Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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I woke with a start, sitting fully upright with a gun in my hand before I even really knew I was awake. I look quickly around camp as I slip my boots on, but there are no obvious, or even subtle, signs of what woke me. Horse is calmly eating her breakfast, nibbling away at the grass just outside of camp. If a wild-born mustang isn’t worried that someone is out there and possibly represents a danger, then there’s nothing dangerous out there.
So that means I woke myself up with a dream, or a nagging thought, which is unusual for me. I prefer to wake up slowly, allowing each of my senses to start working and enjoying the first few minutes of the day by simply absorbing what nature presents by way of sound, sight and smell. Throw in the taste of bacon, the smell of coffee and a refreshing cold-water bath, and one has awakened properly. But none of that happened this morning.
While trusting the instincts of Horse, I still take a walk around the area, with circles that grow steadily farther away from camp, and look for anything unusual that might be cause for concern. I don’t find anything, so I head back for breakfast and to break down camp, neither of which takes too long. Since I’m still a little concerned about whatever woke me up, I decide not to have a fire, which means cold, hard biscuits. And, since I moved camp away from the water last night after hearing the gunshot, there is no way to wash up.
I saddle up Horse, and we work our way slowly back to the trail. While I’m always cautious while riding through the territory, I am still a bit on edge about how I woke up this morning, and so I’m what one might call “extra vigilant,” keeping my right hand close to my Remington 1858, hoping not to need it but not yet convinced that I won’t.
I’ve been riding for only a few minutes, no more than a mile or so since I left camp, when I come across tracks made by three unshod horses crossing over the dry arroyo I’m using as a trail. Unshod usually means Indians, and since the tracks look pretty fresh, I probably didn’t miss them by much. It has been my experience that Indians do not share my fondness for new relationships and generally are not looking for stimulating conversation and to make new friends. And since there are three of them and one of me, I figure getting immediately out of the arroyo and out of sight is a pretty good idea.
I certainly have no desire to follow them, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to follow their tracks back and see where they came from. There may be others who follow, or those three may turn around and head back to where they started, most likely their village. So I turn into the scrub brush, away from their tracks, and ride parallel to the arroyo, still heading in the same direction. It’s more work for Horse, so she’s not happy.
I haven’t ridden more than a few hundred yards when a few of my questions are answered, but new ones are raised. Lying on the opposite side of the arroyo, having dragged himself a few feet to cover, is an Indian. I can see that he has been shot, but I don’t know why, by who or if whoever did it is still around. I slip quickly and quietly off of Horse, who always seems to know instinctively when to be still and quiet—and this is one of those times. I slide behind a tree, Winchester repeater in hand, looking for any signs of trouble. I see a single horse, which I assume belongs to the Indian, and I hear him moan, just slightly, so I know he’s still alive. After a few minutes, I feel confident that whoever shot this man left him for dead and took off quickly, not checking to be sure he was dead or even bothering to steal his horse. I’m guessing it was not Indians because they would have done both.
I leave the relative security of the tree and walk slowly toward the Indian, eyes and ears alert for any signs of danger. Indians have a different definition of “fair fight” than most white folks, and it concerns me that this might be a trap. But as I get closer, I can see that he really is wounded, shot through the chest. This must have been the single shot I heard yesterday at dusk. I was right that someone was hunting, but it wasn’t for antelope. I gently turn him over and see that he’s lost a lot of blood, and though he’s still alive, it’s barely. He’s very dark skinned, which means he’s probably Ute, maybe of the Muache tribe who have long lived in this part of the territory. I clean his wound the best I can, but the bullet is lodged in his back and it needs to come out soon. If he is to have any chance of surviving, he’s going to need more help than I can give him.
I’m at least a few days away from the closest town, and I can’t see him surviving a trip that long. Even if he did make it, small-town docs in this part of the territory aren't usually too keen on saving Indians. And I’m still more than a little concerned about the three Indians that passed by earlier. I don’t know if they are from the same tribe as the man I found, but the odds are they were out looking for this man, maybe to save him or maybe to finish him, and either way, I don’t think it will go well for me if they find me with him in his present condition. However, I can’t just leave a wounded man to die.
