Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Noted Indian hater Jed Cawley, owner of the J-Box-C spread, was the only rancher in the whole of Mildred’s River Valley who had complained about missing cattle … not rustled or stolen one way or another or eaten on the premises … but missing cattle. Three times he had complained to Sheriff Tim Cassidy about “these situations going on around here. Sometimes I take a count and I’m down 40-50 head in a week. There’s not much sign, so you know it’s got to be injuns doing it.”
“I admit,” the sheriff replied, “that injuns are the only ones who can go through a place without leaving sign, them and the ghosts hanging around in the canyons.”
“You don’t believe that, do you? This stuff about ghosts, spirits, shamans near to God?”
“Well, we’ll see,” Cassidy said, as if it was the closing of the conversation. He stood abruptly, reaching for his sombrero.
“Yeh, we will,” Cawley put into the air. The simple words hung as heavy as a threat.
That threat was revealed later in the day, dusk mingling on the horizon with tree lines and ridges, dust rolling on the road into town and across dry grass, when an excited young cowpoke entered Cassidy’s office.
“Sheriff,” said an out-of-breath Brace Crowell, flashing his hands in the air, raising his voice to match his excitement, “I’m telling you there’s cows in that taboo canyon that belong to some of us. Lots of them. I counted 30-40 head and couldn’t see around the whole canyon.”
“You see any brands on them? What are they doing in there? Did you go in there, Brace?”
“Hell no, Sheriff. There’s redskins in there cutting them up, like it’s a butcher shop. I ain’t about to mix in with them less’n I can help it. They look mean as all get-out.”
“You count them injuns like you counted the cows?” Sheriff Cassidy said, a scowl beginning to set on his face.
“I’m not kidding around, Sheriff. This is no joke. “
“No brands you know of. No cattlemen complaining of 30 or 40 head lost, stolen, or plain missing. None of them injuns chase you out of there?”
“Jed Cawley says they’re the Seven Bands of the Lakota Sioux. Says some call them the Tetons and meaner looking than Hell on fire.”
“Think they might be hungry, Brace? Hungry enough to cut up some cattle been grazing on their land? You ever think about them being here so long, these Indians, here before any of us dropped a lasso in place or rode a horse or ran a cow or mustang to corral? Before any of us saddled up and giddy-upped?”
Crowell was nervous all over. “Why you asking me all these questions, Sheriff? I’m telling you what I saw. That’s all.”
“That’s all is right, Brace. It ain’t enough for me to go running and gunning up there with a passel a men to get killed if it’s a fool errand.”
“I’ll go with you, Sheriff. I’d be a part of the posse.”
“Sure you will, all the way to the end, won’t you? So tell me straight out, Brace, who sent you here, and you lie to me once more and I’ll slap you in a cell so fast you won’t get to a dance for a month of Saturday nights. Maybe two or three month’s worth.” He stood up, pointed his finger at Crowell and said, “I can guarantee you that. Who was it?” He jabbed him again. The soft edges of the sheriff’s eyes seemed whittled away by slow frustration and found a new hardness.
But it was just as Sheriff Cassidy figured … Crowell melted under little pressure. “Cawley,” he said, “Jed Cawley,” as if it was a total release. “Said he’d whip me and feed me to Jepson’s hogs if I didn’t tell you just what he said and I already told you that.”
The sheriff leaped in. “I’ll tell you something once, Brace, ‘cause you’re young and got to learn. That’s Seven Cave Canyon. It’s a holy place. It was named by the Seven Bands of the Sioux. I been in there once and won’t ever go back in. You best hear what I’m saying … it ain’t no place for us palefaces. That’s a fact of life best learnt early.”
“What happened in there, Sheriff? You get scared out of there?”
