Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
It was, all of them would agree later, as if they had passed through a sense of time. And few of their countrymen, and few occupants of the first saloon they’d go to to singe their thirst, would believe where they had been and what they had accomplished … gone deep into Mexico and brought home a chunk of the Aztec treasury, right out of one of Montezuma II’s formidable Holy Caissons dug for eternity. Where many historians attested to the grand structures the Aztecs had raised in the midst of jungles, Pappy Dyk, in his own right, knew about the secret caissons the Aztecs had dug and chiseled into Mother Earth herself. No one in Hidalgo but Pappy Dyk knew from what tribe he had come on the land, coming a whole year earlier to Hidalgo to plan the expedition, now coming back from Mexico.
Time after time, on their way home, on the way to get across the final river, they traversed death-borne areas covered with bones and burial markers, ravines and canyons and mountains that put heavy strain on their horses and spirits, thick jungles crawling with threats, and then, in one canyon after another, wild rivers claiming some of their more timid horses. The remuda had been good size at the start, with pack animals a necessity for the expedition, as Pappy Dyk called it. It was, from beginning to end, fraught with physical perils from all corners and all comers, as well as the insidious likes of dysentery and scratching hints of morbidity.
But, all in all, it was the biggest heist in the west, led by the renowned Pappy Dyk, surname never revealed, who, in spite of his appearance, his language and his morals, always knew that history sat on his lap every time out of the corral, so his aspirations were always monumental. This time he had not ignored the summons at all, for Mexico had called him, the Aztecs had called, Montezuma II himself had called, from beyond the void, from his unique place in history’s queue, atop a holy mountain of wealth.
His voice had come loud and wide and rocking with vibrations into too many of Pappy Dyk’s deep sleeps, too loud to be ignored, too rocking with dare and challenge, too mystic to call it a dream. It shook him awake on those many nights, a simple message waiting for a reply.
Pappy Dyk, with a faint prophecy of a tribal shaman, heard of the Holy Caissons of the Aztecs, the deep sanctuaries where the wealth of the emperor was distributed into parcels of value so that each caisson was unique in its own contents, deep, virginal, pure of insurmountable wealth. It was told him that a single yellow-breasted verdin had gained entrance to the secret caissons and came away with the knowledge of all therein, and sang of it to those who could hear the music in the magical places of Mexico and southwest America, calling with its sweet song … tswee-swee, tswee … tswee-swee, tswee … tswee-swee, tswee. Pappy Dyk heard the music calling, heard the song it sang, knew the words it spoke.
Pappy Dyk could, in some inscrutable way unknown to the rest of the party, measure history and his impact on its pages, knowing he was born for great things. Did not the Shaman and the sachem say at his birth, in a cave in the Tetons, at the bottom of the earth where the tremor fires kept them warm all their first winter, that he was born to move men and the time of men? That he was born at the very foot of Earth was a sign in itself. He did not feel at all squeamish about taking any of the Aztec treasure; they had hidden enough to light up the continent, he was sure, though the blood of thousands of slaughtered, sacrificial innocents had stained the emperor’s hands and in turn had tinted gold and jewels in the hidden treasuries. The payoff would transcend many levels of recompense.
Thus, as the stories tell it, the expedition came back from the border beaten to a pulp, every one of them. But if not whole as men, for in truth most of them were shot up or carrying arrow wounds, one hand missing, a few fingers, one big toe still under a huge rock back down the trail, they were still whole as a gang of adventurers. And Pappy Dyk was still out front, the leader, his saddle bags full. When they crossed the tough rivers, he made sure his saddle bags were set on maneuverable log rafts and not placed within the peril of frantic horses caught in an awful stream.
As they entered the quiet town of Hidalgo, latest part-time home to most of the men, hoof beats setting a musical tone and touching his mind, Pappy Dyk was remembering, to the last detail, how the Indians had come out of a wadi as if they were cavalry horsemen, in skirmish lines, bare feet apart, headlong in their run, feathers and spears and all colored ornaments waving like streamers in the awful sunset. It was the way Custer would have trained them. Or some old line officer now sleeping with a squaw in a teepee village or, more likely, in a cave of Mexico’s high mountains.
