Western Short Story
Secret of the Cave
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Mountain Jackson, no other name known by the few men he met in the mountains or saw at re-supply time or pelt trading, was bigger than his mule, a stubborn but hard-worker, the only kind of an animal that Jackson would lavish any affection on. “You smell that sweet water, Hildy? Smell it like I do? Up here’s someplace hidin’ on us. You be still here and I’ll have a look around. ‘Bout time we had a treat.”

With his great fur coat doffed and sitting across Hildy’s back for an airing, and his rifle in one hand, the big man stared at the walls of the escarpment sweeping in a half circle, and the mass of rocks piled at the base like Mother Nature had set out to cover her tracks at some kind of mischief. At 4000 feet, the land had changed, and underground water he hoped followed a flow hidden from the eyes of any man for over a thousand years.

Jackson and his mule had run out of water the day before and the pinch had slipped in on them as they climbed into this high canyon. He tied Hildy to a rock big enough to hold her. “You be still, girl. Don’t go nosin’ around. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Your feet are so sure, girl, you could dance at a barn dance and I’d be your partner. I’ll damned well find some water for us’n’s.”

With a pat at Hildy’s backside, Jackson headed for the base of a major rock fall, at the foot of a steep wall, looking as if it had not moved in a thousand years. In a dark recess pinned against the wall he saw an opening that promised further excitement. He urged his big frame toward that next spot, even as he felt the shift in air, the sense of freshness in the current, and knowing he’d have to light a torch before long. The new air carried both the essence of water in it and the aspect of morning when you know it’s going to be a good day.

It was near high noon, he realized, when two things happened; in the heart of the cave he heard water dripping steadily, and in a sudden shaft of light from directly overhead saw a man-made object, its square shape distinctive as it could be, sitting on a shelf of rock where the shaft of light, overhead sunshine, fell on it for a few seconds and then departed. It was as if the light was withdrawn up a long shaft right through the heart of the mountain.

Jackson saw the spot at once as marked by some man before him who had also experienced the shaft of light and where it hit at high noon. “Got to be checkin’ that out, old boy,” he said aloud, his voice sounding again from deeper in the cave.

But the surprise finding was second thought with him as he thought about Hildy being as thirsty as he was. With a bit of agility about him, he followed the sound of dripping water, to where it came out of a crevice above his head and fell directly below into a small crater, which in turn flowed over its far side and dropped again to a lower level, that level out of sight.

He collected two full canteens, enjoyed some himself, and proceeded to tend to Hildy’s thirst. Over a fire against one wall he made coffee and heated a piece of meat for himself and gave some oats to his mule. Under a ledge he set up his bed for the coming night and brought Hildy as close as he could. When the stars popped up over the peaks about him, climbing as if they were on a steep incline, toting all the majesty with them that he ever craved, he crawled toward sleep. There were times he had lost his breath at such views that had broadened overhead, the wonder of that awful power pulling on him from limitless space, the wonder of their constant and permanent travels as if in the very beginning they had been commissioned for such tasks, all born and bred for such beauty. His choice of a mountain life when he was but a boy of 16 was absolute, caught up as he was in the heavenly powers come evident to him. The skies, he avowed, especially the night skies, are better observed the closer you are to them.

After such appreciations he began thinking at length what might be in the container on the shelf in the cave that only high noon could find for the eyes of a man.

“It t’weren’t born there, Hildy,” he said, as much to comfort his mule as to entertain himself a bit. The mule answered with a soft bray, in accord with the tone of Jackson’s voice. “Might be some weapons and some ammo, old girl, or a clutch of gold, or a gone family’s lifetimes all gathered up in one nutshell. If I was a bettin’ man, I’d bet on the last particular, girl.”

He felt sleep touching him. “It has to be valuable, some ways,” he said aloud, letting his words drift off on the night air. Sleep came deeper upon him as he thought about all the possibilities, of what was in the container and how it had been placed there. The visions and images rolled through him and brought him to his sleep. The mountain music began even as he dozed off, the music of his life, bird cries, owl hoots, domain seekers or markers like wolves and coyotes and the innocuous yap of a mother fox calling her young back to her side. It was music for a loner. An owl was plaintive, a coyote more so, notes of the grand music.

It was only a lone bird somewhere and Hildy’s morning music that wakened him in the pre-dawn mix of grays so different that he could tell time by them. “An hour’s sun-up, Hildy, and we get to eatin’ and explorin’ a bit more. I got no hurry in me, girl, less’n I lose some of this magic the good Lord’s waving’ at me like he allus does.” Looking again at the early sky, still some stars available for wonder, he nodded slowly and patted his mule.

Repeating the almost the same meal from the night before, he added a dry onion into the skittle and near burnt it through. Coffee aroma and onion gone black surged freely into the canyon, enough, he thought, to wake any unknown visitors in the area. He kept his ears alert for any new sound.