“Brace,” the sheriff said, “don’t be a dung-nosed sappy kid with too much sass. You’re damned right I was scared. I was run off like a lonely doggie looking for his momma. Them Lakota or Blackfoot or Minnecojou or Two Kettles, no matter who’s ever in there from the Nation, ain’t ones to mess with on your best day. I’ve e seen ‘em work. I’ve seen ‘em play. I’ve seen ‘em fight like they ain’t ever scared of dyin’, no matter what it looks like comin’ on ‘em.”
The missing cattle situation came up again in the Long Barrel Saloon that night as Cawley and Crowell stepped up to the bar and Cawley said to the barkeep and his loud aside to all who could hear, “Drinks for the house, Abe. That includes the sheriff over there at his favorite table, him resting at the end of a tough day.”
He tipped his glass to the sheriff. “Won’t you tell us why you’re not going in there trying to get my cows back, cows that were stolen from me?”
Cassidy, somewhat expecting the whole routine, thus started and getting warmer, replied in a soft voice, “I’m not in a rilin’ mood, Cawley. You and your little pigeon there,” and he pointed his empty glass at Crowell already getting a little red in the face, “ain’t told me one mark seen on those cows. You ain’t told me how many of ‘em’s yours, if they are, and how they got there.”
“Old Brace here told me you said you’re afraid to go up in them canyons. Why’s that, Sheriff?”
“Ask the pigeon what I said.”
Cawley leaned on the bar, turned to Crowell and said, “Tell it like he said it, Brace. This whole place’ll be delighted by his words.”
Crowell, already caught in the pincers of a maneuvering man, and embarrassment getting its edge in line, said,” Sheriff told me up in there ain’t no place for us palefaces, ‘cause we ain’t ones to mess with any of them on our best day. They ain’t ever scared of dyin’ like we are, us palefaces.”
His complexion had gone over to the redness all the way. He swallowed his drink in a hurry, asked for another.
The barkeep, at the other end of the bar, whispered to a couple of old cronies, “Cassidy’s the old soldier, you know. Been there and done it all. If I was on a posse, I’d want him leading it. If I was running from it, I’d want him for a saddle pard.”
He went up the line and poured a fresh drink for Crowell and whispered over the top of the bottle, “You owe him, son. Be careful where you end up in all of this.”
Cassidy put his glass on the bar. “Fill it up, Charlie. I’m going to tell the boys what happened up there in Seven Cave Canyon.”
Eyeing both Cawley and Crowell, the sheriff leaned back on the bar and said, “I’m going to tell you a story I ain’t told in 30 years or so.” He sipped on his drink, nodded at the gathering and the barkeep, and began reciting a long memory.
“I was in C Company of the 5th. Mac Weller was the captain and we trailed some injuns into Seven Cave Canyon. They had rustled some beef from a couple of herds on the way, buffalo gone and the tribes hungry. Along with the cattle they got a bunch of horses, and one hostage, a boy of 7 or 8 whose father and mother was killed in one of their raids. The Indians went into the canyon and our scouts, two Cherokee from off Oklahoma Territory, stopped right at the edge of the canyon like there was a gate there. No way we could get them to go in there. They said, “The god of Seven Tribes sat just inside with his thunder stick, ready to kill anyone, especially any Indian who didn’t come to smoke the peace pipe. Some army scouts were already killed in the canyon, and some men chasing cattle, men from ranches, wagon trains, some freighters who had been robbed in the night and had rushed in there.”
“Weller didn’t believe any of it. ‘All mumbo jumbo,’ he said. Some of his troops, been a long time out here in the wars, were skittish, jumping around in the saddle, showing it. Weller got real mad and told me to take a dozen men in there and shake things out for show.”
Cassidy took a deep breath, the memories piling up on him. “I swear there was clouds and darkness and god-awful terrible screams coming from all around us like devils were on the loose and looking to cut our legs off or our heads. And the thunder and lightning kept working over us and down between us, cutting us off from each other, and sounding like cannons and bouncing like cats on a hot griddle and three of the men were killed by lightning, burned alive likely. Dead, like shot against a wall by a firing squad.