Shaking his head in admiration, he was still thinking about that charge as they rode into town, looking for a bath, a shot of whiskey, a woman, and a bank where they could do business.
It had been a perilous adventure. Now, on entrance, coming home to a new depository, he reflected on the men who had made the journey with him, whom he called the Redoubtable Nine, him included. They still rode with him and had never faltered in their quest, not in the face of steepest odds, gallant warriors, or geography so harsh they’d have a hard time describing it to people. Yet here they came with the hoof beats and he looked slowly at each man, marking him, measuring him, wishing he could mend him: Quincy, Tanker, Yancy Joe, Berlingswell the Brit, Black Dan’l, Volkstaj, One Big Water they called OBW and the Comanche named Sheep Peril who had the finest eyesight and the keenest ears of any man yet born of woman.
In turn Pappy Dyk smiled, laughed inwardly, shook with pride, felt the pains of bodily loss, knew courage and valor had ridden with him on every foot of the journey. The hoof beats continued their music, their cadence, like a line of march was sounding out. Indeed, he had moved men to a world away from their natural confines, and had moved them into another time, all as prophesied, all part of history moving within his vision. He imagined Quincy’s thumb under the rock he had pushed Pappy Dyk away from, only to have the rock smash and obliterate his thumb. They had cut it off, the straggly remnants, even as Quincy had said, bowing to accolades, “We ain’t getting’ there without you, Pappy Dyk, and we sure as hell ain’t getting’ back home without you leadin’ the way.”
In one visionary leap he caught Tanker, as the line of Indian infantry came in on their flank from the defiled wadi and what they had seen in passing the day before as a blind canyon, take down with his rifle nine of them abreast in the front line of the charge, not sweating, not rushing, barely breathing, his rifle smoking, him talking pause and patience all the while: That’s a one … that’s a two … that’s a three … that’s a four … until the whole of the line was down, half the horses down and broken too, his mouth never closed, his voice a soft hunk of security with every word he uttered. Pappy Dyk remembered another incident as he sat by a stream soaking his feet in the rushing water, and Tanker, from the shadows, saying, “Don’t you move none, Pappy Dyk, when I squeeze off this trigger ‘cause there’s a mean lookin’ snake comin’ up on you from the backside and I aim to cut off his head.”
“Don’t talk,” Pappy Dyk had said, holding perfectly still, not even swishing his hot feet in the cool water, “just shoot.”
Shoot Tanker did and the head of the snake, having left the main body, popped in the air like a jack rabbit had jumped in place and fell right beside Pappy Dyk ’s hand.
“How long did you have your eye on him, Tanker?”
“Oh, a bit. If he went away I would have saved a bullet. Never know when we’ll need the last one.”
“No other options?”
“Not for the livin’. Only for the near dead, and you was it.”
The hoof beats, like drums at a tattoo, came again, dust rising in the road, the images leaping, as OBW loped into his vision, and the restful night, deep in the jungles after a perilous river crossing had been accomplished, and Berlingswell the Brit, just putting a fresh log on the fire, asked One Big Water where his name had come from. “Were you pointing at a massive lake or a wide river or the very blue Pacific Ocean itself? Is that how you received your name? I understand that is how names get assigned, the signatory act of the individual.” His head was cocked in its professorial angle, curiosity a familiar scamp on the face of the deadliest knife fighter Pappy Dyk had ever seen in action, like a Whitehall’s Jack the Ripper in a southwestern costume.
“Oh, no,” OBW said, “in my Nation we have no names other than a papoose name until we reach the age of 20 moons.”
“Well, what came about then? What should I surmise from that, if there is no forthcoming explanation?”
“It is a simple tale. I was with my elder brother and my father on the appointed day of naming and we had been fishing on a wide river and woke after spending the night beside a great waterfall, and they were both taking a leak, and crossing swords as you say it, off the high cliff edge down into the deep ravine and I simply said, when pointing at them, ‘One Big Water.’”