Early morning passed through his survival ritual of caring for what took care of him, his animal, his gear, his supplies, lastly his self. With the area cleaned up after breakfast, he lit a torch from the fire and hastened into the cave. Rolling three rocks together, one on top of two, he managed to get one hand into the box after he pried the cover off with little difficulty. He did not want to move the box from its secret place. Papers came into hand, a small soft bag he hoped was gold dust, a few loose coins, and more papers. In one corner he felt a pistol grip, then the trigger mechanism, and the long barrel. By touch he knew what it was, a Colt .45 single action Buntline revolver with a barrel about a foot long. He had seen and handled one with deep curiosity in the village below the Snake River the year before, in the holster of a posse leader.

In the soft bag was enough gold dust to take care of Mountain Jackson for a few years if he lived in a village or settlement down below; much longer if he stayed in the mountains with few visits to civilization. The coins, in gold, amounted to more than $300. One of the papers was a letter, one was a final will and testament of a man named Jacob Grimes, and one was an ink sketch of a little girl, pretty as her picture, dimpled, curly hair, eyes like stars and a smile to match. And Jackson was absolutely correct about the Buntline Special, the barrel almost like a rifle barrel, near long as his forearm.

On a rock he sat, Hildy not far away, the silence now and then like a musical accompaniment. It was a perfect place to read the letter:

Whoever finds my last leavings, by the grace of God they be found. I am Jacob Grimes, once of Butler, Pennsylvania, once bound for Montana but got nowhere near, according to my estimate. I was attacked and pursued into these mountains by brigands on foot. They fired upon me several times, killed one of my mules, near got me a few times. I found this cave and placed all my possessions in this box that I found under a ledge down below and could not leave it behind me, and leave my last will and testament within the box. Who finds me will find water here also, which is the only way I was able to outlast my pursuers, who most likely ran out of water and withdrew their attack. I will try to get out of here in the darkness, hoping they have really gone, and get to a town of any size.

I left my wife and little girl in Butler to seek a place in Montana my brother owned, but he never advised me if it was suitable for me and my family. I believe he has died and left it to me. I came alone rather than drag my darlings with me on what may be a fruitless journey, but one I had to take.

Then Jackson read the will of Jacob Grimes:

To the person who finds the accompanying note and this will and all my personal leavings, I, Jacob Grimes, leave one half of these possessions if and when he delivers the other half to my wife and child, MaryLouise Grimes, my wife of 7 years, and my daughter Rosemary, 5 years of age, in Butler, Pennsylvania. Signed this unknown day in summer of 1879, by Jacob Grimes, sound and hale for the moment.

Jackson, staring at the little girl’s pretty face in the ink sketch, knowing she would grow to be a beautiful woman, mother and daughter full of good memories of a good time, felt a surge pound through his huge frame. There was something besides the mountains, the night sky and awesome stars, the moon like a good witch on a good night. There was promise. A deed to be done. A promise to be made. A quest to be undertaken.
It boiled over in him.

He patted Hildy on the rump and said, “Girl, we are goin’ on a long, long walk.”

Jackson packed in his saddle bags what he thought was of value in the box, including the will, the last note, the coins and the bag of gold dust, the sketch of Rosemary, and a map of an unknown location. The map contained very little text and showed a mountain range, two rivers meeting, and a few sketched figures completely foreign to Jackson. He assumed Grimes was a decent sketch artist. The Buntline Special was tucked in his waistband, fitting there as if it was made for him.

He made a thorough search of the area for Grimes, or his body, and found nothing. He searched for two solid days, thinking about Grimes’ wife and little girl back in Pennsylvania.

Mountain Jackson, finally setting out on the mission with his mule, had never felt as confident as the day broke, the stars leaped away from his grasp, and the route he took lead downhill, out of the mountain chain.

Four months later, September’s sun still about, leaves at least a week or two before the colors began their appearance, he was near Butler, Pennsylvania. Hildy was worn out, he was tired, and he pitched his place beside a small stream. In the morning, after a sleep only reached after the stars touched him again, he bathed in the stream, cleaned up his general looks, washed meager clothes in the stream and strung them on warm rocks under the rays of the sun. Two passersby laughed at him, and at Hildy standing on the banking looking nothing but lazy.

An hour or so later a sheriff came by and asked him where he was going and gave Jackson directions to the Grimes home, “It’s a bare cabin set back off this stream on the far side of town, which will come at you up that road over there.” He pointed to the north and added, “She’s a nice lady whose husband went west for fortune but she hasn’t heard from him at all since he left. Only reason I came by is a few folks saw you sleeping here and said you looked strange, but I guess you been out there, ain’t you?” He pointed west this time, the hungry look of a man too nestled in one place running across his face.

“I been there a time, Sheriff, working in the mountains, free with the birds and critters spawned there ‘fore I got there. I got news for the lady. Been a hunk of year getting’ this far with it.”

“Ain’t bad, is it?” the sheriff said, “’cause she is a good sort, as I meant.”

“What I got for her in news ain’t bad, Sheriff, but what I don’t know might be.”

“You didn’t see her husband out there?”

“No, but I got word for her that I’ll deliver personal, if you don’t mind me sayin’ so.”

