Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“I’ll tell you, son, that you can’t go any higher than McAlister’s in Colorado, and you’ll go through hell to get there, and never on your own, never without some kind of map.”
The oldest man in the room, in The Chauncy Remney Saloon and House of Good Taste and Better Scents, in the Colorado town of Munitions Mount, had the soap box and nobody was about to take it away from him. Some of them had waited, it seemed ages, for him to break down and say where he had been for a whole year when he was many years younger. Not one man ever heard a word out of him on the subject, but there had been signs in the last few days that a dent had been made, a chink found in his armor of silence. He was one of the two mysteries that had occurred in this section of the Rockies, but the mystery of where he had been that time was pale in comparison to the other mystery, the capture and eventual disappearance of a huge army ammunition train that had been taken in a night of ultra-darkness. In 20 years there had been no sign, word, or whisper about the fate of Captain Nathan Wexler and each and every one of his men on that assignment, bound to relieve Fort Dexter, under months of long siege by Indians.
The Chauncy Remney Saloon and House of Good Taste and Better Scents, sitting like an ink blot in a map of the area, was a piece of the Rockies that people on the east coast and the west coast and deep into Texas had heard about in every trail camp and western saloon for more than a thousand miles in some directions. Gone missing with the army munitions were the hundred men on the delivery mission bound for the foothills post of Fort Dexter, by this time, 20 years later, looking like not much more than rotting wood, a single flag pole bare of adornment, and so many stories that they could twist the hearts and minds of normal men. All listeners to awed tales of the area knew that The Chauncy Remney Saloon and House of Good Taste and Better Scents was both heaven and hell in a single wrapper, the ladies upstairs able to tell the most devious stories a man could imagine about the failed mission. Often those stories superseded the intended mission of visits upstairs.
All this was known by the old man who was doing the talking and whose name was Ship Hendry, Ship being no nickname but his regular born name, and was called by most folks as Mountain Tooth. He was a mystery to the day.
“You know what I think,” one patron of the saloon said, “that he just said ‘McAlister’s’ for the first time ever from his mouth. Never so much as whispered it afore, not him, not Mountain Tooth himself. First time ever, believe me, and I been here for all the years since the happening.”
“I never heard of no McAlister’s,” said another gent about as old as the main talker who was keen enough to hear the whispers in the room.
“Its real name is Shipolo,” Hendry said, “unless you want to call it the tipi of Kitcki Manitou or Gitche Manitou, whatever the Indians call him, but he’s the Great Spirit, the one and only Great Spirit. That’s the best I can fix it for you, and the old Indians say the only way to get there is a bridge up in them mountains called Ekutsihimmiyo, connecting here and there. Like heaven and earth can be connected, a bridge between Shipolo and Earth some of their elders say is near Mount Rainer up there in Washington close on Canada and others of ‘em say it ain’t real far from us as we sit here drinking up all this booze in the cradle of the mountains.”
He looked out the large front window showing a view of white-topped peaks in the distance and lifted his empty glass in salute. One gent at the counter nodded at the bartender and another glass was at the speaker’s elbow in a few seconds.
Hendry smiled his thanks at the bartender and then at the buyer, who just happened to be an acknowledged acquaintance of long standing.
Managing a laugh that could be interpreted many ways, Hendry said, “But I always called the place McAlister’s ‘cause that’s the name of the real mountain man who told me about it, just like I’m telling you now. It’s easier to say. You know I can’t rightly say their name of the place or that confounded bridge that really ain’t no bridge, but sure is a way to Manitou’s Tipi, which is what Shipolo is, as I said. I ain’t saying it’s closer to earth or heaven but I’d ‘ve liked to have finished my days there, but it wasn’t my calling to do so even though some of ‘em when they found out my name was Ship took up a deep fondness for me.”
A second old timer said, “You mean to tell me you been where White Fox has been talking about for years with all them ladies waiting to make new tribes to walk the whole earth?” White Fox was an old Indian who had come out of the mountains with endless stories and had become a “fort Indian” with few tribal ties.
“Well, now, I can’t say what them ladies had for long-range plans, but I knew what made ‘em giggle and call me Chief. And White Fox, from what I hear, ain’t always throwing dust on the trail.”
Most of the laughter came from older gents in the saloon, but one or two younger gents raised their eyebrows and simply pointed overhead to the second floor, and with a full and ready smile for those in the know.