Pappy Dyk shook again with the laughter that had exploded in the jungle that night, which somehow softened the entire jungle, setting leaf and frond and blossom at grateful ease, their sleep the first solid sleep in a month, their guard down one time and one time only. That is the one night, the one moment of relapse, he believed, that they could have been set upon with little recourse to saving their butts, but laugh again he did, a muted laugh, a pleasurable laugh, as if all good things were at hand after the completion of the perilous expedition, and Hidalgo coming to wrap its arms around the troupe of them.
He added a soft “perhaps” to that last thought.
He felt good, extremely grateful, saved. His senses warmed him all over, and in one look, warned him.
It was at that moment, when he saw the sheriff who had long professed his disdain for black people, that Black Dan’l rode into Pappy Dyk ’s vision. “I hope,” Pappy Dyk said in another whisper, “that that mean son of a bitch doesn’t open his mouth about Dan’l because I’ll be the one to shut it first. We all know he’s got some of the blood in him, and that makes his life a whole rotten lie.”
Black Dan’l, handsome as a sunset, singer and hummer of innumerable songs, wayfarer of pleasantness, deadly with fist, knuckle, knee, elbow, head, and now and then a knife or a bow or a machete in a perilous swath, rode beside Pappy Dyk in some kind of a salute. He harrumphed loudly, a personal knock at a known adversary, the sheriff, letting the sheriff know that he was on the aft end of a great journey, that he had carried his weight as well as any man, that Black Dan’l was a man entirely accountable in a match, a scrape, an invasion into the heart of the old Aztec Empire. The sheriff should know that half a mountain in Tennessee was waiting on his return, a mountain begging to be bought by a promising son.
If there was one act that Pappy Dyk would see commissioned before all this was over, it was Black Dan'l’s purchase of healthy land for his parents, for his family.
“See him?” Dan’l said, riding up closer beside him, “setting back like a lavender toad, the sun a lie all around him, squeezing what he can before he finally tempts the good Lord with persuasion.”
“He tried riling last time, Dan’l, and you put him solid in his place, and I know you’ll do it again before this day is out, the way he’s wearing that tin of his, all shined like he was the real luster.”
“No luster about him, Pappy Dyk,” Dan’l said. “That man’s more coward than sheriff.”
“Don’t let him stand in the way of that half of a mountain back there in Tennessee, Dan’l. He sure isn’t worth it.”
“Only if he goes for a weapon, Pappy Dyk. I’ll take anything for my folks, but not a weapon. He’s dead then.”
The finality of that expression socked home with Pappy Dyk as if the old shaman had made another prophecy and Dan’l dropped back in the line of march into Hidalgo as if he had been dismissed.
Djon Volstaj, on the same horse he had left Hidalgo on three months earlier, a huge and long-legged roan stallion, chest thick as a tree trunk, two searing scars across his chest from gunfire on a riverbank fight that Volstaj had treated with devotion, wearing white stockings on three legs, came up beside Pappy Dyk.
“Is Dan’l worried about that rat ass, Pappy Dyk? Set me on him tonight and I’ll clear it all the way back to Tennessee for Dan’l. That night in the big cave, when he caught them rabbits of sneaky knifers, is due a lifetime of payback as far as I’m concerned. If anything happens to me, tonight or ever, I want my share to go to Dan’l and no chances otherwise. Every dollar of it when it gets to be counted that way, or my lump of everything else coming my due. If Dan’l gets messed up, see that his folks get that whole damned mountain for their own. It’s the least I can do for a man who stuck his butt in the way of death for me.”
“The man knows a knife, doesn’t he, Djon?”
“Slicker’n butchers afore a shivaree, Pappy Dyk. I bet some of them gents ain’t felt the slice of that blade yet.”
He shook his head as he looked back at the sheriff sitting back on the small porch of the general store like he was the clerk taking a break from work. Sunlight glinted off his badge and shone like a ray into Volkstaj’s eyes.
“Man’s a pretender from the starting line. Nothing lower than that. Playing games, making believe. Makes me throw up when I think about him, ashamed of the woman brought him into the world. That’s a horror story I would have ended in a damned hurry if I was on that drive. I can’t imagine them cowpokes taking a black woman on the trail, tying her up during the day and letting her loose at night for favors. I’d a shot them all. Maybe it’s him just hating anybody rides horses, herders or not.” He paused, bouncing in the saddle, looking around, seeing a woman now and then on a boardwalk or at a building’s doorway, his head keening with pleasant memories almost half a lifetime ago. “Where was them drovers from? How’d she ever get away?”
