Western Short Story
My canteen ran dry this morning, and I’m pretty sure I’m still bleeding. I haven’t eaten or moved in three days—not since my horse tripped in a squirrel hole, landed on top of me and busted up my leg, and his.
The nights have been getting colder, which makes being able to see my coat and bedroll, but not being able to reach them, that much harder. It’s been tough enough watching the buzzards circle above me for the past day, but after I passed out this morning and woke this afternoon, I could see where they’d worked on my horse while I slept, and I’m afraid I’m next.
I hated to shoot my horse, but he was hurt worse than me, and every time he tried to move, it felt like a knife was going through my leg. And maybe it was, since it’s my right leg that’s busted up, and that’s where I carry my Bowie knife. I’ve never thought of myself as a man who quits, but I’m not convinced that the next time I pass out or fall asleep won’t be my last. And frankly, I’m completely out of ideas and just about out of hope.
I wake to darkness and excruciating pain. The horse I shot dead is moving, and the pain is almost unbearable. I have no idea how or why the horse is moving, but I manage to reach my 1851 Colt Navy Revolver, though I can’t see anything to shoot except the horse—and I’ve already done that. Left with five bullets and no options, I grit my teeth, struggle through the pain, and wonder why this is happening and how long it’s going to last.
Someone is talking, though I don’t understand a word, and a donkey is braying. After what feels like forever, but was probably less than a minute, the dead horse is off of me, and for the first time in three days, I can turn my body, even if only slightly. I try to sit up, but at least for now, I’m unable to and collapse back to the ground, at the mercy of whatever happens next.
My Colt still in my right hand, I see a small, dark-skinned man come around my left side. I start to raise the gun, but he simply shakes his head, keeps moving forward, and with an easy smile, kneels next to my leg. I figure if he wanted me dead, it would have already happened, so I relax my grip on the gun, and still fighting through the pain, I introduce myself and thank him.
He looks at me and, in a language I recognize but don’t understand a single word of, responds. The man is Basque, and he’s speaking Euskere. In all likelihood, he’s a shepherd, and he’s almost certainly alone. I spent some time two years ago wintering with some Basque men up in the Sierra Nevadas, on the American River. They were there for the same reason I was, looking for gold. And they left for the same reason I did. It was hard work and the gold was not as easy to find as many of us had hoped. I left to do some trapping, but the Basques, as they did in the Pyrenees mountains of France and Spain, where most of them are from, took to sheepherding. And now the Basques are herding sheep throughout the Pacific coast and the Sierras, and I have been fortunate enough to have one find me. And if my first impression is right, he’s a good man.
Unfortunately, while I learned a bit about sheep and sheepherding that winter from those who could speak English, the Euskere language remains a mystery. Euskere is a unique language, not based on any other European language and extremely difficult to understand, much less speak—at least for me. However, I do understand kindness, and I’m grateful that he came along.
After looking at my leg a bit, he walks back out of my sight and returns a few minutes later with a canteen of water and three sticks, two long and straight, one shorter and a bit crooked. He helps me take a couple of drinks of water, which taste remarkable. It’s all I can do to keep from draining the canteen, but I know it’s not healthy to drink too much too fast after going awhile without water, so I force myself to start slowly.
He then hands me the short stick and indicates that I should bite on it—which is never a good sign. I do as he asks, and he turns back to my leg. It’s called bone setting, and I’m glad he knows how to do it, but the pain as he adjusts my leg is as bad as when the accident happened and when this same man dragged my dead horse off of me. As he’s setting the leg, I pass out, again.
I wake—I don’t know how many hours later—to a rising sun. I can tell by the trees and rocks that I haven’t moved, but everything else around me is different. My horse is gone, presumably dragged off somewhere during the night by the same man who set my leg. My leg has immobilized by the two long, straight sticks. I am surrounded by sheep, confirming that he is a shepherd, and perhaps best of all, there is a fire and the smell of breakfast cooking, which, after three days of not eating, has me about ready to stand up and walk over to get a bite. Just as I’m thinking the only thing missing is the man who helped me, he walks up, followed by two dogs, both border collies.