“Well, Mountain Tooth, you ready to lead an expedition up to that McAlister’s place, are you? Lots of us’d chip in for that long as we get to make our visit.”
“You missed off what I said. There ain’t no expedition, no bunch of mountain men or cowpokes or miners going to get up in there ‘cause a bunch can’t get in. It’s too tight, too long, too dark, too set with smaller gods took up with weapons to protect the way. One man, with good direction, might slip in there like I did. But no partners. No pards of the saddle. No Mining diggers with all their gear. No plain old explorers looking for newness.”
“So why’re you telling us all this after all this time? Just making us itchy? Making the dream bigger than what it’s been for a long time, too long? You got something else on your mind, Mountain Tooth? You ain’t in possession of knowledge about Captain Drexler, are you? Or what happened to all his men? If nothing else, they ought to be buried if we could find them and their remains. That’s only proper, ain’t it?”
“I can’t make it up there again, but I could give some younger man the right way to get there, tell him right up front how tough it’s bound to be, and if he makes it, he won’t get out of there for over a year.”
For much of his talk, Hendry kept alert to a young man in the back of the room he had seen in action in a few situations, which aroused his curiosity and his commendation. The young man was Oren Bandley, part-time cowpoke, part time miner on his own claim, but no hit yet.
Hendry had asked about the young man, and the livery owner said, “Bet a dollar on that kid any day in the week, Mountain Tooth, and you get it back plus some more. Works like a dog or a mule, no sass in his body, does what he’s been told. My niece should have married him, but she’s got the same luck I got and messed up already with the wrong one. Course, she’ll never admit it.”
It was enough for Hendry to go on, to bet on the Bandley boy, knowing he’d pay attention to all details, do what he was told, or at least do so to the best of his ability. “Ever see that boy in a tight corner?” made the livery owner smile in a hurry.
“Frisco Jimmy came in here one day, Mountain, and wanted only a paint and picked one out the boy just brought in for the lady he was working for. Frisco Jimmy says he wants the paint the boy has still got by the reins. ‘He ain’t for let or money,’ the boy said, and Frisco comes back like he’s in a corner and says, ‘Know who I am kid?’ and the kid, like I first wished would keep his mouth shut, says, ‘You’re flat on your ass with no gun in your hand and looking awful foolish to anyone just happening to go by, like that lady out there,’ and Frisco turns to look and the kid wallops him a terrific shot on the side of the head and takes Frisco’s gun out of the holster and tosses it up in the loft , and Frisco still on the floor and don’t see a second of it, and no lady out there to boot, all put on by the kid, who by the way wasn’t carrying a gun at the time.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, it took Frisco about 10 minutes to wake hisself up and he finds no gun and looks at the kid and said, ‘Where’s my gun?’ and the kid says, ‘You go down to the saloon and wait for me and you can tell folks I was fixing it for you and if you do anything else, you ain’t going to be resting easy from now on. We agree on that?’ And Frisco, like his tail is you know where, nods and says okay.”
Hendry recalled it all in a flash of an image and says, real loud to get the attention of everybody in the saloon, “I’m willing to tell one man how to get to McAlister on his own, that’s nobody else with him, not a single other soul, but he’s got to follow orders, follow my directions, do exactly as I say, or he ain’t ever coming back. The one I pick has to agree to all of what I just said, don’t tell anyone when he’s heading out, and don’t tell anybody when he gets back, if he gets back, that’s just so no one can make his trail.”
He kept looking at Oren Bandley who just happened to be looking back with his mouth ajar like he was about to jump on the saddle right then. Bandley said, “What does he get out of it all, the fellow you pick to go up there to Manitou’s Tipi?”
“Well,” smiled Hendry, “he’s bound to get a chance to make some new tribes if he’s onto it.”
The laughter was heavy, and lots of backslapping and old fellows daring other old fellows to get up and go.
“Hey, Smitty,” one old gent said to another gent across the room, “ain’t you said you was ready for the Queen of Sheba she ever comes calling on you?” And they all laughed again, as loud as ever as Smitty yelled back, “That lady ain’t ever met the likes of me.”
And one loud voice suddenly came across the room, over the top of the laughing, like a ship’s captain or a wagon master making known the orders of the day, “I’m him,” Oren Bandley said, standing tall, eyes on fire, “I’m the one going up to McAlister’s.”
Hendry had pegged him right from the start and, as the laughter quit as quick as it had come, he said, “Seeing as you spoke up right fast, Oren, and seeing you’re young enough and some good things has been said about you, I pick you to go to McAlister’s, by yourself and doing all like I said here in front of all these folks who’ll swear to it amen.”