“Some Shawnees set on them,” Pappy Dyk said. “Dropped all the riders, and the father of her baby, I’d guess, but she was tied up in the bed of the wagon and the Shawnees wouldn’t go near her. Afraid of some spirit hanging around. Just rode on and left her there in the wagon, to her own being or whatever god might come her way. Run off with the entire herd, they did, enough to feed a whole Nation, but wouldn’t go near her. Some other wagon driver came by and freed her. Some months later, not back in town but at the ranch of a widow, she gave birth to the baby. Before they knew it, he became sheriff.”
Volkstaj slowed his horse, looked back again at the sheriff, nodded at Pappy Dyk and said, “I was always counting on you, Pappy Dyk. No different now, or tonight, rich or broke to the last dollar.” With that said, he slipped back in the line still advancing into the heart of Hidalgo.
In a matter of seconds, Yancy Joe was at his side. “I guess this is my turn in the turn of goodbyes, or how you’ll have it Pappy Dyk. We sure are going on from here in short order. I know you’re headed up river and somewhat overland, and Dan’l will be hightailing it for that damned mountain he’s been dreaming about for years. Blessed be a man who carries a decent dream that long in his tote bag. Speaks well of him, he’s man enough for any mountain Tennessee has.”
“Yancy, don’t get me crying after all this time. I had a good laugh back on this road about The Brit and OBW’s name day.”
“Well,” Yancy Joe said, shifting the conversation, “I can’t stop thinking how Sheep smelled out those bandits that night on the river. They had to be a mile away and he said he got them on the wind. I swear, Pappy Dyk, I wouldn’t want him chasing me even in the dark. He said it was no more than ten men and it was nine of them. I don’t know whether he smelled them or heard them or saw them, but none of any way would surprise me.”
He held his hand out, touching Pappy Dyk on the sleeve. “You’re the best man I ever rode with, Pappy Dyk, and they’re the best damned bunch of hoot owls ever skinned half a continent. Glory be, Pappy Dyk, we did it.” He let out a victorious, unabated howl that went right on down the street and was bound to wake up any girl who was still sleeping behind shades. Pappy Dyk was positive more than one of those girls would recognize that yell and would be scrambling already.
He was sure that his men, before the liquor got to them after the long ride, before a woman took hold of any one of them to her own covers, before a sack of gold and a diamond or two dropped into their hands, had arranged among themselves to pay personal tribute to the man who took them into the heart of Mexico and brought them back, onto the main street of their part-time hometown, and most of them soon to leave it behind.
It touched him deeply, and it was not yet over. Sheep Peril, dressed in solid black, a warrior of the night, a tell-tale black band still circling his forehead like a tattoo, a formidable foe by eyesight and hearing, sidled up beside Pappy Dyk. He was somewhat of a chameleon, whether afoot or on horseback, and in his turn at accolades and thanks came forward cautiously. Though he rarely spoke, much of his communication coming from hand signals, a shushing was at his mouth as he tested his senses, or expressed something he had discovered, behind them or ahead of them on the street.
Looking like an Indian deacon rather than the full-blooded Comanche he was, Sheep Peril said, giving his warning in short words, his voice little more than a whisper, “Two man leave chair back there. Go behind big barn, I think come up ahead of you. Before you get to bank. One is tin man.”
Pappy Dyk whistled lightly and the rank of horsemen stopped. He told them, in a huddled group, “Sheep saw the sheriff, and another gent, duck behind the livery and he thinks they’ll come out in front of us, with some more men hidden, before we get to the bank and divvy up the goods. That’s not about to happen now. Brit and Yancy go on ahead, making noise like we’re all coming. The rest of us are going to follow trail. If they aim to bushwhack us and grab the goodies, we‘re giving them a similar dose. We have to cover both sides of the street, because it smells like those two have it all planned and they sure aren’t doing it alone. Let’s split up and do it our way. Now let’s trot.”