He goes straight to my leg. He must have found what he hoped to find, because he looks at me, smiles and walks over to the fire. I see him fixing two plates of food, and it’s all I can do to keep from drooling. He sets the plates down and walks behind me, out of my view. A moment later he’s back with my saddle and blanket and sets them up behind me, and with less pain than I would have guessed, I’m able to rise up a little and lean against the saddle. He then brings over the two plates of food and hands me one, along with a fork and knife. I’m a little surprised that the meat is venison and not mutton, but maybe a man gets tired of eating lamb or mutton every day and if given the opportunity to take down a deer will do so. Either way, after three days without a bite, I’m grateful, for the first, second, and finally, even a third helping. Add in some healthy-sized servings of good pinto beans with just the right amount of chili peppers mixed in, and what seems like a gallon or so of coffee that I’ve drank, and there’s a good chance I’ll be sick later. But, after beginning to wonder if I’d ever eat again, much less feel full, it’s a price I’m willing to pay.
And, during the entire time I’ve been eating, he hasn’t stopped talking. I remember from my time with the Basques on the American River that loneliness is the shepherd’s biggest challenge and greatest fear. Sheep tend to herd themselves, and the dogs pretty much do the rest. A shepherd is there to keep everything going smoothly and to protect the sheep from wolves, bears and coyotes. For the shepherd, the dangers are twofold. First, if they are injured or get sick, there is no one around to help take care of them. Shepherds will often go months without seeing another human being, which leads to the other danger for the shepherds: loneliness. There are plenty of stories floating around about Basque shepherds who went mad from the loneliness. I’ve heard it called going “sheeped” or “sagebrushed.” Fortunately, my shepherd seems perfectly sane, though understandably talkative.
In the time it took to eat the best breakfast I’ve ever had, I learned two things and confirmed a third. My shepherd’s name is Ander. He’s a good trail cook. And he is a kind man.
Ander struggles with the pronunciation, but seems to get that my name is Dusty. I don’t bother with my last name. I feel myself starting to fall asleep. I am usually fairly energetic in the morning. Unless I’m in town, where sleeping in late is an affordable luxury, or a necessity if I had too much to drink the night before, I’m usually up and on the trail before dawn turns to sunrise. But this morning, still listening to Ander talk nonstop—and happy to do so—I drift off to sleep.
I sleep straight through the day and wake up in the late afternoon. I’m in the same place I was when I fell asleep, though next to me is my gear, including my rifle, a full canteen and plate of now cold food. I manage to shove my saddle behind me again and move to a half sitting position. The pain is still there, but it’s less, and cold or not, I quickly finish off the plate of venison and beans and, trusting Ander will be back, nearly drain the canteen. I root through my gear until I find a cigar and some matches and settle in to watch the sun set and wait for Ander. I wouldn’t mind a bourbon, and I’m going to need a horse. And it’s going to take a while for this leg to heal, or even to quit hurting. But as I enjoy my cigar and the view, I’m a lot better off than I was a day ago.
Ander comes back just as the sun drops behind the mountain and into the Pacific, again with two dogs, but this time one border collie and one Australian shepherd. My guess is he has three dogs helping him work the sheep and one of them gets the night shift.
Just like he did this morning, he walks over, checks on my leg and gives me a quick smile, which I again take to mean the leg looks OK. Then he gets to work on the fire and dinner. I am grateful for both, but I have to wonder how long this kind of service might continue. If I remember right from my time on the American, this time of year, somewhere between late fall and early winter, is when the shepherd has already sold off his old ewes, and instead of having to move every other day or so for fresh water and fresh grazing, he settles in and stays for a while, sometimes even a couple of weeks. Most shepherds run around a 1,000 sheep, maybe even 1,200. Sometimes two shepherds will team up over the winter, when it’s easy to keep the sheep together, allowing one man at a time to take some time off and, sometimes, even visit the closest town for a week or two, trusting his sheep to his dogs and his winter partner.
