to him, was satisfying. The biting odor of burnt gunpowder smelled good to him as well, which gave him a sense of safety.
The squat fellow who had led the horses went back on his heels, as rigid as a flagstaff, and tossed the lead ropes over his head. He sat down hard on his rump, and crumpled dead in a twisted heap.
Both horses reared up, swiveled in midair like trick-animals, and forced the mule to bolt in panic. The two youths at the fire leapt to their feet to flee the sharp hooves of the tan mule Case called, Buck, as it tore through and past the men, and scattered the fire all around the campsite.
Case set his empty rifle aside and took up the second one. He exercised patience, and waited for the mule to clear the area, with a dense cloud of ash and smoke hovering there.
Big Boy wheeled backward. His startled and panicked eyes on remained on Case, as he backpedaled to the outer edge of the camp where the scrub grass was deeper and grabbed all the while for his rifle that lay down his back.
Case squeezed the trigger of his extra rifle. Heavy smoke of the rifle fire soon engulfed his head, and he felt the curved butt plate of the rifle punch stoutly against his shoulder.
Big Boy was quick of reflex. He managed to pull the trigger of his own rifle just as the ball from the Hawken caught him squarely in the chest. The impact of the slug knocked him backward to the ground, and he pitched his smoking weapon into the air in a long arc. It came down flat and smacked the hard-packed and frozen earth at Case’s feet. The ball of the tossed rifle whizzed harmlessly into the treetops. The remaining Indian stood and stared, numbed cold from shock and utter disbelief.
Case stepped swiftly forward and joined with the dazed young man before he could recover and flee. The wide-eyed Indian was a mere stripling. He didn’t stand a chance. He managed, however, to utter a few high and warbling words of fright before Case slit his throat, in a hot explosion of blood.
He shoved the youth to the ground, walked slowly back to the dugout and squatted on his heels to breath heavily. He cleaned the muck from his knife blade by thrusting it several times into the ground alongside the fire where the heat had thawed the soil.
He listened to the screaming of the sidelined Indian ponies. They plunged blindly about as they attempted to kick the mule that had charged into their midst, wildly frightened itself, and striving to escape the noise and bedlam. After a time, the mule managed to break free of the ponies. It ran off a hundred feet or so, stopped and stared back at them while the stressed animals continued to huff and blow and to hobble around in quick, small circles, their frightened eyes rolled crazily in their sockets while air burst from their lungs in great gouts of steam.
“Hey there, Buck,” Case called out, and whistled softly in an effort to calm the usually steady mule. “Whoa back now, Buck. Whoa back there.” He continued to whistle until the mule dropped its muzzle to the ground to search for grass. The calming of the mule steadied the horses. Soon they were all grazing, save for the gelded saddle mount. It walked cautiously up to Case. He touched its tender muzzle and spoke a gentle word. It placed its neck atop his shoulder and trembled away the last of its fright….
The following morning, he covered the dead with stones. He loaded his mule, saddled his horse, and left camp and drove the Indian ponies before him with sharp, whistles and small pebbles he tossed at them when they attempted to stray.
Three hours later, he crossed a trail left by a huge horse herd headed north. The passage of the horses created this wide path. The Indians Case killed had been a part of this larger band, he figured. He realized the band had probably passed close to his wife’s river camp. He hastened onward with a sense of dread lying heavily upon his mind.
Late that afternoon, he reached a wide, shallow river crossing. He plunged on into the water, brown-red gravels grated loudly beneath the hooves of the animals as he forded the stream. He passed to the other side, rode through the dead reeds and scouring rush, and came out onto firm ground as the sun was setting. The backs of the ponies grew awash with the sun’s blood, as if they were on fire. Smoke from cooking fires hugged the ground, unable to rise appreciably because of a slight moderating of temperature, and the tops of the lodges were wearing that same red-purple cloak that still draped itself across the backs of the ponies. He stopped in front of Rascal’s lodge. Then from some source of wizardry, three young boys sprang forth out of the smoke and gloom and took charge of his ponies and outfit. They walked about him and stared from awed black eyes as he dismounted. The Piegan raiders had indeed been there, and when they departed, they took with them four grown women, two young girls, and a considerable number of horses. Joyful was one of them.