Smitty, enjoying the talk and laughter and the whole impossible night, said to his crony across the room, “Ain’t it like I said? Mountain’s the best man with the best intentions among the lot of us.”
And Mountain Tooth Hendry, all his plans coming the way he designed them, capped off his evening by saying to the bartender, “Every man in the house gets a drink on me and a toast for young Oren there, outbound soon as possible on the adventure of his life.”
In the early morning, birds of all kinds making noise, horses in all corrals and at the livery adding their wake-up nickers and neighs, Hendry had roused young Bandley from his sleep. “Son,” he said, the sense of adventure caught up in him like the scent of a good breakfast, “it’s time you got started before the town wakes up and knows what you’re up to. You get yourself ready for the chance of a lifetime and I’ll do whatever I can to help you out. But don’t think any of this is going to be easy. You got a tough, rough road ahead of you. Mark my word well, it’ll be as tough as any ever in your mind.”
“What’s so tough about riding up in the mountains?”
“Well, for starters, son, you ain’t doing any riding except in the early part. You’re plain going to walk as long as you can on this route. There’s twists and there’s turns and you won’t make heads or tails of ‘em unless you listen to me and do what I say.”
“I can follow directions, but what will I be looking for? You know something about the munitions train that I ought to know? Is that all part of this?” And he relented and said, “What’s all this stuff about tribe-spreading? That could be plumb interesting.” He laughed as if he was only joking, but Hendry determined there was a real curiosity abounding in the young man, his eyes and spirit confirming the fact.
Hours later, they were into the heart of a canyon looking to young Bandley as if it was a dead-end canyon and no way out but back. The range of mountain peaks had loomed in front of them in the morning sunlight like tops of cone candy and both Hendry and Bandley knew they were drawn to the mountains.
“What do we do here?” Bandley said as he looked at nothing but imposing walls rising straight up around him in a near circle.
“This is where you get of your horse and go on foot, doing exactly what I tell you, which is what was told to me by McAlister hisself when I left here just like you’re going to do as soon as you stop asking questions and I get through giving you proper directions you got to listen to and remember or you ain’t coming back in a hurry.” He sat his horse at attention, waiting for the young man to dismount.
Bandley, getting off his horse, went to pull his rifle from the scabbard and Hendry said, “Keep listening to me, son. Don’t forget a word I say. I’ve said that enough times already to sound like an echo of myself. No rifle. No pack but what you can carry in your pockets or stuffed in your shirt. You can wear that pistol on your belt and best be it for snakes and such, and you can carry this stick here as a cane or to use as a torch when you really need it.” He handed the young man a stout-looking stick.
“Do I walk around here in circles?” Bandley said as he took the stick and shook his head looking around all that appeared like prison walls rising above him.
Hendry slapped Bandley’s horse on the rump and the horse ran off.
“Come down along this section, Oren, and push that stone there away from the wall. You got to skinny through there behind it, but it’ll open up, high enough for you to stand” ... and paused and added … “most times. Go the way it looks open to you. Use a torch when you have to. There’s some matches in the handle. Whenever you’re in doubt when the route splits, always go left like you’re going away from the mountain, but you ain’t. There’s only one place where the route splits and you have to go right and that way is marked by my sign, which you have to find by hand. Mine and McAlister’s sign both together. Mine’s a plain old X and his is a T. Don’t ask me what they mean, but both were easy to make in stone.”
“How long’ll it take me to get where I’m going, which is another question, too?”
“I got no idea how long it’ll take you, Oren. I don’t know how long it took McAlister either, but it took me two days and a lot of it on my belly at times.”
“Tell me what I’m going to find. Don’t you think I ought to know that?”
“Son, if you find it, you ain’t going to leave any time in a hurry. That’s a promise. And something else I got to tell you … you won’t know most times in there if it’s day or night on your way in. Maybe one or two times you can see overhead if it’s day because you won’t really be in a tunnel, but a jumble of rocks thrown down by good old Mother Nature blocking the way and leaving a way, if you can read what she’s saying in that. Old McAlister knowed it and so did I … after a bit of deep thinking.”
“You keep wrapping things up in more mystery than I ever shook my head at, Mountain” Bandley said, weighing the cudgel in his hands as if it was also to be used as a weapon.
