Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In August of 1753, snow having fallen during the night in the high regions, a mountain man, Leman Decareau, an adventurer once of Anse à la Medée in Newfoundland, kicked up a stone on a high pass in the Tetons, almost losing his footing at the same time. The drop over the edge of the narrow trail was a precipitous one and Decareau let the whole range know his displeasure. He made sure his mules did not find the fault in the trail and was about to toss the stone over the edge, when his fingers felt on the bottom side what he thought to be an inscription. Being a man given somewhat to superstition, attentive to what signs any of the gods might leave for him, in whatever manner or disguise, he turned the flat stone over to check the bottom side.
Decareau did not understand what he saw cut into the stone, but there was a series of symbols, small as coins, figures that seemed to evoke an animal of one kind or another, and smaller formations of what he assumed to be the stuff of language. He had never read an entire book, saw only an occasional newspaper a drummer or wagon train might have lost on their way west of where he was, but he was able to read a bit of French and a similar bit of English. When it came to mountain men, he considered himself a scholar.
On impulse, and afraid of ignoring what might be a god-like sign, Decareau placed the stone in a saddle bag on one of his pack mules, and forgot it for the next three weeks of his journey to a distant town, curious about news of the world, minor treats for the appetite, a few whiskeys carving their way down his long-dry throat, and conversation with, around and about women. His only company had been an Indian squaw, Bright Snow, whose man, Hawk’s Cry, had died in a landslide and Decareau had helped her burn his body in the ritual promised him as a boy. Her gratitude for Decareau’s help in performing the proper ceremony was shown in the months that followed.
When Decareau finally arrived in a place called Crispin Falls, a gathering of buildings snug against a rugged mountain that seemed to have been calved out of two bigger mountains beyond Crispin Falls, he eventually mentioned the stone, but not immediately, to a big man wearing two side arms on his belt and who had declared himself the law in Crispin Falls.
“Where are you from and where are you bound, stranger?” the big man said, leery of the newcomer with hard eyes, a hard chin even with a beard, and a mighty rifle he barely seemed to let free of his hand. “I’m the local law here and we try to cut off any problems as soon as they show themselves. I’m Miles Kirkness. Who are you?”
“I’m a man who minds his own business, who doesn’t have time for those who think he’s a problem on first sight, and who might want to take his rifle away from his hand before he shoves it hard where it hurts most men standing just like you’re standing now. Once we get that settled, I can get engaged in a conversation about world news if there is any, the best whiskey if there is any, and any women that can treat a man like a man and not like an echo lost in the mountains where I have been the last 8 months, and building up a thirst for all the goodness in life, which you apparently don’t handle.”
Kirkness knew that if he made a move for his gun, or for Decareau’s, he’d soon be dead or hurting on the way to being dead. The move was not made, two drinks were toasted, and Kirkness whispered a few secrets to Decareau, and the pair seemed inseparable until the lamps were lit and Decareau moved, the way he’d move if he was on a hunt again, into shadows, only to appear at the dawn flash, asking for breakfast at the hotel restaurant.
One moment from the previous evening had stayed with Decareau, and it dealt with the stone he had found in the mountains, with the unknown message hard on the face of it. Kirkness had replied in the affirmative when Decareau asked, “Are there any elder Indians in the region, one who might be of great importance, esteem, or steeped in history of his tribe, other tribes or the whole area in general?”
Decareau, cunning and wisdom working in him continually, the art of a successful hunter, kept his question wide open as to his reason for asking. There was no sense in giving Kirkness any edge on curiosity, or an opportunity to dig into the query.
“If you want to talk to someone about Indian ways, my friend,” Kirkness said, “you have to go upriver to the Cheyenne camp. One man I know of is as old as the mountain itself. I have heard him speak of the old days when his people came from the land of the ice far to the north, chasing game all the way to this valley, this river, and the mountain that sits here looking down on us.”
His gesture was wide as the land itself. “His name is Two Feathers Blue, almost as old as the mountain or the river that grows from it. He speaks a manner of English and French and, I swear, some Spanish carried to him by another ancestor who came from the great water at the bottom of this new world and wore the helmet of steel.”
Decareau became animated. “Does Two Feathers Blue trade with white men? Does he trap beaver or hunt fox pelt or treat deerskin to become soft as feathers?”
“Oh, man of questions and bright eyes, he is too old for any of that. His people say he has not left the river camp for many years, as many fingers we have who are still whole. Like I said, he is as old as the mountain that will throw a shadow on us before this day is done.”
Three hours later, the journey upriver on horseback an easy trip, Decareau spied the Cheyenne camp on the side of the river, a cluster of teepees sitting about a lodge house with a pelt covering. More than a hundred animals, he guessed, had given their hides for the lodge cover. Smoke rose from a fire outside the entrance and he smelled meat cooking on the fire. A squaw worked about the fire, adding a piece of wood to the small flames, a pot hanging on a heavy pole with rocks piled on its lower end to hold it in place. She looked at him as he entered the village where only the young ran around the teepees chasing each other.