The two smaller parties, well schooled in such tactics, slipped in between building on the street and were out of sight in seconds. Only the trail dust moved in the road, and very few innocent people.
Berlingswell the Brit, in his fancy hat still in one piece though it wore a few holes, and Yancy Joe, looking twice the size of his horse, took to hollering and setting claims on the world and all its worldly women. Yancy Joe yelled as loud as he had ever yelled. “Maxine, Maxine, darling, are you out of bed yet or ready to get back in it?” He said it three times, loud and noisily, as if he was on a weekend bender; and the professorial-look-alike and sound-alike Berlingswell started shooting his Peacemaker revolver in the air, emptying it, and making his horse rear up and paw the air for balance.
They came on as hellions, but had reduced their approach to a slow saunter as they beamed in celebration and good causes.
“Maxine,” Berlingswell the Brit, yelled in his turn at sociality, “There’s a man out here waiting to see you, darling.” He laughed and roared and stood his horse again on its rear legs.
It came off as a fair and noisy disruption, and only that, and the commotion was duly noted by hidden parties who were ready to pounce on them and relieve them of their burdens. The sheriff, leading the men, had posted half a dozen men out of general sight from the road. None of them had any idea they were, in their turn, about to be set upon, despite the disruptive but harmless noise bouncing in from the road.
Not a shot was fired at anybody in desperation or in the act of attempted murder, by either function, as Pappy Dyk, putting one harmless round between the legs of the sheriff, ceased all clandestine activities with the one shot. “Tell them all to put down their guns, sheriff, or you’re going to be hanged first from the tree out front, as a plain old bushwhacker, and the others will follow in turn, each one of them.”
He then yelled across the road, “You got them covered over there, Comanche?” Pappy Dyk knew the word would stick right in the guts of all cowards who dared sit in wait.
“All on knees,” the Comanche Sheep Peril answered, a guttural exclamation, but one loaded with quick disgust. “All on knees,” he said again, and the pain of embarrassment was worn on a half dozen faces.
The council sat uneasy as Pappy Dyk consigned the sheriff and six other men never to set foot in the town again. They rode off in a bunch, not to be seen again. The town grew quiet, but fully curious, as the Redoubtable Nine entered the bank.
Proceedings went quickly. The bank president called a carpenter and the wagon maker into his office and gave instructions on how to further protect the bank. Even as the meeting proceeded, lasting well over three hours, men were making changes suggested by Pappy Dyk to the building entrances, covering up the back door, blocking off two windows with solid boards taken right off a building next door. A barkeep brought pitchers of beer, with a sidekick carrying meals that sat uneaten until the beer was replenished.
Pappy Dyk made further demands. All were signed and legalized. A lawyer was summoned to assure all the promises of the meeting would be legally written down and witnessed.
A few of the Redoubtables began to get uneasy. Pappy Dyk kept them in place. “We are one group and we act as one.” It was a dictate that none would disobey.
As the meeting began to draw to a close, Pappy Dyk had visions of them scrambling down into the Holy Caisson, guns blazing, knives flashing, yells and screams of horror coming from their mouths as they released more horror than banshees were ever capable of issuing. He looked around the room, at the last gathering they would ever have, and saw them in their redoubtable actions. The Indians, honored guards for all the years, from a tribe that still demanded sacrifices on every new moon, finally had met their match. The song of the verdin had told Pappy Dyk everything he wanted to know, and what the Indians feared most, dreaded to the roots of their souls, was the spirits of the sacrificial lambs coming back to haunt them in return visits. They had dressed as women, every one of the Redoubtables, like the lambs that had been tortured for the gods. They had screamed in higher octaves, like women shrieking in their death knells. The Holy Caisson ached and echoed with their screams, their gunshots, their knives slashing in the air and at tender bodily parts. The lambs, indeed, had returned with a vengeance.
Pappy Dyk, almost in a trance, finally stood up. “Beware of your travels. Men will be looking for you, seeking you out. The story will travel far and fast, so keep your eyes open, your nose clear, like Sheep Peril, and your hand on your weapon. Remember, that you are, from this minute, marked men, at least in this locality, in all of Texas I would fear.” He paused, as if taking his last look at them, and said, “We must know where each other is, at all times. Lay out your plans and destinations now, so we will know each other’s whereabouts, just in case. We went too far, did too much, and came back almost whole.” He laughed as he looked down at the remnant of Quincy’s thumb, “Mark of a man, sir,” he said. Quincy blushed. The room was silent again, waiting for Pappy Dyk to send them on their way.