It seems the best option I have is to load him on his horse, tie him down since he’s in no condition to ride or even sit upright, and back trail the three tracks from this morning. I’m hoping they came from a village that is relatively close, which is likely, because Indians don’t much like riding at night and they crossed that trail pretty early in the morning. I’ve spent a good part of my time on trails avoiding Indians and riding, whether fast or slow, away from any I was aware of. So, the idea of riding intentionally toward an Indian village, where I will have no friends, do not speak the language and have one of theirs, with a gunshot wound, strapped over and tied down to his horse, has me just a bit nervous.
After getting him to drink a little water, I load him up on his own horse and head back to where I had crossed the Indians’ trail. My senses and anxiety are heightened. I’m watching ahead for the hoped-for Ute village, watching my back trail for the three braves from this morning, and wondering all the while who shot this man and why. I haven’t ridden far when one of my questions is answered. I come across the day-old tracks of six riders, all on shod horses—so most likely not Indians—and moving in a direction that would have had them crossing paths with my quiet companion.
I’m sure that if I follow their tracks, I’ll find where they crossed with this Indian. But I’m equally sure he isn’t going to live much longer without help, and I have no real reason to confirm what I am almost certain occurred. So, I keep riding, expecting to run into the Ute village but not at all sure that it’s going to go as I hope. In my experience, trying to guess what an Indian, much less an entire village full, will do is next to impossible. I’ll just have to trust that they’ll know, or learn, that I did not shoot this brave but am trying to save him.
I keep turning around to see how he’s doing and, at the same time, instinctively checking my back trail. We haven’t gone more than a couple of miles when I see what looks like a dust trail, in all likelihood kicked up by horses. My mind immediately goes to the three tracks I saw this morning and how very much I don’t want to get caught on an open trail with their brave strapped across his horse. The brave is young and looks very strong, but he’s lost a lot of blood and I don’t know what internal damage the bullet has done. I figure the only thing worse than getting caught in the open by three warriors while carrying one of theirs injured would be to get caught in the open carrying one of theirs dead. I pick up the pace a little, concerned about just how much this man can take but anxious to find the main village.
The irony, which is not lost on me, is that somehow I have convinced myself that safety might lie in riding into the middle of a Ute village, alone, trailing a severely wounded warrior behind me. Part of me wants to cut him loose, head for the hills and trust that the braves behind me will find him and take care of his wound. But I can’t. In part, because if I do and they ever catch up with me, I’d never be able to convince them it wasn’t me who fired the shot. And in part, because I simply can’t leave a wounded man strapped to a horse and hope he’s found.
So against all my instincts, I continue to back trail the three braves who in all likelihood are now trailing me, moving as quickly toward the unknown as I believe is safe for my wounded companion.
Another look back shows the dust is getting closer and very clearly following the same path I am. I am now certain that it is the three from earlier, and they are moving quickly. Assuming they are Ute, they will all be excellent horsemen and riding quality horses. If it was just Horse and me, we’d be on our way to the hills, moving as quickly as we could and confident that we’d make it safely. But, it’s not just Horse and me. Not today. As for the three behind me, they are unburdened with questions of direction or purpose, and their concern for their fallen companion drives them on with increasing speed, while the same concern slows me down.
I ride on, and after a short while, I’m convinced I can hear the riders behind me approaching. I turn back around, and even though I can’t see them because the trail is so windy, the dust shows they are close and closing in fast. I decide not to pull a gun or pull off the trail, but to keep riding and hope that somehow my good intentions are understood.
I turn away from the back trail and watch myself walk right into the middle of the Ute village. My hands go up immediately, and within seconds, I am surrounded by shouting braves. The women move straight toward the wounded man and just about have him off of the horse when the three braves who were trailing me come racing into the village. It doesn’t even seem like they slow down before all three jump off of their horses, shove the other braves aside and start yanking me off of Horse.
They start hitting me before I am pulled completely off of Horse and do so with a fury and anger that seems uncharacteristic for Ute warriors. One man alone against an entire tribe, I certainly don’t represent an immediate threat, and if I did mean them harm, why would I have brought them the injured brave instead of finishing him off and moving on? However, while I don’t understand why they’ve attacked me, they have, and so my focus needs to be on defending myself and living through the next few minutes. If I do, then maybe I’ll have the time to figure this out and live a little longer.
