Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Up at dawn after a shave and hot mineral bath the previous evening and with a good boarding house breakfast under my belt, I danced Blackjack south out of Warm Springs toward the Sierra Madre Mountains and Battle Pass, an old trail over the Divide between the Green River and Platte River drainages overlooking Battle Lake.
[It was at Battle Lake where Major Thornburgh, on a fishing trip with Thomas Edison’s party to view the solar eclipse of ‘79, received news of unrest at the White River Agency and orders from General Crook to proceed immediately to agent Meeker’s support. Northwest from Warm Springs and southwest of Rawlins is Bridger’s Pass, a geological break in the Continental Divide along the Overland Trail much better suited to wagon travel and used by immigrants going further West to Salt Lake City and beyond.]
Ascending to the divide about mid-morning, I could hear the shrill call of a wapiti bull in the distance heralding the close of the rut, which had begun with the cow elk estrus about a month earlier. Soon the mule deer bucks would succumb to their version of this annual wont, as their necks nearly double in size and the prudent exercise of caution is literally cast to the winds by the irresistible scent of a doe in season.
The Utes I encountered a few days earlier, did well to hunt deer when they were fat and fit after a summer of mountain feeding in preparation for winter and before the wild musk tainted their meat. In the following months the deer herds would migrate to the lower country, where they must now compete with ever increasing droves of cattle for winter sustenance.
From the vista atop the divide, I could see the blue-sky mirror of Battle Lake below and a vast panorama stretching an infinite distance to the West. Beyond the pristine forest canopy of evergreens and aspen in full fall colors, lay rolling sagebrush hills that transition out on the horizon into the red desert landscape of the remote lower country; and in-between those two extremes, lay the secluded beauty of the Little Snake River Valley.
[The Little Snake, a tributary of the Bear River, heads in Northwest Colorado Territory near the Continental Divide, where its three forks converge and flow west-southwesterly some 65-70 miles into Lily Park. There it combines with the Bear, before merging into the mighty Green River in Pat’s Hole, about 20 miles south of Brown’s Park.]
The Valley which lies well off the more beaten paths to the North is comprised of lush bottom lands skirted by gently sloped hills of sage and short grasses, making it an ideal area to raise range-cattle. Though much like a scaled down version of the larger Platte Valley, its primary difference and ultimate attraction is isolation.
“It would be a prime place,” I thought, “to find a rustlin’ skunk like Jody Wolfe.”
Though it was a bit early, I made camp at the lake and proceeded to catch a few late afternoon trout for supper. The water was cold and exceptionally clear. I could see down to the bottom nearly 8 to 10 feet offshore as dozens of fish swam about. My fishing pole was a long red-willow branch cut from a thicket near the lake and tied with a roll of hooked line I always carry in my saddlebags. With my hat, I swatted a few die-hard grasshoppers for bait and in no time at all, had eaten a nice mess of fish, washed down with some black “cowboy coffee”.
[Cowboy coffee is made by dumping fresh coffee grounds into a pot of creek water and setting it on a high boil near the edge of the fire. An old coffee can, fitted with a wire bail, set on a flat rock usually works perfect. Once the coffee looks ready, depending on your particular taste, it is set aside and the grounds are allowed to quietly settle out. Then it can be carefully poured or dipped out with a tin cup. “Can milk” (sweetened condensed milk) is used when available by those who prefer not to drink theirs black.]
Blackjack who had enjoyed a deep drink from the cold lake, grazed contentedly along his picket in the late afternoon sun. When the great gilded orb began to sink beneath a fiery crimson glow, I could not imagine a more picturesque place to be.
But despite the mariner’s rhyme of a “red sky at night” being a “sailor’s delight”, just a short few hours later, a rain storm moved in on a fierce wind. Lightning was followed by thunder, reverberating off the high rock outcroppings above the lake. Blackjack was not having any of it, so I had to lead him into the shelter of some heavy pine timber where I had moved my belongings to wait it out. Though we endured quite a downpour for a while, it finally broke and I was able to get a minimum of shuteye under the umbrella of trees. Next morning all was clear, so I hung out my dampened bedclothes to dry on the bushes. By the time I had cooked some tinned bacon and brewed fresh coffee, they were mostly dry and ready to pack.
We departed the lake on a circuitous trail that first led up and then gradually descended through some large parks surrounded by a mixture of aspen and pine. Then the steeper terrain gave way to more rolling forestland populated mostly with aspen in brilliant fall hues of yellow and red. These breaks opened up into sagebrush hills and grassy flats that traversed the base of a flat-topped mountain known as Bastion to the French speaking voyageurs, but was later named Battle Mountain.