That gesture made Hendry smile again, knowing he had picked the right man to send up in there, to McAlister’s place, to Manitou’s tipi, to heaven on Earth if there really was such a place. He realized as he had a hundred other times that it was like a dream a person keeps trying to bring back but only catches pieces of it in snatches. It made him smile all over again, even the loss of something precious but faded. For a moment he thought it was like a fighter getting clobbered and knocked down and losing his senses and getting up and going right back into the action, not knowing where he’d been for a short while but sure it was elsewhere. Some things were worth the trouble.
“Ain’t no fun hanging around and worrying and getting full up of questions,” Bandley said, “so I guess I better get going. Keep left except one time. Use the torch for whatever. Look overhead when I can. And don’t expect nothing else but something really worth all this talk.” He laughed, slipped down into the hole in the canyon wall and was gone.
He heard Hendry shove the rock back in place.
Oren Bandley slipped through, squirmed, fidgeted, fought his way through openings not usually for the likes of him. He met no snakes, but heard an odd sound now and again, as though an echo was being made up in a far corner or overhead. Once, only once, he saw light above him, a thin ray of it that seemed to fall onto a smooth surface and was sent down toward him.
He measured time by what he had eaten, figuring the times his stomach seemed to cry for food, his hardtack and dried beans and jerky filling the hole in his stomach for those accountable hours between chews, but he was never sure of day or night but the one time.
Sleep had come several times along with a tiredness that grasped his whole body, and he slept off the ground on shelves of rock each time he did sleep. It was never a comfortable sleep, but did have small rewards that provided a sense of renewed energy. He had dreams in each sleep, and they seemed to focus on a group of papooses at the edge of a stream. That did set his mind on fire.
Once he got to a solid wall after a turn and went back the other way, thinking it was the right turn he had to take, but found no signs. It was much later that he thought he had taken another wrong turn, went back, lit the torch and with gnarled and bruised hands found the signs left by Hendry and McAlister. His fingers were stubby logs of aches and pains and stiffness by this time, and his legs often refused to allow him to stand upright at demand. He felt he was being bent into a new shape.
More than once he thought he was in a wild goose chase, sent off on a fool’s errand by a man who was fixing up an old debt, paying off some due. No matter how many times he tried, he could find no reason why Hendry would send him on this trip out of spite or hatred or to even a score on some deed that lay forgotten in the back of his mind.
But, young, trying to recoup his energies all the time, he yet found dispiriting senses coming over him. They kept talking to him, saying what a fool he was, daring him to turn around and go back the way he had come. But that was unthinkable, probably would be worse than the way in.
In such a pother, like an object being knocked back and forth, he was squandering in a mess of possibilities, when a shaft of light came upon him, accompanied by the sound of running water, and the sense of lilacs filling the air. His spirits, suddenly in a leap, soared as he heard the soft humming voice of a woman coming from past the flash of light. Energy rammed into his legs, overcome the pains in his hands and fingers and arms from incessant crawling in tight spaces, and the stony feeling in his backbone disappeared as he heard the sweet tones of a musical voice, inhaled again the scent of lilacs as fresh as any aroma ever known in all his years.
Oren Bandley stood up without a pain in his body, his mind as clear as it would ever be, and he stepped into a swath of sunlight that came over him like a spring morning out of the grass.
A stream ran by him, the water in small twirls and currents, as it ran upon stones that formed a path across it. On the other side, washing clothes in the water, was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, an Indian maiden no older than he was, staring at him.
She looked surprised, happy, and curious all at one time, but a smile began filling up her face like the smile had no ending.
“Ah,” she said, “my father sent you. The Old One back there told me my father would send my man one day. I have waited here for six years, since I am a woman, waiting for you. My mother waits for you, for word of her husband who went to find a man for me, to come here, to walk across the bridge called Ekutsihimmiyo, connecting there and here, like heaven and earth are connected, a bridge between Shipolo and Earth.”
Bandley pointed to the stones set across the stream and said, “Is that the bridge called Ekutsihimmiyo, connecting here and there. Like heaven and earth can be connected, a bridge between Shipolo and Earth?”
“No,” the beautiful maiden said, “that is it there, where you have just walked. That is Ekutsihimmiyo. You have made the journey. I am here for you. For 6 years I have been waiting for you. The Great Spirit has sung his song for me at last. I am White Bird of the Lilac, and you will be my man this very day. And my mother, Mountain Dove, and my father, wherever he is, will rejoice.”