I hit the ground hard and the pain shooting up my leg reminds me that I have not fully recovered from last month’s gunshot wound. I still have my heavy coat on, which softens some of the blows but, at the same time, restricts my movements. A couple of things become immediately clear. These three do not intend to kill me, at least not quickly. They are not using weapons, which they have apparently tossed away, as they did my guns. However, they aren’t pulling punches either, and with three of them on top of me, all kicking and punching, I’m not sure how long I’m going to last, weapons or not. At least none of the other tribe members have joined in, though they did form a ring that, should I survive this fight, I’m not going to be able to break through. So while I don’t know what will happen if I whip these three, I do have a pretty good idea of what will happen if I don’t, and being beaten to death, especially after trying to help a wounded member of their tribe, just doesn't sit well with me.
I was taught me to fight tough and to fight fair. While winning any fight is always the goal, I was brought up believing that one’s honor was tantamount to winning and that fights should be fought as gentleman. That is still something I believe in—assuming my opponent does as well.
However, after a few barroom fights in London, St. Louis and Denver, I learned that not everyone shares my views on proper fighting etiquette, and I wound up in many a brawl facing men who fought dirty.
The good news is, having been in so many barroom brawls, often facing more than one opponent at a time, I’ve developed some skill, perhaps even expertise, in this type of fighting. Indians rarely fight this way, so while these three are quick and strong, they are not using their numerical advantage as well as they could be. In some ways, it’s even hindering them, as they get in each other’s way—at least enough to give me an opening.
While I would have preferred to fight the way I was taught, my concern for rules is lessened when my life hangs in the balance. I throw the rules out the window and start to fight back, to fight for my life. I’ve been lying on my stomach, which was how I landed when they yanked me off of Horse, and I am tucked into a tight ball, trying to protect my face and my core. But I’ve absorbed just about as many punches as I have patience for, so I flip over on my side, knocking one of the Indians away and freezing the other two, though not for long. Taking advantage of this momentary opportunity, I use both hands at the same time. With my left, I land a very solid punch directly between the legs of one of the two warriors still on top of me. I don’t care how tough you are or how many fights you’ve been in, that will stop a man in his tracks, and it does this one. He screams, rolls off of me and is out of the fight, at least for a bit. The last one is still on my back, swinging away, but having turned on my side, not only are both my arms free, but I now have access to my calf knife, which they mistakenly, but thankfully, have not taken from me.
With my right hand, I pull the knife, and seeing a hand planted in the dirt right in front of me, I drive the knife through the hand and about four inches into the dirt. This brave screams too, but can’t roll away until I pull the knife free, which I do at the same time I stand up and quickly strip off my coat. Two braves are down, one with a permanent injury, perhaps even crippling, and the other still a couple of minutes away from being an effective fighter. The third one, the one I tossed as I initially rolled over, has grabbed a knife from one of those watching and is facing me. I can tell by the way he approaches that he is a skilled knife fighter. I am winded, my leg hurts, they’ve broken a couple of my ribs, and my face feels like it’s been used for a punching bag, which I guess it has. But I’m up, alive, armed and, at least for now, facing a single fighter. The ring has tightened, but none of the others appear to be ready to join the fight, for reasons I don’t understand, but most definitely appreciate.
The brave and I circle each other warily, as much to catch our breath as to take each other’s measure. He looks to be about my age, but maybe four to five inches shorter and at least thirty pounds lighter. He has long, black hair, black eyes and deep, long scars on his chest and arms that let me know this isn’t his first fight. Since knife fights are almost always to the death, the scars also let me know he’s very good at this. He has the luxury of focusing exclusively on me, while I still feel it’s in my best interests to keep an eye on the two who are down as well as the one in front of me. I guess the whole tribe could rush me, but if they do, there’s not much I can do about it, so I simply don’t think about it.
Unlike just a few minutes ago, this brave is now showing patience and seems under complete control, making this a far more dangerous situation. I stand in the center of the ring, turning as he circles me. With each circle that he makes, he edges a few inches closer, clearly working his way to a position where he can reach me but, at the same time, trying to avoid my longer arms—and knife. Still short of the line I have in my mind of where he will try to engage, he surprises me by shifting the knife from his right hand to his left and lunging forward. I step away quickly, but not so quickly that he doesn’t nick my right rib cage and draw blood. This excites the crowd, and I can feel his energy and confidence grow. He believes he has taken my measure, and I can see in his eyes he has no doubt that he can—and will—kill me.