[ On August 21, 1841 Henry Fraeb (known as Ol’ Frapp) and a company of trappers fought a battle with a large allied war party of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho at the base of Bastion Mountain near the confluence of the Little Snake River and a creek that comes in from the North. Fraeb was killed, along with three others. Jim Baker, a local mountain man also took part in the fight, which ended with the Indians withdrawing, giving Jim and the remaining trappers an opportunity to make their escape. From that day forward, the mountain, creek and lake at its head, have been named Battle.]
Though the trail forked in several places, the main path went beneath Battle Mountain and entered the Valley in an area near the confluence of the Little Snake River and a creek coming in from the South named Slater, where the trail became a well traveled wagon road going both directions.
It was now late afternoon, so I stopped to water Blackjack and stretch my legs. I had gone but a short distance from the river bank when all hell broke loose and the damnedest buzzing of rattlesnakes I had ever heard surrounded me in the tall grass. Blackjack was alarmed too and stomped around throwing his head as if to say :”C’mon let’s get the hell outa here!”
I realized I’d stumbled into an annual fall migratory path the snakes were taking to their winter den, which I figured was probably south across the river where Slater Creek comes into the Valley through a rocky canyon cut into a volcanic uplift many millenia ago. They were all gathered here trying to get up enough collective nerve to swim to the other side before dark. I backed up cautiously and grabbing the reins, literally jumped into the saddle and hightailed Blackjack back toward the wagon road leading down river.
[Not far down the road was the Stonewall, where in 1870, William Slater and Henry Brockmire, known as Bibleback Brown, built the first permanent structure in the Valley, a cabin, beneath the sandstone cliffs. Slater and Brown were trapping/prospecting partners who had done well free-mining gold at Hahn’s Peak. On a trip to Rawlins the next fall for winter supplies, Bibleback met Noah Reader, who was heading northwest with his family but had run low on both health and finances. He convinced Reader to join him on the Little Snake and offered him the use of the snug little cabin. The next spring Reader homesteaded what later became the Stonewall Ranch and started a lucrative cow/calf operation next to Jim Baker, who homesteaded just west of there in 1873.]
The wagon road went squarely through the Reader place, which was a characteristic “road ranch” laid out beneath the aforementioned sandstone cliffs. Buildings constructed of log and lumber occupied both sides of the road, with free ranging chickens, a milk cow waiting in the barnyard, and horses grazing among beef cattle in nearby meadows. The residents seemed to be away, with the exception of a mature woman who tended the fall remnants of a large vegetable garden near the main ranch house.
“Helllo!” she said cheerfully, approaching the fence and removing her sun bonnet.
“Howdy ma’am, my name’s Billy. I’m looking for an old Army scout named Jim Baker. I’ve heard he lives hereabouts?”
“Yes, his place is about two miles west of here. I’m Mrs. Noah Reader and Jim’s a good friend and neighbor of ours.”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Mrs. Reader. I've never met him, but as a former trooper in the 5th Cavalry, I believe we’ll have plenty to talk about.”
“Please, everyone calls me Rosanna. It’ll be dark soon and you’re quite welcome to stay for supper. My husband’s been out gathering cattle all day, but they should be back before long and I’m certain he would like to meet you too.”
“I do appreciate the offer, but I’ll have to take you up on it some other time. I’ll look forward to meeting Noah and explaining more, when I get a little further along with my purpose here, but for the time being, my line of work requires that I lay low and try not to get recognized by a certain someone.”
“I see. Well, remember you’re welcome here anytime, Billy,” she replied.
“Much obliged, Rosanna,” I said, tipping my hat as I turned Blackjack back toward the road.
Blackjack quickly covered the couple of miles to the Baker’s and by the time I arrived there, it was getting pretty dark. His cabin sat in the middle of a wide open meadow area far out of rifle range from any surrounding cover. The two story house was nearly flat-roofed and built of well fitted hewn logs. The second story was about six feet smaller in width than the first and the surplus roof area served as an observation platform with a full railing. There were several outbuildings and a corral nearby and like the Reader’s place, horses and cattle grazed all around on the open pasture. Lantern light shone from a multi-paned side window and smoke rolled out of the stovepipe.
“Hello the camp!” I called, in the customary protocol of the old mountain men, reining in Blackjack about 50 yards away. The front door immediately swung wide open and the first thing I saw was the barrel of a rifle pointing in my direction.
“What be yer bizness with this ol’ coon?” asked the tall grizzled man in buckskins, as he lowered the barrel of his Sharp’s buffalo rifle. His rough face was bearded and long reddish-grey hair lay across his shoulders. There was no question he was Jim Baker.
“My name’s Billy, I’m an ex-trooper who rode with the 5th Cavalry in ‘76,” I replied.
“Well I’ll be a ‘tarnal fool! Come on in! We’re jist settin’ down to vittles. You can turn that handsome fella loose in the corral!” he hollered.
Thus was my first encounter with a living legend of the mountains, a man who would become a valued ally and mentor in the coming days.
© WFS 2018