Later, Rascal said, “We pursued them far.” His voice sounded frayed. His eyes looked dull from grief. “We hoped to take back our women and children. The Piegans are a hard, fierce people. They still live as men in the ancient manner and are remarkably elusive. Our luck was poor. Our loved ones are gone forever.”
“I’ll find them,” vowed Case. His face was red from anger. “I’ll skin the heathens.”
“They will go to the north,” Rascal said. “It is hopeless. We must bless them and let them go. It was meant to be.”
“They won’t get away with stealing from Amos Case. I’ll trail them to Canada if need be.”
“They will go there. To their cousins. It is certain.”
Case ignored the old man and continued speaking, “To Canada, to hell or both. It don’t much matter to me.”
“They will go far away. It could take many years. You would become discouraged. You would then realize that I was right. You would have time for nothing else except revenge, which can only shrivel the heart, and steal a man’s soul.”
Case laughed at the old man’s mention of the word “soul,” doubtful that a wild man such as Rascal might possess one.
“It would take up much time,” Rascal persisted.
Case sat honing his knife with long and vigorous strokes. “That’s all right,” he said. “I ain’t very busy nohow.”
Rascal, still lithe and lean even after seventy-five years of difficult living and vain, with hair down to his knees, raised his eyes to Case and said in opposition, “It would be a fruitless chase.” In conclusion, he allowed his jaws to snap shut with great resolve.
The following morning, Case left the village in pursuit of the marauders. His self-worth and confidence, his superiority lifted his spirits high in the chill morning air.
He had little difficulty following the wide, torn trail left by the Piegans, but catching them soon became most difficult indeed. For days he pursued them, barely taking time to eat and none at all to rest. He grew incensed and more frustrated with each falling of the pale and distant sun. The vexation he felt in his failure made him feel like a greenhorn, and his irritation fed upon itself, which gave birth to more of the same.
He recalled the pronouncement by Rascal that it was foolhardy to follow, that it was the way, had always been the way—that Indians had been raiding enemy camps, carrying off women and children since time began, with the stolen ones being absorbed into the new tribe, and absorbed willingly as a matter of survival. This concept was alien to Case. He could not imagine, let alone accept—even with the study of years, even for all of eternity, for this was the distance separating him from this old man. His pride, however, his need to rescue Joyful, and the necessity to put a stop to the unraveling of his tormented being, would not allow him to give up. Doggedly he followed … into Canada.
Three days later, he found where the thieves had rendezvoused with another band—much larger—and when they separated there were many small trails that led off in many directions, like a nest of young snakes scattering. Case experienced an overwhelming despair. He slid from the saddle and sank exhaustedly to his heels. The torn earth beneath him was ground into a fine dust. No grass grew there. Finally, he stripped down his horse, turned it loose, unrolled his robe, collapsed upon it, and slept where he fell.
That next morning, he walked for over a mile in search of his horse, whistling softly. The animal had gone to grass. He found it in the bed of a wide, dry creek, grazing.
In the river lodge of his wife’s father, Case brooded over the loss of a thing most dear, his exaggerated value as a man, which Joyful had come to represent. For days, he sat sullen and mute, scarcely able to appreciate that he was a guest in Rascal’s lodge. Reminding himself daily of his superiority because the Indians did nothing with the vast land they lived in, except follow the enormous herds of buffalo across it. He well knew that that even wolves had that much sense. His failure to find and bring back his wife had eroded his superiority, however, and this ate away at the source of his manhood.
Case’s mother’s wedding band was lost with Joyful, and this tormented him no end. She held a distinct place of affection in his psyche, and her memory was the only gentle feature left to him. He needed to find Joyful in order to reclaim this tenderness, which was the only remaining conveyance by which he could claim he was still a member of the society of men, and that he had not joined the order of the fiend.
