Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Loggerheads! Loggerheads! Damned loggerheads the whole damned bunch of them!” Mountain man Javon “Jake” Kirby, big as the morning breaking over the peaks behind him, shoulders oxen-wide, a head of hair like flax or a rich grain of the prairie, had come upon a pile of logs cut to firewood length, and piled so long that some of them looked rotted and punky from first sight.
“Those fools,” he let go with his ravine-deep voice, “probably froze up the winter after cutting all this pile.” He kept muttering and half cursing all the time he discarded rotted chunks not worth the flame he might set to them. He’d ridden into this section on a search for firewood for the coming winter, to store in his own fuel supply cave higher up and near his cave home. His cave home, running halfway into the heart of Beggar’s Peak, was equipped with a small and continuous spring of water, enough for him and his mule and horse to live on, his catch of cured skins over a four-year stretch of hunting and prospecting making the place more comfortable than one would think, yet an outlandish layout for a man living on and off the mountain.
His mule Tolerance was loaded 6 times with good firewood and Kirby stacked it in his storage cave after a full day’s work. Estimating the pile would get him all the way to March, anything else added to the pile meant a comfortable spring and a readiness for summer. Once summer weather came, he’d be off the mountain down to take his first bath of the new year in a favorite spring.
When winter came with its first blast of snow and winds, and mother earth began its first freeze, he gathered snow to make ice and brought the ice to his food storage. Anxiety for the hunt came upon him and in a matter of six days had taken down a bear, two deer, an elk and several birds, all which were skinned and slaughtered and set to freezing.
Comforts of home were his … until a morning a few weeks later, when he found that a supply of meat had been taken by a thief. The only signs left were the obvious moccasin tracks of an Indian. The trail in the rocks and pathways soon was wiped out and it forced him to alter his sleeping arrangements. He started a shift and move system where he would swap sleeping places for one or two nights at a time.
That allowed the thieving Indian to steal from his home cave one good knife, a handful of arrows, a box of shells, and a chunk of flint, The selection of items, and the quantities, made Kirby realize that the thief was leaving enough for the mountain man to continue on with sufficient supplies for the winter.
Kirby sensed an appreciation for the thief, as it warmed his thoughts. “This brave,” he whispered aloud in the cave, “is positive proof of his kind taking from the land only what they need. I have to admire his strength of character, his way of life.” A pause came into his thinking, and it was like a vow had been made when he uttered with deep satisfaction, “We are bound and bonded without knowing the other one.
In the luxury of compassion, goodwill and acceptance, he let his eyes find the distant snow-capped peaks, lowered his view to take in the stretch of cliff faces, the sweep of foothills and one run of grass to its end in a darkened canyon. He was in love with this locale and it puffed him a bit that his early dream was neither fruitless nor foreboding and that he had found it. All of it attained after a seemingly endless journey and all of it regardless of his unseen visitor and selective thief. His mass of muscle and bone stood tall and still in its place as he let his eyes feast on the choicer recesses of this favored place, the special niches that permitted full entrance to the mountain itself.
It was mere minutes later, his composure getting warmer and more pleasant, when he felt the heart of the mountain take a deep breath and a slow rumble begin under his feet and end at his ears as a great piece of Beggar’s Peak came loose for a wild ride down to all lower levels. In the midst of the disturbed and showery spirals of snow came a shower of rock dust and small debris that lifted free of the huge hunks of mountain coming loose. Kirby, from his viewing spot inside the mouth of his cave, thought they looked like two separate storms and marveled all the more at the place he knew would hold him in final rest.
In a moment of sudden recall, he thought again that the pile, on each of his returns that day of transfer, had been smaller than when he had left it with each load on Tolerance’s back. The mysterious Indian brave surely had been at liberty with the pile of wood. That, too, warmed Kirby toward the man who did not take more than he needed. He imagined the Indian to be the kind of man he’d like at his side in a confrontation of any kind, especially that of survival under distressful conditions.
The recall of the log pile came quickly on top of the landslide, as though the thought had been brought out into the open by the landslide, “a nudge beyond nudges,” he managed to utter in half disbelief.
At the ceasing of the mountain’s thunder, the end of spiraling of dust and snow in a canyon long moaning with wind, and as the majesty of the night slipped its magic across a sky full of stars, he heard the desperate moans of an injured man.
Kirby slipped into his bearskin great coat, grabbed a few items that came to mind, and left the cave. Faint moans came from his left and he headed toward the sounds caught in a slight breeze and drifted away. The stars crowded the skies, the slight breeze whistled on a few rocky corners, and the faint moans returned; he had never heard an Indian moan, not in any of his meetings or confrontations.
A distant crack sounded clear as a gunshot and another chunk of rock took to flight and with a thundering crash ended its flight in a cluster of fallen debris.
Then all was quiet and Kirby continued his approach to the source of the moans.
He saw a hand first, moving feebly but as if it was waving at him, as if the wounded man knew Kirby, the man living on the mountain, within the mountain, was coming to his rescue.
