Western Short Story
Preston “Prez” Sharpe was a regular, industrious, dreamy kind of a miner who had been looking for a “find” or “the mother lode,” for a good dozen years. Never deterred from whaling away with pick and shovel at the foot of a mountain, or in the confines of any passageway in the heart of rock, he used, when he could, a bit of dynamite. Life could be easier if he kept his head down at those blasts, and attentive at all other times. Attention, he would say, paid the dues for other times, lapses one comes upon.
Sharpe was 37 years old, bright-eyed, quick at decisions that counted, especially in life-or-death situations that dotted the entire western movement in the early of the 19th century. He was also a little slope-shouldered from his efforts, but those shoulders also had girth and appeared fearsome to an opponent in a friendly “wrassling” match. Those matches came about in the mountains of Wyoming and Utah where he was trying to wrest his dream from the good Earth. The lonely life he lived became an accepted existence to him and his kind and was re-activated by rare entries into a town or settlement for supplies and “re-nourishment” as they referred to it, or “dipping down from the mountains.”
While trying to “intrude” into a vast range in Wyoming by blasting away a shear slice of the mountain chipped off by an avalanche, he exposed a route through the heart of a mountain that an ancient Indian tribe must have spent generations working at. Indian signs were everywhere in that deeply-hidden and distorted passage, all of them leading him to believe he was on the path to a shrine or totem of those ancient folk. All of this sparked from talks with old Indians he had met on the way wherever, some of them speaking of a lost place they called Manatowa’s Tipi in the Sky.
For sure, the old Indian route (he grinned when he called it his tribal passage) changed the life of Prez Sharpe, but not in the way one might think.
When he finished his internal climb and came out on top of a partly green mesa, one blessed with a water catch or mountain tarn, it started him thinking about the future. There was growth here in a variety of settings, and every available space, cranny and furrow, had plants of one sort or another growing in it. He tried to figure out that growth pattern. This was a place he could live in if he made some changes and some additions. To some men it would look impossible, but Sharpe had a constitution second to none. He was intuitive as well as inventive and saw new ways of getting hard tasks chipped down to easier tasks.
After musing for a while, about the niched plant life on the mesa, he recalled a story his father told him about some of his homeland’s island people. They were sea-faring, and lived on a rocky chunk of land surrounded by the sea, with little plant life on the island. Those island people made their living off the sea, but many years earlier were advised by a smart leader to bring back to the island, anytime they left for the mainland, all the rich bottom land, fertile loam, or top soil they could haul. That soil, fed properly, would one day pay them great dividends. What they carried back was lodged in niches and cracks and furrows and other natural rocky confines on the island in which plant life could grow and prosper, and spread their own seed. And as such, in some spots, the odd green lines ran about the terrain like the enriched strata they were, disjointed in a sense but continuous.
He easily imagined the Indians, for years atop years or for generations, hauling rich prairie loam up the passage to foster growth on the mesa in baskets, fur bags, and odd earth containers. He called the place Sharpe’s Mountain, and when he built his home he planned to call it Sharpe’s Mountain Inn.
But even as Sharpe looked out over the terrain of the range and the adjacent grassland running for miles, he continually saw, at a distance, smoke, movement and road dust as the living carried on their ways. Common sense told him it would pay to set up obstacles to stop or hinder intrusion by those he would not welcome on the mesa, supposing the passageway would be discovered in time. Blockades, rigged rock slides, or any kind of deterrent, would be needed. So, as needed and designed, down in the passage he set up a series of serious traps and pitfalls to protect the route to his home.
Sharpe, in two years of labor, working by himself, built a small home, planted a garden, built a flume to carry water that he lifted by bucket to start its way to the garden when needed. At times he had a decent rain; at times the rain stayed beyond the mountain range, like it was calling all the shots on survival.
On one of his rare “dipping down days,” which were rare and too far apart for his good nature, he’d readily admit, he met a woman stranded out on the prairie. He came upon her in a thick patch of grass, hugging the ground, crying lightly. She had been a ways off from her wagon, picking some wild flowers, when Indians attacked their wagon train, her husband killed, and another person gone off with her wagon after the attack while she still hid out on the grass. She hadn’t moved for hours, frightened for her life, and kept still in the silence that followed after the attack and the departure of the wagons. She knew she was lucky to be alive.
As dusk came on, thirst came piling on her, she heard hoof beats coming off the main trail, then a horse nicker, a human sneeze follow the horse’s nicker, and a deep voice say, “God bless.”
Sarah Foster Miles, 32, a widow for less than a day, looking as if she had spent the day in a barrel, leaped up and also said, “God bless you.”
The horseman almost fell off his horse.
Sharpe, stunned as much as Sarah Miles, took one look at her and handed her his canteen, and then unslung a blanket from his saddle back and draped it over her.
“Thank you. God bless you,” Sarah said again, and was cautioned by Sharpe to swallow small sips of water and slowly.
“How long you been out here?” he said as he handed her a chunk of biscuit and a piece of meat from his store-bought meal a few hours earlier on his trip.
“Since early this morning when Indians attacked us and killed my husband. I saw it all from this place in the grass. I was only out here looking for a few flowers.” Her voice dropped low, as if accepting all blame for her situation. She shivered and then brushed her hair back out of her face and he saw a very pretty woman who’d have a hard time smiling for a while. “Someone took our wagon when they all left. They must think I’m dead.”