He paused again, recalled more. “I never heard anything but thunder, screams from a distance, horses sounding like they wanted to high tail it out of there, and the sound of a drum with a cadence so military-like it scared me. And all the time there was this weird sound like cattle on the move, like a stampede was just starting and coming right at us. We dashed to the walls of the canyon for safety. We never saw one cow in there, then or in the morning. The horses were gone. The injuns were gone. Just me in there. Alone. All my men dead … burned alive by lightning, some of them crushed by cattle that wasn’t there anymore, and no horses. Them gone too.”
Cassidy was into his summary of things, the learning curve bending. “I went in with a dozen men and came out alone. I think they left me alive to carry the message about Seven Cave Canyon, and that’s what I’m telling you now.”
Silence reined in the saloon until Cawley broke it up. “How can you explain all that stuff, Sheriff? I don’t think you can. There’s no reasonable way to look at it. No answers.”
“There is if you believe in ghosts, spirits, men who can move things like they were never moved. That’s the Seven Cave Canyon in there. It’s not haunted, if that’s what you’re thinking … it’s used. It’s part of Indian culture. It’s their land. It’s holy, like I said. I’ll bet the cattle Brace saw in there were taken while they were grazing on Indian land. You’d take ‘em on your land. Don’t tell me you haven’t or wouldn’t. Then I’d call you a name you won’t like. “
Cawley tried to find a way to assert himself. He was grasping at straws. “You don’t like me, do you , Sheriff?”
“Cawley,” the sheriff said, “there’s a whole passel of stuff I don’t like about you. Never did. Never will. And you ran the pigeon kid there in to tell me what you wanted me to hear, like an errand boy.”
Brace Crowell, embarrassed in front of pals and cronies of long standing, spun about as if he was going to face down the sheriff.
Cassidy, stiffly upright, said, “Cawley, you better wrassle that kid still or he’s going dead right in front of you.”
He changed his eye target, stared hard at Crowell. “Kid, you can play games with me and lie to me and poke all kinds of fun at me, but don’t ever draw down on me or make like you’re going to. You’re a quick time from dead, kid. I tried to tell you earlier today it was learning time. It looks like maybe you didn’t believe me.”
Cawley, stepping into the middle of things a little deeper, said, as an aside to the whole saloon, “I’ve got two men posted out there at the head of the canyon, just to make sure no thieving Indians make some of my cows disappear again. Well, all that says is, I’m settling things my way if the law can’t do it. It’s all under control now.”
It wasn’t five minutes later, the saloon occupants trying to settle themselves, enjoy their surroundings, that a rider galloped into town, tied up at the saloon hitch rail, and ran inside, yelling all the way. “Mr. Cawley. Mr. Cawley.” He was alarmed, mystified, totally out of breath.
“What the hell is it, Jackson?” Cawley said, still urging Crowell to be calm.
“Nothing's gone in there we could see all day yesterday and last night, ‘cause me and Ridley took turns.”
“Yeh, so what?” Cawley had his hands on his hips, his eyes reaching around the room for an audience.
“Well, there’s a 100 cows in there right now, Mr. Cawley. Yes, sir, 100 at least. I saw ‘em. Ridley saw ‘em and sent me to tell you. 100 cows.” He wiped his brow, tapped his fist on the bar and said to the barkeep, “Give me two jiggers up to the brim.” He measured with thumb and forefinger, and tossed two fingers up with the other hand.
Sheriff Tim Cassidy lifted his eyebrows, his eyes staring at Cawley for a response.
There was silence in the saloon. It lasted a long time and ended up carrying the deepest of mysteries that still sit, unanswered, in the Canyon of Seven Caves in Mildred’s River Valley.
Now, way off in a dark part of Mildred’s River Valley, only an old man, an old Two Kettle Indian, bent and broken in his body, his mind quick as a puma, can offer any solution, but he’ll never step forward to talk about Seven Cave Canyon.