When dinner is ready, he kindly brings me a full plate and sets up across from me. He starts right in talking again, as if he hadn’t stopped from this morning, and as if I’d learned Euskere during the day. I find myself nodding between bites, enjoying the sound and rhythm of his voice. I gratefully accept, and finish, a second large plate and start to doze off again.
My next thought is that it’s morning and I slept through the night with far less pain than the previous night. Ander is already up and about, with the fire going and another round of venison and beans coming up. All the dogs are gone, out doing what sheep dogs do during the day. After a quick breakfast, Ander checks on my leg, again seems satisfied and, leaving me and his donkey, is off to follow his dogs.
And for the first time since the accident five days ago, I am not focused on pain, food, water or sleep. While I haven’t tried standing up, or even crawling, I can move around a little and for longer and longer periods actually find myself somewhat comfortable. Ander again left food and water, and my guns are handy. I’m also not sleepy for the first time in days, so I start to think and take in my surroundings.
Until the accident, the last couple of weeks had been pretty uneventful. I’d managed to sell all of my furs in San Francisco, added to those profits with a couple of lucky nights at the card tables and figured it was best to get out of town before my lucky streak ended. I followed the Pacific coastline from San Francisco to the towering Morro Rock. It was a bit less than three hundred miles, every one of them beautiful. The weather was mild for early winter, but maybe it always is out this way. The hunting was plentiful, and the trails were clear. More than once I lingered for an extra day—or two—enjoying the scenery and a good cigar. I’m not sure how a man could ever get tired of watching the Pacific Ocean crash against the shore, the fog rolling in in the morning and usually clearing by noon, revealing a panorama I’d never even dreamed of before.
I turned inland at Morro Rock, heading for San Luis Obispo. I wanted to wind up in Los Angeles, but I’d heard stories about San Luis Obispo—how wild it had become since 1850, California statehood and the discovery of gold—and thought it might be interesting to see for myself. Before the Mexican-American War, the area was all part of Mexico. Even though it’s now part of the new state of California and San Luis Obispo is the county seat, the old ranchos are all still there and making money for their owners, both new and old. Cattle is king in San Luis Obispo, but I’d planned to find a decent card game and some pretty ladies to spend my time with. Besides, I was out of most of my supplies and it was as good a spot as any to pick up the things I needed before I pushed on to Los Angeles.
I’m starting to think a bit about what happens next. Ander isn’t going to winter up here, just outside of San Luis Obispo, and I don’t think I want to become a shepherd’s assistant, so I’m going to need another plan. And since today is the first day in almost a week where I won’t be unconscious or sleeping, I have plenty of time to think.
Ander was kind enough to leave all my stuff within easy reach. I rustle through and find a cigar, which always helps with my thinking, and I also pull out a book. When I was in San Francisco, I heard quite a few people talking about an author named Herman Melville and a book about a giant whale—Moby Dick. It’s a thick book, but I’ve usually got plenty of reading time on the trail, so I thought I’d give it a go. It’s a bit harder than what I’m used to reading, but if this guy Queequeg shows up more, it might be fun. I usually read in the late afternoon, and more than once since I left San Francisco, I’ve fallen sleep with this book on my chest. But maybe I’ll find it easier to stay awake when I’m fresh in the morning. A couple of hours, a couple of cigars and quite a few pages later, I look up to see the fog rolling back off the hills. I set the book down, though I will pick it back up and finish, and watch.
The hill I’m sitting on is beautiful, and high enough to afford quite a view. It’s been raining quite a bit these past few weeks, and the earth has soaked it up and given it back. All around me is thick, lush, rolling grass, the kind of green I would expect in Ireland, if I ever went. The hillside is dotted with trees—oak, sycamore and walnut, some of them more than fifty feet high. The fog keeps lifting and reveals hill after rolling hill, cascading toward the west. After close to an hour of just watching this unfold, I am rewarded with a magnificent sight—the Pacific Ocean. I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t noticed this part of the view before—I guess it’s been hidden behind my horse, or I’ve simply slept through it—but it is unlike anything I’ve seen before. I rode along the coast for most of the trip from San Francisco and was certainly fortunate to watch the coastline, listen to the waves crash and sometimes be so close that the spray would catch me. But this view, from a distance and, other than the occasional hawk crying out, almost silent perspective, is new to me. And I love it.