The other two braves, having recovered enough to want back in and no doubt energized by anger, the blood and the crowd, start to step back into the fight. They are waved off by the brave, who now wants the honor of killing me himself. While they don't seem happy, clearly the knife fighter is in charge, and the two injured braves melt into the ring with the others.
I’m pretty beat up from the fight and am losing blood from the cut, and he seems to be unscathed. However, I do have the advantage of size and strength, plus I’m desperate to live. I decide to trust that the fight is now one on one and focus all of my attention on the man across from me. He switches the knife back to his right hand, and we begin circling again.
This time, his feet give away his intention to attack, and I’m able to fend off his effort with my free hand and slash his left forearm deeply with the other. Some of the confidence leaves his face, but none of the determination or courage. I am now certain that he is committed to only one of us living much longer. I drop low and lunge forward, which he is able to sidestep and avoid—but with instinct, not as a result of training or practice. Thinking back to when the three of them were attacking me and considering his move now, I realize this brave is not familiar with wrestling and close-in fighting. He is used to his opponents moving back or to the side to avoid thrusts, which is what he did.
I move just a little closer to him and purposely leave a small opening for him to attack. As expected he does. Completely unexpected by him, instead of moving to the back or side, I drive forward, grab his knife arm with my free hand and flip him over my hip—and he lands hard in the dirt. I move quickly for a big man, and though he has turned over on his back, I’m on top of him before he can get back up. My knee pins his knife hand, and with my weight advantage, there is very little he can do. I bring my knife to his throat and hold it there. I look around at the now silent crowd of people, none of whom are moving forward to assist him or stop me.
Having established that I could easily kill him, but having no desire to, I wrench the knife from his hand, toss it away and slowly stand up. He stays on the ground, staring at me, as I look around. The ring is empty except for the brave, Horse and me. I keep my knife in my hand and walk toward Horse, unsure of what is going to happen next but thinking I’d rather be on Horse than not. Maybe we can break through the ring and escape before being shot. Not something I would bet on, but my options seem limited.
I’m about halfway to Horse when I sense movement behind me. I turn and see that the brave is up, has his knife, which is raised above his head, and is charging me, all semblance of patience gone, his eyes filled with hatred. Instinct takes over, and using my arm length, height and weight to its full advantage, I meet his charge with a deep thrust into his midsection. He doesn’t die immediately, but he will soon and it will be painful.
I pull the knife out of his gut and let him fall to the ground. There’s no time to get on Horse, so I step back quickly to the center of the ring. The two injured braves, plus a new third one, have grabbed their weapons and are advancing toward me. I crouch low and prepare for the attack, wondering how much more I can take before exhaustion, injuries or the sheer number of opponents overwhelms me.
The three of them close in, and the newest brave starts to charge when, from behind me, I hear a single word in what can only be called a command voice.
The braves stop cold, as if they’d been struck, and all three of them, as well as everyone in the crowd, are now looking past and behind me. I turn and see a beautiful young woman, standing alone and staring at the three braves. After a moment they melt back into the crowd, and I am left in the ring, alone except for this woman—who for some reason, unknown to me, has stopped the attack.
She walks up to me, without fear, and in perfect English asks me for my knife. I hesitate, hating to give up my only weapon, still unsure that I won’t need it—and soon. However, my leg hurts quite a bit, the cut on my ribs is still bleeding, I’m exhausted from the fight so far, and it appears there are about thirty braves surrounding me, so the odds of me surviving round two seem fairly slim. Plus, she seems to want to save me, and I guess I figure that if she could stop the fight that easily, she could probably get it going again without much trouble. Reluctantly, I hand her my knife.
She turns, speaking her native language to two young boys, who quickly look at me and then move toward Horse. I take a step toward Horse, and she gently, but firmly, puts her hand on my arm and, with a look, lets me know Horse will be OK and asks me to follow her.
Trusting her again, I do. The crowd, which had silently closed the circle up behind her when she entered, parts just as quickly and quietly as I pick up my coat and follow her out of the ring. She walks to a large tipi at the center of the village and holds the flap open for me, and I walk in. She speaks a few words, which I don’t understand, to a young woman who quickly walks away. She then enters the tipi alone and, switching easily back to English, asks me to sit. She sits across from me, and moments later the young woman is back and silently tends to my wound. Neither of us speaks as she works. When the young woman leaves, the knife wound has already started feeling better, but right now my injury appears to be the least of my problems.