White Bird took the hand of Oren Bandley and led him across the stones, after he had tossed aside the cudgel and his gun belt, as she suggested. “There is no need here, in Manitou’s Tipi, for such things.”
She pointed to a place behind him and another cudgel and another gun belt lay on the ground. “Those are my father’s,” she said. “They will be here forever, as will yours.”
White Bird of the Lilac placed her cheek on the shoulder of Oren Bandley. “From this very moment, I am your woman. I am your woman forever and ever. It is like my mother belongs to my father for ever and ever. They are one as we will be one no matter where we are in this life. It is just like the Great Spirit Manitou told me, I have been one man’s woman since the day I was born and I have waited all this time for you. Now, come with me and see where my father was years ago, here,” and she pointed over a mall rise into a most beautiful valley snug in the mountains, “in Manitou’s Tipi, my home forever and ever. Is it not beautiful?” She gestured again, a sweeping gesture that encompassed wonders that hit Bandley like a ton of stone.
He saw grazing animals, lodges and teepees of all kinds and colors, Indians in full dress, maidens in colors from the keenest rainbow, warriors in pelts and skins and blue coats of a faded hue he knew were army residue. It seemed a hundred children played in the sunlight, or fished at the stream or watered and fed animals or sat on a pile of logs telling stories to younger children. Couples walked hand in hand, at times trailed by little ones.
“My people, with the help of Manitou and McAlister, who were brothers by the blooded knife, saved over a thousand lives when they stole the whole shipment from a huge army ammunition train and Indian braves and soldiers brought it in here piece by piece. It took them a whole year, but none of it was ever used. Imagine that, a thousand lives on both sides, and some of the soldiers are here yet, raising their families, not going back to the horrors of war, to death and destruction. Manitou says we will live here forever in peace. Peace lives here in our midst. Peace fills us. Peace stays in place. Are you not pleased, my man? White Dove of the Lilac is pleased that her man has come across Ekutsihimmiyo to me, to us, to meet my mother, to sit at the fire tonight with Manitou while the stars shine down on us like you have never seen stars, even out on your grass on sleepless nights. They shine their peace here on us, bringing messages from the Great Spirit, saying journeys begin and end but we must make the choosing on our own. You have made a journey to me.”
Awed by all he saw, Bandley said, “Is this McCalister’s? Did I really get to McCalister’s?”
Twenty years later, long after Ship Mountain Tooth Hendry had died in a buffalo stampede, and his remains brought to Munitions Mount for proper burial, and numberless stories went on being told in The Chauncy Remney Saloon and House of Good Taste and Better Scents, about his being ‘”lost up in them mountains for a spell,” a middle aged rancher came into town for a visit. He was a vibrant looking blond-headed man, had a distinction about him that said “he had been places,” and the assessment was not charitable but was an honest one. And he looked familiar to some patrons who stared at him for long moments.
The visitor walked to the bar and ordered a shot and a beer. He told the bartender he was from Tobacco Shelf, which was north a ways in the same mountain range, and he admitted, after questioning, that he had a ranch and a stable of horses back there at Tobacco Shelf that were the envy of many riders in the region.
The visitor chuckled as he told the story and his familiarity grew on a few of the customers in The Chauncy Remney Saloon and House of Good Taste and Better Scents. One of the patrons said, at the same time the bartender said it, “Hey, ain’t you Oren Bandley who was lost up in them mountains just like Mountain Tooth was?”
Every person in the saloon at that moment knew the story about Mountain Tooth Hendry and the kid he sent off on his own adventure, Oren Bandley, gone from the area around Munitions Mount for years upon years, feared dead in the mountains, out of sight and out of mind.
From the far side of the room, off in a corner as if he had been forgotten , an older gent said, “You goin’ to tell us anythin’ new?” Sumpthin’ we ain’t heard yet. I get plain tired of old folks and old tales. What’s new, sonny boy?” He slapped his thighs like he was a dancer doing tricks on stage.
The rustling and shuffling began in earnest around the room, curiosity coming up in a hurry as though it had been buried too long in The Chauncy Remney Saloon and House of Good Taste and Better Scents.
The barkeep, evidently a good business man, set up another beer and shot for the visitor now identified as Oren Bandley, lost man like Mountain Tooth was, a pure legend standing right there in front of him, in his bar. It was money rolling into the till.
Bandley, raising his glass, said, “Any whelps here ain’t married and want to tell me about themselves? I’m sure interested.”
In the back of the room, near the door where light shone on his blond head, a young man stood up.