His two children sat bunched close to their grandmother and watched him with their dark eyes. They strictly obeyed the plump, round-faced woman, who, to them, at this stage in their development, knew all that was necessary for them to know of this world. Case tried to answer the mystery living in those eyes, felt if he could do so he would then know how to read them all—this mystic dark-eyed race. In the end he gave it up, and suspected he was striving to grasp more there than what actually existed.
“Them boys of mine sure hang on to their grandma,” he said to Rascal, who sat erect without the aid of a backrest, in the smoke-smudged gloom of the tipi.
Rascal chuckled softly. He said, “Children their age need to cling to the source of their well-being. Food and warmth is all they require. It will be different in a few seasons. They will then deny they were ever dependent upon anyone—especially a woman.”
“I was somewhat like that with my mam when I was a pup,” said Case. She was a independent woman, and for a long time I figured she could do no wrong. My pap was cursed. His evil spirit treated her harmfully. She took one beating too many. I watched them scuffle for the gun she’d run for. Finally, she broke free of him, account he was falling down drunk. She shot him dead. Later on, when I was busy growing up, I grieved her much. She claimed I’d been attacked by the same demons that had latched onto Pap, but she loved me anyways. I didn’t appreciate her—didn’t honor her at all back then. I ’spect I couldn’t judge how much she’d suffered under Pap’s hand. Later I learned how I’d wronged her. She led a troubling life and all because of Pap’s devils. She worked like a slave, trying to raise me by herself, me lacking the good sense to know its importance.”
“Had she no one to care for her?”
“She didn’t need nobody else. Pap’s death was a good thing. Pap treated her ill and it learned her independence. She died of consumption while still a young woman. Life was damned hard for her. I figure she lived far too long, at that.”
It grew quiet for a time in the lodge, then Rascal said, “I’ve seen independence in women myself. When I was young, there was a woman who hunted with the men. She was even a better hunter than some of them. But me, I prefer plump women. Plump and compliant.”
“When my mam died, I took possession of her wedding band,” Case said. “I kept it for when I took a woman of my own. I placed that same ring on your daughter’s finger.
“My mam was special to me. So is your daughter. I don’t want to lose Joyful. I don’t want to lose my mam’s wedding band either. That ring’s my way of keeping alive a good thing, understand?”
The fire was improperly drafting. Smoke hovered in the tipi like a cloud, and a long interval of silence added greatly to the dark, sullen oppression. By and by, Rascal spoke, but his voice was not bright enough to chase off the gloom, “I do understand, and know for you this ring is an object of great reverence, an object to place in a spirit bundle. Your wife now will be hard to recover if not impossible.”
“We’ll see about that,” Case said. He got to his feet, strapped on his snowshoes, and left the shelter, shuffling over the deep snowdrifts toward the river to seek solace in solitude.
The following summer at rendezvous, Case told some men that Piegan’s stole Joyful from him. By the time he sold off his furs and robes, the entire gathering was ready to take to the trail in search of her. If they allowed these cutthroats to get away with a sport like that, there was no telling what they might try next time. Indians had to learn to respect white men. The same thing could happen to any one of them, they reckoned. Case turned down their offer, however. He preferred to go it alone.
Case trapped through long, lonely seasons, traded with the tribes in the off-season, remained alert, and hoped for a glimpse of Joyful riding in a large group of Indians. He stood vigilant and patient. He traveled back into Canada, hoping to catch sight of her astride a pony, dragging a travois.
He sold his furs at rendezvous, abandoned his sons for months at a time until he became even more remote and godlike to them when he made an infrequent appearance in the lodge of his wife’s father. The boys, who were silent always, trembled when he spoke. He saw this and felt shamed by their fear, unable to acknowledge that his own dark, whirling moods was the cause of their apprehension.