I offer her my name, and she responds by telling me her name is Chipeta. I then ask, “Who is the warrior I saved?”
“His name is Severo, and he is from the Weeminuche tribe. We do not yet know if he will live or die, nor do we know if you shot him or tried to save him.”
“Who was the brave I killed in the knife fight?”
“That was Coniachi. He was my brother.”
I begin to regret giving up my knife, but when I glance at it resting on her lap, she follows my eyes, looks up at me and simply says, “Don’t.”
It is then that I first notice the shadows of six braves surrounding the tipi.
“Am I prisoner or a guest?”
“Until we determine whether or not you shot Severo, you are both,” she answers.
“How will that be determined?” I ask, with more than idle curiosity about the Ute system of justice.
“If he lives to tell us that you saved, rather than shot, him, you will be an honored guest of the Muache tribe.”
“And if he dies?”
“You will be a prisoner, but only for a short while, as you will be tortured and killed.”
There have been times when my life has hung in the balance—a battle that wasn’t going well, a fight where I was outnumbered and losing meant death, and sometimes when surviving an injury was not a given. But my life has never been so closely tied to another whose life also hangs in the balance. For a moment, I question why I tried to save Severo, knowing full well this might have been the outcome. But it is a fleeting thought, and I know I could never leave a man to die alone as Severo surely would have.
“Why would I have been carrying Severo behind me if I had wanted him dead? I could have finished him off or simply left him to die in the creek bed where I found him. And you saw when I killed Coniachi that I offered him his life and he refused to accept it, leaving me no choice other than to kill him.”
“You may be right. However, every Muache and Weeminuche warrior you have come in contact with is dead, dying or injured, so you can see why the tribal leaders might have doubts about your motives. I hope that your story is true, as you seem like a good man, and I hope Severo lives long enough to tell us what happened, so that our judgment is fair.”
I am unarmed, surrounded by six presumably angry warriors who so far have been held at bay by the single command of Chipeta. Indians do not react the same as whites to hostages, so even if I were to take the knife from Chipeta and hold her hostage, she would expect the warriors to do everything necessary to stop me from leaving, including killing her if need be. And they would. So, I resign myself to my fate, at least for now. I turn my attention back to Chipeta, who seems to be in no hurry to leave the tipi.
She is young, beautiful, strong and confident. She is maybe a little over five feet tall, and she can’t weigh more than 100 pounds. Her hair, like almost all the Muache’s, is black, and her eyes are a deep, rich brown. She has the power to save my life, or at least delay my death, with a single command. And she has the confidence to sit alone with me in the tipi and announce that my life hangs in the balance, tied to another man as he struggles for his own life.
Knowing what lies ahead for me if Severo dies and not wanting to think about the different ways these warriors will exact their revenge—torturing me, but extending my life as long as possible before I die an extremely painful death—I turn my attention back to Chipeta.
“How is it you can speak English so well?”
“Five years ago, in 1863, the Ute tribes fought alongside the soldiers of your country against our common enemy, the Navajo. There were many great battles, for the Navajo are fierce fighters. But so are the Utes, and with the help and weapons of your people, we won. I was fourteen years old at the time. My father, Chief Dientecito, took me with him to meet the white men. Whites fight differently than we do, and my father wanted me and my two brothers to learn. My brothers, who were older than me, joined my father in the battles. As a girl, I was left behind—the only girl and the only Indian who did not fight. Your leaders stay back and watch the battles, after they have been planned. In our tribe, and with all Indians I think, our leaders are out front, fighting alongside the warriors, living and dying as the Gods and the fates dictate.”
She is right. Both American and British generals will do the planning and then send their men into battle, but I have never heard of a time when an Indian chief, after planning an attack, was not a part of the actual fight.
“The war lasted for months, and since I spent so much time with the whites, I quickly learned their language. After a while, it was easier for your generals and our leaders to use me to interpret, so I was at every meeting, learning the language but also the fighting ways of the whites, which are so different than ours, than any Indians’. When the war ended, those of us who survived came back. My father and Coniachi were among the survivors, but my younger brother, Amparia, died in the last great battle with the Navajo. He fought valiantly and brought much honor to himself and our family. Since then, I have been an interpreter for our people whenever we need to speak with a white man.”