After a while longer, the fog is completely gone, and I’m left with green hills that roll right down to the surf and then, as far as the eye can see, a blue so bright it’s almost like looking into the sun. I find myself half seriously looking for the Pequod and Captain Ahab and wondering what it would be like to sail the open ocean and how different it is, if at all, from riding the open trails in prairies so big you can’t see the other side, or over mountains so high you wonder if you’ll ever reach the top. Maybe for men who like to explore, there really isn’t much difference between land and sea—it’s just the thrill of not knowing what’s coming up next and wanting to measure yourself against whatever it might be. Maybe we all have a white whale, even if we don’t know it.
The afternoon is drawing to a close, and I’ve spent the last few hours reading and thinking, a luxury, even if the circumstances that led to it aren’t the best. The sun has passed over my head and is positioned above the hills, getting ready for its last hurrah before dipping into the Pacific once again. For the first time since the accident, I feel like I can move, though just a little, so I slowly crawl over to where Ander has his camp. I can’t remember ever taking longer to travel ten feet, feeling better about it when I was done or having it hurt this much, but here I am. Ander has left some kindling and wood close to the fire, so it doesn’t take much to get it going. I can’t remember ever having to rest after starting a fire, but I do. I also feel a sense of accomplishment disproportionate to the act, but I lean back, allow my leg to settle down and enjoy the warmth from the fire.
It doesn’t take long before the leg is feeling OK again. I take that as a good sign and start rooting around the supplies to try and fix something for supper. There are plenty of beans, so I get those boiling, and there’s just enough venison left for a couple of good-sized steaks. I find some herbs among his stuff and add a bit to the beans, and thinking he wouldn’t carry them if he didn’t like them, I also add a little to his steak. I keep mine plain. As I was trying to remember how Ander ate his steaks the last couple of nights, I must have been concentrating pretty hard, because I didn’t even notice him walking up until he was just a few feet away. I smile and wave, making a mental note that I have to start to pay attention to my surroundings again. If that hadn’t been Ander, I might have been in some trouble.
Ander smiles back, signals me to leave his steak on for a bit longer and takes care of his dogs. I get my plate ready, load his up with beans and work my way back to my saddle. In the time it takes me to settle back in, Ander finishes up the dogs, throws his steak on his plate and comes and sits on the old oak stump in front of me. We eat in a comfortable silence, and it’s the first meal since Ander found me where I enjoy the taste and not just the quantity of the food. He turns to watch the sun settle down for the night, just as we both finish up. He goes back for seconds on beans, and I surprise myself by declining his offer of more, feeling satisfied and a bit stronger.
Ander opens up the conversation, as he seems to enjoy doing, appearing to not be concerned at all that I can’t understand a word he says. And up until tonight, I have been a very passive participant in what I guess could be called a conversation. Tonight, I’m feeling much better, and I’m determined to uphold my end of the conversation, though I’m not sure what that means.
The sun has fully set, with a spectacular burst of reds, greens and yellows just before it dipped out of sight. It was almost immediately much colder, and Ander must feel the same, as he throws a couple of extra logs on the fire and grabs each of us a blanket, which I am grateful for.
As Ander launches into tonight’s story, I am able to pay attention, and though I still don’t understand a single word, I’m fairly certain he’s telling me that he had to shoot two coyotes, or maybe wolves, today. Predators are an ongoing problem for shepherds—and the sheep—and it seems once they get a taste of mutton and discover how easy sheep are to bring down, they’ll keep following the herd until they’re killed. If I understand what Ander is saying or, more precisely, gesturing, he sent the dogs away and hid himself in the middle of the herd, waited a couple of hours until the coyotes, or wolves, showed up, and then killed them both, a single shot each. I do my best to follow, and when I think he’s done with the story I think he told, I reach out and shake his hand—the only thing I can think to do to say congratulations.