“No one come looking for you?”
“Not a soul, but I can’t blame them for that. They carried off three dead people that I saw, including my husband. They weren’t going to spend any time out here burying them. Can’t blame them for that either.”
“Oh, we’ll come back someday and find his grave. It’ll be out here somewhere, near the town I suppose. That’d be Marshall Creek, a Wyoming settlement, about 15 or 20 miles down the road.”
“Where are we going?” she said, as he hoisted her onto his saddle.
“I’m going home,” up there he nodded at the mountains, “and I suspect it’ll have to be your home too until we make some decisions later on. You’ll be safe there, I’m pretty sure. I’ve been there more than two years now, and no problems.”
“What is this place?” Sarah Miles said when they were about at the mid-point of the passage. “Who made all those signs and paintings on the walls?” She was struck with amazement and Sharpe noticed how her face had loosened up … not that she was smiling yet.
She leveled a stare at him. “Did Indians do all this?” Perhaps she was intimating he had carried on some of the wall decorations in his own hand.
Sharpe, liking her honesty and curiosity, replied, “Not the ones who attacked your wagon, Ma’am. Not them, but them from way way back in another time. I fully suspect that they spent a hundred years making this passage. Maybe a lot longer than that.”
Shaking her head, still caught up in wonder, her eyes filling with all she saw, she said, “Where’s it go to?”
“To Heaven, Ma’am,” Sharpe said, nodding his head. “All the way to Heaven.”
Sarah Miles felt some kind of truth emanate from his words.
And she witnessed, at least for a flash when they exited the passage at the edge of the mesa, a piece of Heaven. “Heaven, indeed, “she said aloud. “Heaven, indeed.”
The edge of a smile began to break loose on her lips, seep from her eyes like an invisible tear of pleasure.
Sharpe’s dreams were already underway.
The pair worked hard and long for three months or more, Sharpe losing the count some days when he forgot to put a notch in a timber railing on the small porch. But he showed her all the traps and deterrents he had rigged in the passageway, and showed her how to start them into appropriate action.
Slowly, Sharpe realized, she was coming back to her lovely self, becoming the woman that William Miles fell in love with and brought her west. Once he held an avaricious thought: “Brought her to me,” he heard in his ears. With a shake of his head he expunged that thought, but continued to look at her and admire the woman she had become or was returning to.
He knew he had fallen in love with her.
During all that time Sarah Miles, widow, slept by herself in a corner cot. Sharpe, at her wish on one of the first days, had erected a wall cot in the corner near the fireplace in the back wall.
In the middle of one night, a storm raging in the mountains, lightning blasting away in the skies and off the peaks, Sarah Miles slipped into Sharpe’s bed, nestled up next to him, and said, “I won’t come back again until we find William’s grave, or at least try to find it.”
Sharpe, the miner, now a mountain man, felt a warmth he had never known.
Two mornings later, darkness yet in place, the sun still a threat behind some mountain peaks, they led their horses down into the passage, both Sharpe and Sarah carrying a torch once they were inside the passage. He showed her again the traps that they might have to use someday, and where he had stashed a collection of unused torches in crevices along the way. The smell of tree sap accompanied them down through the passage.
Still in semi-darkness, they emerged from the passageway in a canyon and were out on the grass by still another leg of the route he had last used more than a year before. In a matter of hours they were in Marshall Creek searching for information about the wagon train.
The clerk at the general store said, “I remember them coming in here, but they must have buried their dead out there before they got here. I never heard of any graves being found since then. They seemed to light out of here at first chance along with another wagon train. I don’t know any more than that. I only been here a couple of months myself, from Indiana, and I don’t know how long I’ll be staying even though this town is still growing.” As an afterthought he said, “Go down and see the sheriff. I know he talked to some of them right out there in the street.”
Sarah and Sharpe were heading down the single street of Marshall Creek when a woman yelled out, “Is that you, Sarah Miles? Is that you, Sarah? My God, I thought you were dead.”
The woman, Margaret Witham, came running from the front of a small blacksmith shop, the curl of black smoke and the smell of burning coals coming along with her. She wore a long-sweeping blue-gray dress and appeared to be about 40 years of age with premature gray hair tied tightly on her head. Her face and her eyes were bright with happiness and delight as she embraced Sarah Miles.
“Sarah. Sarah. Sarah,” she said. “I’m so glad to see you alive. Oh, my, yes. And I’m so sorry about what happened to William.” The two women continued to hug each other.
Then Sarah said, “Margaret, do you know where William is buried?”
“Oh, yes,” Margaret said. “Phil and I stayed here and he opened this place.” She pointed to the blacksmith shop. “We can take you out there. We know right where it is. We never marked it the way things are sometimes, how some animals and some people dig things up. But we prayed over him on a couple of visits out there, and the other two. It’s not far off the road, near a big bend and near a couple of trees that crossed each other growing tight together.”
“I know where that place is,” Sharpe said, his eyes fully alive, bright as day.
“And I know where Heaven is, at Sharpe’s Mountain Inn,” Sarah Miles said with a grin that told Margaret Witham a whole story without a lot of words.