Then, one day in late fall, four years after Joyful’s abduction, with snow filtering down through the trees, he hurried toward his solitary camp with two traps over his shoulder, ready now to go home for the winter. He was a half mile from camp, jogging over large snow-covered rocks fallen in some long-ago century from a bluff jutting out over the small stream from which he had been taking beaver. The trapping had been poor, and he saw that soon the rich harvests he had once known would disappear. His heart was set now upon the warmth of his lodge.
The rocks over which he trod were treacherous with the fallen snow, and he slipped into a fissure, wedging his left foot fast. The thrust of his weight as he fell forced him onward and down, violently twisting his leg in that small, tight space. He felt the sickening wrenching of his knee in its socket, then struck his head on a jagged when he fell. Dream-like, he heard the jingle of his traps as they skidded across the rocks, and then as they fell all the way to the stream below. At length he lost consciousness. Blood trickled slowly from his head wound, coloring the snow a dark crimson.
The snow continued falling through the trees. It slanted inward toward the bluff, then was forced downward in the rush of a small whirlwind. In two hours’, time it covered him, all save for one leg bent upward. The leg stuck up out of the snow like a flag. Hours later, Case became aware of a terrific pain in his left knee. He felt himself lifted upward. He heard voices coming and going, wavering in an indistinct, meaningless garble, then all was darkness and deep silence.
Again, he came to, heard more muffled speech, and his head reeled with pain as he attempted to rise up for a look around. Unable to support his head for long, he slumped back down. Another time he awoke and kept especially still and quiet. His head hurt so much he feared even to move. After a moment of listening to muted speech, he opened his eyes. He was upon his back in his own dugout. His robe was under him, and another one was covering him.
He rolled his eyes toward the sound of the voices. There, outside the small opening of his shelter, seated around a tiny fire, the evening air filled with a blue smoky haze, he saw, as if in a dream, three Indians. He smelled the strong aroma of burning tobacco as men smoked and talked. Tiredly, Case closed his eyes, not entirely sure of his sanity, fearful that the three youths he had killed had returned to haunt him, for he was an especially superstitious man, the roots of which went far back into his youth. Presently, though, he grew so sleep that his fear fell from him, and he slept on.
When he awoke again, the space surrounding him stood still filled with that same blue-gray haze. A hand supported his shoulders and held him erect. He felt a horn ladle at his lips. He drank the precious water, which, just then, was worth more than gold. A man’s face loomed before him in the smoke and haze. The face was sharp of feature. Dark eyes of prodigious strength shone through bright facial pain, like twin beacons. He saw the dangling of a long fat braid, shiny from grease, adorned lavishly with trinkets of silver—stolen from where, Case could only wonder at—The braid fell down past the man’s chest to the ground, and coiled up like a snake on the ground.
Case watched the man set the water ladle on the ground alongside him. What he witnessed next sliced into and diminished the gloom through which he had been viewing his surroundings. For there, tied in a small leather loop that rode close to the man’s left ear, was the wedding band he had given to Joyful. With the strength of a child, he reached upward. His fingers brushed the ring. The man pushed aside Case’s hand. He attempted to speak, and finally succeeded in mouthing Joyful’s name. The puzzled look on the man’s face revealed that he hadn’t understood.
The man of strength turned from him, paused at the opening as he was prepared to leave, and turned those eyes of tremendous power on him for only a second, as if to bewitch, then left.
Case slept on, awoke to total darkness, slept again, and then heard his horse snuffle just outside his door. He dropped away again into darkness. The next time he awoke he saw Rascal sitting cross-legged before him upon the earthen floor. The space was scarcely large enough for him because of all the furs, traps and other gear that filled the space in the small lodge.
Rascal wore a grave expression. Case felt glad he was no longer in a world of dreams. He said, “Rascal.”
The old man smiled. “You are still alive. It is good.”
Case indicated with his hands that he was starving, and said, “Amos Case is a hard one to kill.”
For three more days, he rested in the shelter, and gained strength daily. His wrenched knee healed slowly, but the headaches were gone, as well as the distortion of his eyesight. Rascal cooked for him, and Case waited for the day he could travel. The old man smoked. They talked. Case told of his life in the white man’s world, of his rank distrust for all men. He told how his life had become one long, frantic search for a prize, but that prize loomed always just outside his grasp, and lured him forever onward.