It was an Indian brave, one he had not seen before, and he supposed he was the one taking logs from the pile and gear from his cave.
“Are you hurt, my man? “ Kirby said, and saw the man’s broken arm angling sadly at his side and one leg caught under a good-sized rock. The injured man, pinned in place by a piece of the mountain, was an Indian, and Kirby noted right away he was a Shoshone brave.
The Shoshone answered, haltingly at first, with serious pauses in his own language, as though he knew Kirby would understand that approach. He said, “Ne nanihade weda’ ahtabe. “ (I am someone called Bear Jaw.) He nodded at his idled arm and then toward the rock on top of his leg, and continued, “Ne pekkaH gopape beeda’ deaseN hutsitoon.” (I am afflicted with broken low leg bone and arm.)
Kirby nodded slowly, taking in some of the language and the graphic scene at his feet.
“Do you speak any English?” Kirby said.
“Yes,” Bear Jaw nodded. “I hurt in two places, Man of the Mountain. My arm and my leg broken I know. Much pain at first but not now I see you? You will help Bear Jaw I know. I see you work the mountain as I do. I take only what I need. You never chase Bear Jaw away.”
Ascertaining the plight of Bear Jaw, Kirby moved Bear Jaw’s arm into a different position, quizzically pointed down the trail, and when the Indian looked in that direction he suddenly jerked the arm back into a setting position. Bear Jaw emitted but a short grunt, closed his eyes, and kept still. The leg, once the rock was moved, would take more effort.
As soon and as easily as he could, Kirby got Tolerance the mule and rigged a travois with long poles attached to the mule and moved Bear Jaw back to the cave he had already visited … and from which he had stolen only what he needed.
Kirby, as he had done on other occasions on the road west, needing more effort than setting the broken arm, set Bear Jaw’s leg, and this time knew Bear Jaw was human, as only one cry broke from his mouth, but that cry did come.
In the following days, recuperation steady on Bear Jaw’s part with assistance from Jake Kirby, their days were often spent in discussing life on and about Beggar’s Peak and other peaks in the mountain range.
“Why do you live here on mountain, leave only once in a long turn?” Bear Jaw asked one evening as they sat in front of the fire. They had just eaten a meal of venison, mushrooms and coffee that sat in a great pot near low flames. Furs lay under them and each man wore skins and hides that kept them warm and comfortable. Beyond the mouth of the cave in Beggar’s Peak the stars were bright in their darker beds, some twinkled with a holiday flickering, and now and then one star would rush across the cave mouth like a live bullet, coming from one end of the universe to the other end.
“I was dreaming half the time and looking for this place half the time. I topped a rise one day more than a dozen years ago and saw this place. All of it came to me at once, where I’d live, how I’d live, me and all that the high god presented to me for finding it. Took me over a week to find this cave. I’ll be here forever and maybe, somewhere down the line of years he’ll let somebody find me who’s looking for the same thing I was looking for.”
It was Bear Jaw, not dissuaded by Kirby’s response, who kept up the attention on the stars, but twisted the interest in another direction, and brought Kirby upright in his spot, when he said, “Stars remind me of stones my people find in the waters of a stream a great distance to the north from this mountain.”
Kirby, fully alert, said, “Not gold like here in the heart of the mountains?” He was sitting as still as a tree stump and not afraid to give away a little secret to a man with a broken arm and a broken leg just beginning to mend.
“Harder than gold,” Bear Jaw added, making a fine distinction, perhaps quite intentionally. “Some maidens beat gold with smooth stone to make --- .“ Here he paused and went into his own language and said, “Like da-dembohka’.“ Immediately he clarified the new word and said, “Like buttons that shine for boots or great coats. “ The pause again was significant, as he continued his explanation. “Cannot change shape of these stream stones by hitting with bigger stone. They break in pieces, have small shine then, in pieces.”
“No name for these hard stones?” Kirby could guarantee there’d be no word coming like “diamonds.” It wouldn’t fit.
“Okaipin dembi da’ziyumbi,” Bear Jaw said. “River stone shine like star.” His smile was wide, his eyes saying there was a mystery to it all that would forever remain within the tribe.
It told Kirby he’d get no other direction than “a great distance to the north.” He’d have to be satisfied with that.
But it was Kirby’s turn to move the conversation. “What brought you to this mountain? To this place where I have never seen you but knew you were around?”
“The high god you know,” said Bear Jaw, “called me from my tipi in the middle of the night and let the stars point the way. My people did not understand me when I left our village but all believe me after I leave. They never come after me. Never leave things for me. Let me keep promise to the high god to live in the mountains. My tipi here, across the canyon, much like this cave. We will visit one day when I can walk there again.”
“What did he say to you?”
Bear Jaw smiled again, a gleam caught in his eyes. “He say, ‘Go where White Hair lives. When it is time, White Hair will be brother to Bear Jaw.” Came then another pause in the red man who speaks with wisdom from his tongue, “Perhaps a new world starts here in one small mountain that will loom over all mountains.”
The mountain talks and we listen to the mountain … but not often enough, or long enough.