We sat in silence for a moment, which seemed comfortable for both of us, before I said, “That explains why you are sitting here with me. But it does not explain why you saved me.”
“I watched you bring Severo in, and it seemed to me that if you had wanted him dead, he already would have been. I then watched as you fought my brother and saw that you did offer him his life. Coniachi had always been a very proud warrior, and he could not have lived with the shame of you giving him his life, which is why he attacked again. He died as he would have wanted to.”
I hadn’t noticed how late in the afternoon it had become, nor how hungry I was, until the same young woman who worked on my wound came back with dinner for both of us. Finding myself using Chipeta as an interpreter, I ask about Horse and am told she is fine. She has been rubbed down, watered and fed and is picketed with the other horses. I don’t think she’ll like being picketed, but if Severo doesn’t live long enough to save me, she’s going to have to get used to it, because while the Indians won’t hesitate to kill me, they will certainly recognize Horse for the great horse she is and keep her.
The main part of the meal is mule steaks. Indians generally prefer mule to any other meat, but since the Utes don’t raise mules, I don’t ask where it came from and instead say a silent prayer for the mules’ previous owners. As we eat, I try to learn more about the Muache. I figure it will help me in the future, if I have one, and pass the time pleasantly if I don’t.
“And why is Severo here? You are Muache, but you said that he is Weeminuche.”
“He is. Both are Ute tribes, and we often spend time together. The Weeminuche live in the Abajo Mountains, north of here. Our tribes fought together in the Navajo wars, and I met Severo then. He is three years older than me. His father, Ignacio, is chief of the Weeminuche tribe.”
“And why was he coming to visit?”
“Last year, Chief Nuch, known as Black Hawk by the whites, signed a peace treaty with Brigham Young and the Mormons, giving away much of the northern Ute lands and putting many of our people on a reservation. Chief Nuch is a Timpanogus Ute, and they live north even of the Weeminuche’s, but the treaty impacts all of us and not everyone agrees that it should have been signed, including my father and Chief Ignacio.”
“So, Severo was coming to talk to your father about what the Muache and the Weeminuche people are going to do?”
“Yes. Your President Johnson wants us to also sign a treaty giving up our lands and our way of life. We have seen many of these treaties signed, both among the Utes and other tribes, and they do not seem to ever go well for the Indians. The choice is between signing them or fighting and, sometimes, both. The elders among us can see that we cannot win the wars. There are too many whites and their weapons are too great. But many of the young warriors are not ready to spend the rest of their lives living on unfamiliar lands with unfamiliar ways, and so they want to continue to fight.”
“And where do Chief Ignacio and Severo stand on this issue?”
“We do not know, but hoped to find out when Severo arrived. The young warriors hope that Severo will fight, joining them and others in an effort to stop the inevitable. Many of the elders, including my father, hope that Chief Ignacio, like they have, will have seen enough Ute blood spilled and find a way to make peace with the whites.”
“And what are your thoughts?” I ask.
“Like many of our tribe, I am torn. I’d hate to see any more of our people die, which they will if we keep fighting. But, I’d hate to see our way of life, the only way we have ever known, die either. It is not easy for any of us. I hope to talk to Severo about this. Though he is young, he is wise, and if he lives, he will one day become a great leader of our people. That is why so many, even among the Muache, were so upset about what happened. He was supposed to arrive yesterday, and when he did not show up by this morning, my brother and the others went to look for him. They had grown close during the Navajo wars. When they came back to the village and saw Severo shot and strapped to a white man’s horse, they lost their tempers.”
Sensing there is more to her feelings about Severo then she shared, I ask, “Do you know Severo well?”
“If he lives, we are to be married this year.”
I wake up and reach for my Remington 1858, as I do nearly every day, and it’s only when it isn’t there that I remember why it isn’t and where I am.
I stay lying down and work my way through my normal morning routine, checking my senses and my body, injuries first. My leg feels OK, though I’ll know more when I walk on it, and my ribs are sore from the cut, but don’t seem too bad. I’d like to find out what the young woman rubbed on them yesterday, because it seems to have helped.