He said to Dan’l, “We all know where you’re going to be, Dan’l. Say hello to that mountain for us, and your good folk.”
Dan’l simply nodded, though the dream sat in his eyes, like it had always been. He patted his saddle bag, and then his hidden money belt.
Pappy Dyk said to Djon Volstaj, “How about you, sir, where are you bound?”
But all in the room knew what his answer would be except Dan’l. “Hell, captain, he said, standing as if in the ranks, “I ain’t got any place to go, so I’m hitching along with Dan’l to see that mountain he’s been dreaming about, to say hello to those who been waiting on him all this time, and to those who might be along the way planning on no mountain for Dan’l or his folks. That just drives me crazy, and I almost been there a few times already.”
Dan’l stood again in a solemn salute, though no words were exchanged.
“Hell,” Berlingswell the Brit said, “I haven’t any idea of destination for my own purposes, so I might as well plan a Tennessee itinerary.” He smiled at his own sense of humor.”
Dan’l stood again.
Quincy stood and said, “I’m sorry I can’t keep you gents company on the way to Tennessee because I am going to Montana and am going to have the biggest cattle ranch up there. It’s been my own secret dream.” His nods were a decided affirmation of promise; he kept nodding, as did the others.
Tanker, sitting in place, said, “I’m off to Chicago, Pappy Dyk. I’ve had my share of horses, campsites, cold meals, hot fights, and no woman to give my life to. I will find her in Chicago, or New York. I think she’s a singer or an actress. I hope her name is Genevieve or something like that. Maybe Justine or Christine or plain old Molly, but she’ll have dreams that I will fit into.” He closed his eyes and nodded into infinity. “When you gents get to that mountain in Tennessee, or wherever you’ll be, send me wires or mail in Chicago. I’ll tell you what her real name is.” He laughed and said, “When I find out for sure.”
There was significant banging on walls of the building. More beer came in pitchers. Pappy Dyk, waiting on Sheep Peril and One Big Water to advance their own plans in their own time, sat back with a whole pitcher of his own. He heard the verdin singing to him, heard the prophecies on the air and the secrets that had come unto him, and marveled where he had been in the company of these men. There was no other group like them and he had taken them elsewhere, to another time, and brought them back, but with all their prodigious help. He felt the marveling of it really beginning to unfold itself, flicking through his mind in innumerable images that moved onto each other in smooth succession.
Knowing where Pappy Dyk was at that moment, Sheep Peril waited for visions to subside, songs to fall away into far corners, satisfaction to sit down in its place, before he finally said, “I go into the Nations. To my mountain. It waits for me. The papoose I left will ride with me. I go now.”
As slick as a greased skid, Sheep Peril, in black, the fearsome head band in place as a sign for all, was gone. Pappy Dyk knew only another Comanche would stand up to him, threaten him. The future for his chief scout was assured. He could see it.
One Big Water, smiling all the while, seeing old visions come anew, said, “I go to see my father and my brother, to make three swords of water, to fish the big stream for the big fish I lost as a boy.”
The Brit laughed again, and then they all laughed and the banker sat in another room hearing them laugh and contemplating the promising future.
In an hour all the men but Pappy Dyk were gone from the room, some of them en route to their wherever, some to their whomever. He went to the banker’s office, closed the door behind him, and said, “You shoot off your mouth, mister bank president, and I will personally rob this bank of all it contains. If I did the Holy Caisson, I can do this place, and there’s no doubt about that. Not a single doubt in my mind. You are going to make some good money here. Don’t spoil it. And, if I’m hearing it right, there may be more. Much more.”
He looked out the banker’s window, saw the setting sun, heard a bird sing and, cocking his head as if listening, held up one finger for silence.
The sunrays and the song settled into the room. The bank president felt like rubbing his hands together, but dared not.
The song continued.