Rascal told the tales and myths he had heard as a child in the winter-lodges. He told of the war waged between light and darkness, the battle between the warmth and the cold. Then having told those ancient stories, he told of his own time as a young boy, growing up: “As a child, I had a friend,” he said, “but I am unable to speak his name now, as you may know. We were close friends and were together every day from the time we rejected the hands of the women and joined the man. Together we went out on our first raids. Horses were scarce in this land at that time and were quite valuable. All men were runners back then, and went out on raids afoot, returning horseback. They allowed us to assist the older men. To assist and to learn. It was a solemn duty, and we took our education seriously.
“I still feel a chill of pride after that first raid. We returned home, our faces painted in triumph, riding our stolen ponies. We drove a huge band of them before us as we circled the village in the sacred manner. The women came out and sang for us. Their voices charmed me, and sliced through the early morning mist, the dust the animals made tearing up the earth, the loud drumming of hooves as they struck the ground.
“Those women were cut from individual patterns of great splendor, with lustrous blue-black hair that shone brightly, and reflected the light of the morning sun like thrown stones.”
The old man paused and sat up straighter, stirring in warmth from his remembrances, then continued, “My heart bloomed with joy. I tremble still when I recall the voices of those women, and my heart swells from love and from need, knowing that that time is gone, never to return and this feels like a knife thrust piercing my heart.”
Tobacco smoke whirled crazily, formed blue-gray artistic creations, and trapped Rascal in a spidery robe where he sat.
Case listened to the tales told in the old man’s voice, grown hoarse from excessive use, and was glad for the diversion, even though he believed the tales were but exaggerations.
“My friend and I grew by and by to where we were nearly equal among the man. We went with them as grown-ups, even though we were mere novices, and were not especially smart, but only imagined we knew everything.
“Once, as we were leaving the land of the enemy with our stolen band of horses, my friend lost his grip in the mane of the pony. He fell beneath the feet of the animals. I saw it all and could not bear to lose him. We had been together so long and were one in mind. I dropped to the ground to assist him but found him crumpled and dead. His head was broken and ugly from the hooves of the ponies, but he was still my friend. I chose to share his defeat.
“The enemy captured me, still cradling his broken body. Later, my own father, and the father of my friend returned for me, and for my friend’s body, but the enemy drove them off. Next day, they placed my friend’s body on the prairie for recovery.
“As for me, I was given a sponsor. My mind was still pliable, and this man completed molding me. What I know of this world is because of him. You see,” Rascal said. He dropped his voice, “I am not who I seem to be. This is the way of my world.” He stirred to settle himself more comfortably, and continued, “Your wife was a good-looking woman. Her mother is of the Hairyrope tribe, who weave fine, durable ropes of horsehair. The Hairyrope women are the most handsome of all women. I stole her from her father’s lodge on the true plains when she was still a young girl.”
Amos Case lifted to his elbows and asked what had become of the others … the man with the powerful eyes who had visited him.
The old man looked at him with his sly eyes for some time. At last, he shrugged, and claimed he knew nothing of the men who had visited him.
“You were in a far-off world, one where dreams pretend to be the true and only reality. You were dreaming.”
“I saw them. They were as real as you are. They were Paygans.”
Rascal tamped down the tobacco in his pipe, and smiled indulgently, reached out to the fire for a coal, and lit up. “If you truly were visited by Piegans, you wouldn’t be alive and talking. Your scalp would be dangling from the bridle bit of someone’s pony.”
Case looked deep inside the old man for the truth, but the old face, the rich color of polished walnut wood, grew a dark veil. “Yeah, then who saved me?”
Rascal shrugged and puffed his pipe.
“Who brought me in from the snow where I fell?”
“Who brings you in every day?”
“I don’t fall and strike my head every day,” he insisted. He felt the old man was not forthcoming with him, but just sighed deeply, and fell back on his robe.