The sounds and smells of the Muache village are very different than I am used to. For the past couple of years, I have either woken up alone on the trail or in a town in a bed. This is my first time waking up in an Indian village. The smells hit me before the sounds did. I’m sure both were there yesterday, but I realize now I hadn’t noticed them at all, having been focused first on surviving and then on my conversation with Chipeta.
A dog can smell the difference between an Indian and a white. An Indian dog will growl at the approach of a white man, and a white man’s dog will growl if an Indian approaches. While I have yet to acquire that skill on a one-on-one basis, I can certainly tell the difference here at the village. There are quite a few dogs, more than you might find in a western town, so that is different. There are plenty of hides hung around the village, and they certainly carry a distinct odor, as do the horses. In town, horses are usually in a livery, and when at home, in a barn. Here, because Indians place such a high value on horses and are constantly concerned about raids, the horses are kept close. All of this leads to a surprisingly pleasant, rich, musky odor, which, along with dietary differences, would help explain why Indians smell differently than a white man.
The sounds are different as well. When alone on the trail, the quieter I am the better. My experience with Indians, before yesterday, whether tracking them or being tracked, is that they are ghost silent. Here, in the village, everyone is concentrated in a relatively small area, so the sounds are concentrated as well. You add in women and children, and a relative sense of security as they do not expect their main village to be attacked, and there is a cacophony of sound as dawn gives way to the day and the village readies itself for whatever the new day holds.
I think again about my conversation yesterday with Chipeta. We talked into the evening, and under almost any other circumstances, I would have been fascinated by the conversation and happy to continue it, but this was not one of those circumstances. For her, she was still dealing with the fact that I had killed her brother—however justified—and that her fiancé’s life hangs in the balance. And while I know I had tried to save Severo, she did not and, in fact, still doesn’t.
My attention has grown increasingly focused on whether I am going to be treated as a hero, or slowly tortured to death. On the trail, a man gets used to the idea that any day might be his last, but I am used to being able to act, or at least react, and here, there seems to be nothing I can do but wait to hear if Severo will live or die.
The growing sunlight shadows the six braves guarding me. I don’t know if they are the same ones that were there when I fell asleep, but their presence means I am still closer to being a prisoner than a guest and no closer to escaping. On the other hand, I’m not being tortured, so I figure Severo has survived the night, which allowed me to do the same.
I get up and slip my boots on, wishing I had my moccasins, but they, along with the rest of my gear, are being held somewhere in the village. I hope that if I survive this, I get everything back, that it hasn’t already been split up as the spoils of victory.
I would very much like a bath, but I’m guessing in this delicate balance I’m living in between prisoner and guest, I shouldn’t look forward to a tub filled with soapy warm water. There is still a bowl of water from last night, so I splash my face, which is the best I can do for now, and begin to think about what today might hold and if there is anything I can do but wait.
I hear a voice from outside the tipi say what I can only imagine is Muache for “Good morning” or “Can I come in?” So I walk over and open the flap. It is the same young woman from yesterday, this time with a plate of food. She enters, sets the food down and indicates I should take off my shirt. I do, and she starts working on my cut, rubbing the same lotion on it she did yesterday. It is immediately soothing, and I wish I could ask her what it is, but she finishes quickly and, with a quick nod, turns and lets herself out.
I am just finishing eating when Chipeta asks if she can enter. I set the plate aside, stand and welcome her in.
“Did you sleep well?” she asks.
“As well as a man can, not knowing if the night is his last one or not. Is there any news about Severo?”
“Since you are still alive, you know he is too. I stayed with him all night and he slept well, which is a good sign, but he has yet to awaken.”
“And do I stay here until we know if he lives or dies?”
“You are free to wander the village, as long as I am with you, and of course, the guards.”
“While that doesn’t sound ‘free,’ it is better than being cooped up in here. Let’s take a walk.”
As we walk, and before I can ask her anything about herself, Severo or her tribe, she is asking about my life. I realize what a strong woman Chipeta is. She has lost her brother and her fiancé’s life hangs in the balance, but she has the manners and grace of any lady I’ve ever met and is politely focused on me.
We haven’t been out more than a few minutes before a young brave comes running up to Chipeta and says something that I don’t understand but is clearly important. Chipeta looks at me with sad, but hopeful, eyes and tells me what the brave has said.