Understanding Indian women, Decareau waved his hand at his nose, smiled broadly, and pointed high overhead … she had the gift of the gods when it came to mealtime. Her nod was acceptance, and she pointed to a log at the side of the fire. He sat on the log after giving her a piece of treated deerskin. The meat, which she shared with him while she sat on the other side of the fire, was tender and tasty.
With a decisive motion, Decareau licked his fingers when he finished the portion of meat, and said, “I am Decareau and wish to speak with Two Feathers Blue, the man with all knowledge in the village of the Cheyenne.” He said his name again, as he pointed to his chest, “Decareau.”
She nodded and looked at the lodge, and then called to a young boy standing near the lodge, saying the name, Two Feathers Blue, in her language. The boy went inside the lodge.
The man with a bent leg and a hard face that limped out the opening in the lodge brought Decareau straight up on his feet, brought him to attention. Despite the bad leg, the limp it forced into play, the man generated respect, antiquity, a precious grasp on things of the past, and Decareau felt all of it as the old Indian came his way, held his hand up in salute.
“Decareau,” he said in plain English, and added, “Bonjour, Monsieur, then said welcome in his own tongue, (va'ôhtama). Bright Snow sent word that you would walk among us someday. The word moves among the people of the Nations, all the Nations. They know Decareau kept the honor for Bright Snow’s brave, Hawk’s Cry. All the Nations know of Decareau and Hawk’s Cry.”
He spoke to the woman at the fire, in the Cheyenne words, “Ve’ho’e Decareau, he'pohtôtse,” (This white man is Decareau. He will smoke with us.) She went into the lodge. More than an hour later, while Two Feathers Blue and Decareau still talked of many things, but not the stone in Decareau’s saddlebag, she came out in ceremonial dress and carried in two hands the long pipe of the elders.
“Decareau is like the eagle in the sky looking for answers,” Two Feathers Blue said. His hand, palm down, swept slowly over the ground as though he was touching all the earth of the village. “Decareau is like the eagle coming here, where all answers move in the air, where all answers were left to grow in the ground by the fathers of the Nations long ago. Two Feathers Blue talks to them when the morning breaks from the night and will find the answer for your search.”
He motioned for the pipe, lit it with a flaming stick from the fire, puffed twice, and handed the pipe to Decareau. “Hawk’s Cry owes Decareau and calls from the other side. He waits word from you. Do you have words for him?”
Decareau was at peace, yet the earth turned under him. “If there is an answer to my search, I ask now, where is it?”
The old Indian, puffing on the pipe, knowing much more than he had shown, said to Decareau, “When the earth shudders, when the ground breaks, the answer will come to you. The earth must open its mouth. Then you will know.”
When he unpacked the mystery stone from his saddlebag, Decareau said, “I found this stone on a trail in the great mountains. I tripped on it and nearly fell into the canyon.”
“The elders from deep in the past said, ‘Before one falls from the top of the mountain, he must know the Earth at his feet.’ Now you will know what was given to you, the Earth at your feet.”
Two Feathers Blue’s hands slid across the stone even before he looked down at it, a near chant coming from him as his fingers found the emblems, the formations, the message inscribed in the stone. He said, “The bear says his den is near. It holds his treasure and no man can take it from him. Only he can give it up. Where you found this stone, where it found you, is near the den of the bear of the north, ‘vóhpenáhkohe,’ and is only for a true believer of the spirits, for the bear of the north, ‘vóhpenáhkohe,’ can shake loose any stone from the mountain. ‘Vóhpenáhkohe’ came over the ice with the early ones and sleeps in the mountain under the snow.”
Decareau, not stunned at all by the revelation, or the promise in it, but his mind whirling in an odd direction, images leaping to his attention, said, “What part does Bright Snow have in this that I do not know? How can her voice reach here ahead of me?”
He was not prepared for the reply coming from Two Feathers Blue.
“Decareau, you do not walk alone in the Nations. Bright Snow and Hawk’s Cry walk with you.” His knowing smile was the first part of a secret being given to Decareau. Then he provided the heart of the secret. “Bright Snow carries your child, the one that she and Hawk’s Cry waited for, the child who has been waiting all this time to come upon the earth. And so, as you can now understand, you do not walk alone in the Nations.”
“That is a surprise,” Decareau said, the joy riding on his face, “but it has been possible since Hawk’s Cry was sent off to the spirits waiting on him. What is not a surprise is the message the stone carries. I believe my future is carried in the words of the stone. If it was left there to be found by me, it must direct me to the riches it promises. I will look for the den of the bear of the north. I will search for his treasure.”
Two Feathers Blue, looking like the sage he was, said in a most solemn voice, “It is the message carried on the stone, Decareau. The riches will come to you in your search, and they will be found under the snow.”
For the first time in their discussions, in all the revelations from the old man, in the continuous smile on the elder’s face, Decareau knew the true meaning of the secret of the stone.