That evening, Rascal added wood to the fire, reentered the shelter, settled down, and fetched out his pipe. He said, “Tomorrow will be a good day to travel.”
Case attempted to unravel the mystery. He said, “How did you know I needed your help?”
“It is my privilege to go alone to pray each morning before the sun rises,” Rascal said. “After prayer, I sit and watch the light of day conquer the dark of night. A few mornings back, a friend visited me. This friend often approaches me in the guise of an animal. He tells me of events that are impossible for me to know without his aid.
“He told me that my daughter’s husband was injured and needed my help. At first, I was wary, because he had chosen to appear to me in the form of the coyote, and everyone knows the coyote is a trickster. I feared a trick of one kind or another, but after much careful thought, I decided to have faith in him … just this once. I see now it is good I did. Don’t you agree?”
Amos Case felt the urge to laugh at the old man’s wildly contrived explanation, and even though he held superstitious beliefs too, this fantastic tale strained all credibility.
The dark old face grew quite solemn. “The coyote also brought me word of my daughter. A Piegan strongman took her as wife. She gave birth twice. I now have two new grandsons. Piegan boys.”
Case sat upright and listened with greater intensity.
Then seeing the sudden interest his words had awakened in his son-in-law, Rascal said, “It is all right. “My daughter was treated with respect. Her husband is a most considerate man. One with much power. He knows how to handle both the forces of strength and of tenderness. He is a true man … and a man of truth.”
A strong fear began growing within Case. He was concerned that the old man had chosen to lie to him as a way to explain to him how life was lived among his own people. He felt Rascal had been in contact with the one who had saved his life. He saw again his mother’s ring as it dangled from the strong-eyed man’s braided hair. Fiercely, he said, “I’m her husband!”
“No. You were her husband when she was still of my tribe. She became a Piegan. First, she grew content. She then became a Piegan. Even if you had found her on your questing, she would not have returned with you. She was happy there.” Rascal sighed tiredly, and said, “It makes no difference now. She is no longer of this world.”
With a great effort, Case got to his knees. He felt a strong urge to wrap his powerful fingers around the old man’s neck and squeeze the life from him. Slowly he reached for him. His hands, though, stopped inches from him. For just then he saw Joyful’s face in his mind, and this calmed him. He said, “You can’t be telling the truth. She lives!”
“I speak the truth, now, and always.”
“You know where she is, don’t you? I feel it strongly. You’ve been in touch with her or one who has been—the man who saved me from a sure death. Why do you lie?”
He paused to study the face of his father-in-law. “Is it because you fear me and my kind and what’s to come?” Still the old man was silent. “I treated her kindly. That’s more than any Indian would do.”
By and by, Rascal broke his silence. He said, “My friend came to me in the guise of an animal, and it is through him I know what I do of the fate of my daughter. He told me of her death.”
Rascal appeared to be so truthful, but Case could not believe such a fabulous tale, even though he had heard other tales nearly as fantastic in his hilly, Scot Irish community in East Tennessee. For some reason Rascal chose to lie to him. He felt it in his core. He fell back onto his robe and stared into the old man’s face.
When the pipe grew cold, and the blue smoke dispersed, Rascal spoke again, “My daughter died in early spring of the disease you call smallpox. My friend told me. But, of course, he came to me in the form of the coyote. Everyone knows coyotes make superb liars. They hide in plain sight, displaying many voices. They are highly gifted in the art of deception.
“This morning when I was out for my prayers, my friend returned—this time as a blackbird. The sun had just risen. I squinted against the glare. This bird was a large one, and supremely black upon the snow. I watched him approach, not certain it truly was my friend. But then I saw an object in his beak that shone bright in the sun. I let him perch upon my knee.”
Rascal paused, then scratched behind his left ear. He extended his closed hand to Case. “He gave me this. I have every reason to believe it belongs to you.”
Slowly he opened his hand and revealed the golden wedding band that had belonged to Case’s mother. This then was enough to convince him. Amos Case, the disbeliever, was certain now that his wife was dead.