“Severo is restless and it is thought he will wake soon. We have been asked to come now and be there when he does.”
I stop for a moment and steel myself for what might come. I look around quickly, instinctively hoping for a chance to escape, but as if reading my mind, the six braves close in around me, leaving no opportunity. Chipeta, who hasn’t moved, looks up at me.
“I hope the news is good and Severo lives. I am to be married to him and that is good for both of our tribes. But I also have come to believe you are a good man and telling the truth about what happened on the trail. I have done what I can to keep you alive, but it is no longer for me to decide.”
As we walk toward where Severo is sleeping, my mind races. My foremost thoughts are of what life could, should, be, and how I want nothing more, and have never wanted anything more, than to live long enough to have my dreams come true. At the same time, knowing what awaits me if Severo dies, or lives but does not remember that I saved, rather than shot, him, I steel myself and prepare to die well.
We walk into Severo’s crowded tipi. The six guards take up their now familiar positions outside. I see a man I assume is Chief Dientecito and another, whom I assume is the tribe’s medicine man, working on Severo. He is assisted by the same young woman who has been attending to me and I’m guessing it’s his daughter. There are others I don’t recognize, but my focus is now on Severo, who, surprisingly, is sitting up.
He looks at me for a long moment, then at Chipeta and asks her a question, which I don’t understand. She looks at me, then back at Severo and answers. He now stares at me for what seems like an instant, or an hour, looks back at Chipeta and Chief Dientecito, turns back to me and says.
“What did he say?” I ask Chipeta, knowing his answer determines whether I live or die.
Chipeta looks at me, the sadness in her eyes gone.
It is all I can do to keep my knees from buckling from relief. I think they might have also buckled if this hadn’t gone well, but it certainly wouldn’t have been from relief. I’m not sure what is next.
Severo says something else and everyone, except for Chipeta, leaves the tipi, so now it is just the three of us.
“Please sit. Severo would like to talk to you.”
“Please ask him how he is feeling.”
They exchange a few words, and she tells me he is hurting, but will recover. She also tells me that he doesn’t remember seeing me or even knowing how he got back to the village, but that the young woman who worked on my ribs told him about what I said had happened and what had taken place since I rode into the village. He knew then I could not be the same man who shot him and so granted me my life.
I thank him and we talk for a little bit, using Chipeta for words when gestures won’t do. We are both warriors with the same disdain for cowards, and when he has sufficiently recovered, he looks forward to hunting the man, or men, who shot him. It is easy to see he is strong and determined, and it will not be long before he is back on the trail. But the injury is serious and he needs his rest, so Chipeta, ignoring our wishes to keep speaking, says goodbye to Severo and starts to walk me out of the tipi.
As we open the flap, I notice the guards are gone. I can’t help but be further relieved. We are just about out when Severo points at me, looks at Chipeta and says,
As we leave, Chief Dientecito and the medicine man are waiting outside. The medicine man goes right in, but the Chief stays and speaks briefly to Chipeta. He then looks at me and says what is quickly becoming my favorite Muache word.
He lets himself into the tipi, and I am left alone with Chipeta.
“Chief Dientecito said you are now a friend of both the Muache and Weeminuche tribes. You have only to speak his name to any in our tribes and will be considered a friend by all. He said you are also free to leave and will find all of your belongings as you left them and your horse well taken care of.”
“Please thank your Chief for me. It will be good to have the Muache and Weeminuche as friends. Please tell him that I am friend to both tribes as well and hope our paths cross again.”
Wondering what Severo said as we left the tipi, I ask Chipeta.
“He said that among our people, you are to be known as Tuku, which means cougar in our tongue. It is a great honor to be given a Ute name, and Tuku is a strong one.”
I ask her to thank Severo for the honor but, being anxious to get back on the trail, also ask if it is OK if I leave now. She seems surprised, but agrees and leads me to Horse. A quick check shows my rig, including my weapons, is in order, and Horse certainly looks well taken care of.
I thank Chipeta for saving my life, and she thanks me for saving Severo’s. I’m still not completely confident that some young brave isn’t going to try and make his mark by challenging the white man, but I saddle up and, without looking back, ride out of the Muache village and back toward the creek bed.
~~~~~ The End ~~~~~