“Not a bit, mister. I was just checking, way some folks are hereabouts. You have a good day.”
He rode off on his black horse with a trot Jackson figured would have made his journey in half the time it took, Hildy being what she was.

It was the little girl who advised him he was at the end of his journey, as she stood in front of the little cabin, which was as plain as a spoke on a wheel. The sketch could have been alive in his hand, he thought, but instead was alive right in front of him; pretty as her picture he had looked at again this morning , dimpled, curly hair, eyes like stars and a smile to match. The smile stretched wider as he smiled back, his own eyes bright as stars, his beard like solid black clouds.

Jackson, alighting from Hildy, said, “I bet your name is Rosemary and my girl here, my mule, her name is Hildy. Is your mother about.”

“Hi Hildy, the little girl said, “my name is Rosemary. My mom’s name is MaryLouise. What’s your name, mister?”

“Real friends, what there are, call me Homer, but I ain’t been called that in 25 years. Please ask your mother to come out and see me.”

“She’s sewing things now. She doesn’t like to be away from it. Gets mad at me sometimes.” The smile was still working for her, but she ran, calling out for her mother. “A big man is here to see you and he’s with his girl, Hildy.”

A tall, thin, obviously overworked woman came out the door of the cabin. She was pleasant looking, had some of Rosemary in her face, and carried a piece of cloth she was working on. Her dress was simple and buttoned to the neck, and was made of strange material. Her eyes were blue-green, her nose was shapely as were her lips, and there was a particular grace in her slightest movements. She made Jackson think of what Grimes must have been like to corral such a woman. He said “lucky” under his breath and then immediately changed his mind, saying “knowing,” not knowing what he meant but having an idea of keenness.

“May I help you, sir?” she said, her voice light, belying the tired look about her person. “I have some food I can spare, but not much. We live thinly here, Rosemary and I, until my husband gets back.” She didn’t say where he was, where he went, or what time he would be back.”

“Ma’am, Mrs. Grimes, my name is Homer Jackson and I have been four months on the road coming here from out there.” He looked over his shoulder and nodded west, “Out there in the mountains.”

“Did you see my husband out there?” The light was in her eyes, and the hope.

“No, Ma’am. But I come acrost what he left behind in a safe place, safe until I come acrost it in a strange fashion. But I think he was in trouble from some men and he put his valuables aside, hid them well, hopin’ somebody like me would find ‘em and get them here to you. I have a note from him, his last will and testament, some coin and gold, and a sketch of your daughter that must have been his best property of all. I found them in a cave in the high mountains. I went lookin’ for him, spent a few days at it, but never come across a sign of him at all. I have no idea what happened to him. But I brought all this stuff back, as he wanted.”

“Oh,” she said, “please do come in and talk with us. Bring what you brought to us. We will have supper together. You are most welcome, Mr. Jackson.”

After tending Hildy, my mule, I’ll be right along, Ma’am. She got me this far and deserves the best I can swarm up for her.”

“We have a few apples we can spare. You are welcome to them.”

They sat and even before they had looked at the things Jackson had brought from her husband, she fed him.

After the meal they sat across the kitchen and he showed them all he had.

He showed her the note first, then the will and the sketch. Her eyes filled with tears as she read the note and the will and looked at the sketch.

“Oh,” she said, “I never saw this sketch. He did have a fine hand. This is beautiful. He caught her full spirit.”

She did not know what to make of the map, and shrugged her shoulders. “I do not understand any of it.”

He put the gold dust in her hands and the coins, all there but a few he had spent on the way. “I can account on all that’s missing, Ma’am. Every penny. Least I could do.”

“Oh, Rosemary, what joy. We do not have to work for all the neighbors like we have. Now we can breathe. Now we can eat proper. Now we can think about heading west to find your father.”

To Jackson she said, “Half of all is yours, Mister Jackson, and if you are willing, and I know you are that brand of man, I’ll pay wages if you can get us to that place in Montana that my husband mentioned.”

“I’ll do that, Ma’am, with you knowin’ we might not ever find him. He was in some serious trouble to go to all the trouble he did about this here gear.” He spread his hand over the top of the table.

Rosemary was looking at the map, staring at it before her whole face bloomed with intelligence.

“I know these. I saw them in daddy’s book.” She was pointing to the strange symbols on the map, the ones that Jackson could not understand.

She retrieved the book from a 3-book shelf in a corner of the kitchen, and showed them to Jackson.

Jackson in turn lit up as he said, “They tell me he found gold, Ma’am, found gold out there in the mountains and these symbols on the map tell me where. These are his clues. I know what he means. Before we get to Montana, Ma’am, we’ll do a little minin’ on our own.”

MaryLouise Grimes hugged Homer Jackson, the kind of hug he had not known since he was a child. It went right through him the way the nightly stars did.

Outside an owl hooted from some high place, a dog barked in the distance not quite the sound of a coyote or wolf, and Hildy brayed awareness of a farther reach working on her as well.

Jackson knew it all.