The next morning, Case hobbled about in the snow as he pulled camp, and as he went, he searched for sign that Piegans had truly visited him. His eyes fell upon the three rock cairns he had erected as protection for the bodies of those he had slain. The cairns stood open now to the pale, feeble sunshine—open and empty….
Later in the year, when he sold his furs, the talk of the trappers centered on going down to Santa Fe, to catch on with an outfit hauling freight from Missouri. Some men even spoke of going to California to bring back horses and mules for profit. The end of the great market in beaver, they said, was over. When he returned to his father-in-law’s lodge, he saw Joyful’s face mirrored in the faces of his sons. He heard her voice—ghost-like—in the voices of her sisters. The old man attempted to persuade him to take one of them to wed, but he could not bring himself to do so.
Late in the summer, when the sky bloomed with haze and dust from tribe’s on the move, word spread again of the Piegans. Rascal’s young hunters spotted a large band of men and women on their summer hunt. Case sharpened his knife, packed the mule, cleaned his rifles, and saddled his horse.
As he led his animals out of the village, Rascal came and walked along beside him. Case told him, “When the half-breeds come down to hunt buffalo, and if the Blackrobe happens to be along—” he paused, detesting himself for being in the position of having to ask a favor, “take my boys to see him, please.” As if the old man would know the deep importance of his request, when in reality he had no idea. The old man had his own conception of life, death and of the afterlife, and the two stood a dimension apart.
When he rode from camp, he paused and looked back. He saw a thick haze that stood above the village like a lazy tan blanket. His two boys watched. He waved to them. He waited for a time, swiveled in the saddle, but the boys did not return his wave. By and by, he touched heels to the sides of his horse. It sprang forward and they departed in a flurry of dust. If Rascal thought by returning his mother’s ring would satisfy him to the point where he would jump up and leave this land, he was badly mistaken. Nothing could satisfy Case, but revenge might at least be a start….
A tremendous dust cloud hung in the air above the Piegan hunting band, which marked its location at all times. Case followed the large band for three days. His prey the man with the hawk-fierce eyes. He found him on the third day with his spyglass, after he’d crept up close to their camp. So great was his surprise and elation that his heart gave a sudden lunge in his chest.
He felt he could crawl closer, prop his rifle barrel across a rock to steady his aim, and kill his enemy. But he wanted to watch the man suffer, to see the fear in his eyes before he died. He needed to take him alive.
The next morning, long before dawn, while the camp slept, he scurried across the last few yards to where the man with the silver-adorned hair slept. His knife was at his side, the only weapon he carried with him, apart from his two strong hands. He was well armed, even so.
His prey lay alee on his right side. Two women slept nearby. Children clutched with chubby hands the splayed curtains of their mother’s hair. The faces of the mothers, too, lay hidden inside their hair.
Case rose to one knee and reached for his prey. He could smell the people, the horses as well, the entire camp in one large, unified odor, rancid and sour, but sweet too with leather. He thrust out his left arm like a rafter snake in the act of trapping a granary rat. It coiled around the Piegan’s neck. He felt the man stiffen. His feet attempted to dig deep in the earth, rise up and fling off the night demon that held him.
Case trapped him, shutting off his breathing, straining so strenuously his entire body commenced shaking from the exertion. In time, he felt him go slack, and crumple away, he glanced around. He saw the coals of small, distant individual campfires that glowed red like jewels in the dark. He had disturbed no one, except for the man he had come for. He threw him over his shoulder and walked out of their camp with his prize.
At the edge of camp, he thought he heard a sound behind him. He turned, looked back, but saw no danger. He walked on to where he had left his animals. He dropped the man, caught up his horse, and when he turned back to his captive, he found him stirring to alertness. Swiftly, he knelt to one knee, and struck him with a heavy fist twice against his temple and watched him fold back into unconsciousness. He got him up, with his arms wrapped around his middle, ready now to toss him over the back of his horse, and froze when he heard a female call out to him,
“Give up your plan. You must go, while there is still time.”
Case’s breath seized up in his chest. A cold fear clutched for a grip on his tortured, superstitious mind. He turned slowly and found himself staring mistrustfully on one he thought was dead.
He muttered, “Joyful.” His voice croaked his disbelief and unease. Did Rascal lie? he wondered. “I figured you was dead.” And he still was not certain.
“I’ve never been so alive,” she answered. “Drop my husband. Go before you are discovered. I will call out.”
“I’ve come for revenge, but now you must go with me.” Is she dead? he wondered. Have I stumbled upon a camp of the dead?
“I won’t go with you. You live a life more terrible than even those dwelling in eternal darkness. Here, I live fully.”
He dropped the man, drew forth his wide-bladed knife, and wrapped the man’s long, fat braid about his left wrist. “Then, by God, I’ll scalp him while he lives, be ye both spooks, or no … then slit his throat.”
“Yes, the way you killed his son of thirteen years. He went only to find the white man, unaware of what fiendish creatures they really are. He wanted only to trade. You murdered all of them. My husband searched a long, long time, and found them the day he saved your life. He brought them home in red blankets.”
“Them heathens meant to kill me, take my animals and outfit. I killed first. I ain’t got no regrets. I won’t have any when I kill this dandified rooster here either.”
“Those boys wanted only to trade. But your mind is so scarred by mistrust that you strike out at mere shadows as if they were true threats to you, and to your self-indulgent ends.” Joyful flashed a knife and held it ready at her throat. “If you kill him, you will have killed me as well … and yourself, too. You cannot escape.”
Case’s knife edged taut against the man’s throat. “I ain’t never had nothing but love for you. I treated you better than this one, I’d allow.”
“I will kill myself,” she threatened. He sighed in defeat, conceding to what he perceived was love … an enemy even he was unable to vanquish. Why hadn’t she returned his love? There was no way to understand her or any of them. She would carry out her threat. He felt this certainly. There was no hope, none at all. He had given her his mother’s wedding ring, had been more than kind to her. Could the ring be cursed by his father’s demons?
Joyful would rather have this feral wanderer. He now saw that he had meant nothing to her but repression, and loss of freedom. He realized that to her, he was simply a meddler, an invader … a thief.
Finally, he released the man, shoved him violently to the ground. Be his dog then! You’d give your life for him?”
“He is my life. Go now, before the others awaken.”
Case cried out in desperation, uttering a phrase of defeat employed down through the ages, by all men of every land. “But, why?”
“Because you believe the world turns only for you, that there is no other truth but yours. Because you are a thief. You would steal from me everything … even my core spirit. You are a savage, with no songs to guide you. You will wander lost forever.”
An extreme urge to kill them both rose up in him. He knew he should, but for some alien reason he swung up onto his horse and rode off into the swelling dawn light. As he was going, a coyote from out of the brush ambled off in front of him, loping along in that peculiar gait common to its kind, seeming to let its front legs do most of the work while the hindquarters simply trailed along. It was an illusion, he knew. Everything about the coyote was a masquerade, a deception. That he now knew was its great strength. At last, the creature stopped, looked back over a shoulder at him and smiled a lupine smile of bedevilment that reminded Case of Rascal. It leapt to the side then and disappeared like a mist into a thicker denser mist. Case shivered with clairvoyance, as if he had just seen the end of time, and this jarred him harshly.
Later, that day, under an orange sun, he paused at a small stream to allow his animals to drink. He had heard talk of going to Santa Fe, of catching on with a freighting outfit, but the thought of following plodding oxen was distasteful. Then as he waited there, he stared out across the vast scope of empty land that fell out before him for such a tremendous distance his eyes grew weary. Just then he felt an urge to go farther west. The land he trod now was tainted. Amos Case was no man to till the soil. Nor was he a settler. He preferred to lead the way, to beat out the trails so others could follow. Others could settle the land.
As for Amos Case, he meant to press on. Maybe out west at lands’ end, he would find the thing that had been eluding him, luring him on for such a long and troubling time.