I decide to try and share a bit of my day with him. Through arm gestures and pointing, I think I communicate that I spent a lot of time reading and then watching the scenery. I point out to the Pacific and try to show the sun setting. He’s either very polite, or maybe he got it, but either way he seems to appreciate the effort. It’s also quite possible he enjoyed hearing any sound that wasn’t his own voice or sheep bleating.
My next move is to reach into my gear and pull out my extra canteen, which is almost half full with some pretty good San Francisco bourbon. After I start us off, he takes a sip and seems to enjoy it. He sets my canteen down, walks over to his supplies and comes back with a bag of some sort, filled with liquid. He takes the first sip and then hands the bag to me. It’s different than anything I’ve had before, but it’s pretty good. I can’t be certain I understand correctly, but I think he called it Chacoli. When I go to hand it back to him, he insists I keep it and does not offer to return my bourbon. I guess we’re having our own little cultural exchange, and though I prefer the bourbon to what I think is some type of wine, letting him keep my bourbon is certainly the least I can do. I pull the blanket tighter, add another log myself and listen as he starts again.
This time, his story is sad. I believe he is telling me about a wife and two kids—a little boy and a little girl—and either something bad has happened to them or they are back in Europe waiting for him, because he starts crying and gets up and walks away for a couple of minutes, taking the bourbon with him. No matter what, it’s clear that he misses them very much.
When he comes back, still looking quite sad, I start to tell him a story I’ve never told anyone. Eight years ago, I met a beautiful woman, Isabella Clemons. She was visiting America from London, and we fell in love almost immediately upon meeting. It didn’t take us long to decide to get married, and it took even less time for her to convince me to leave the West, to leave America, and move to London—a place where her family was well known and wealthy, and the only place in the world she felt she could live.
Without fully thinking through or fully understanding what was being asked of me, I sailed with her back to London, where I was warmly received by her family. Very shortly after we arrived, Isabella discovered she was pregnant, and a few months later a strong, healthy baby boy—Brock—was born. At first life seemed perfect, but I began to miss the West, the open trails and the wild more and more. Try as I might—and I think I really did try—I just couldn’t adjust to city life, especially in a city that was thousands of miles from my homeland. While I was treated kindly by Isabella’s friends and family, I always felt like I was on the outside, a bit of an oddity.
I look up from my story, having gotten lost in it, and look at Ander, who somehow seems to have understood every word. He still has tears in his eyes, but now they seem to be from my story.
I continue on, telling him how after two years I just couldn’t stay any longer and needed to come back to America, to the West. Isabella, whom I loved—and still do—and whom I have no doubt loved me, felt just as strongly about London. It was agreed that I would leave, and she, along with her brother, would raise Brock. I tried a couple of times to go back, once getting as far as New York, but I never did. She never wrote—where would she send a letter?—and I never did either. My boy, Brock, would be seven years old now. Rarely does a day go by when I don’t think of him, wondering what he looks like. Is he big and strong? Does he ever think about me? When I was trapped under my horse for three days, I spent most of my awake hours thinking of Isabella and Brock, wondering if I’d given them a fair shot and, if I survived, whether I should try going back. But I think it’s been too long. A woman like Isabella is in all probability remarried, and to travel thousands of miles to see the woman I love married to another man and my son having no idea who I am is simply too much. I think it’s best to carry the memory—and the guilt—and leave them both to their lives.
Now I have tears pouring down my face as well, finally having verbalized something I have lived with, but never spoken of, for years. As painful as it is, it is strangely comforting to have shared this with someone, even a Basque shepherd who doesn’t understand a word of English, but somehow seemed to understand exactly what I was saying.
The fire has almost died, and I realize that I have been talking for quite a while and Ander never said a word. I think back and can’t remember saying anything when he was talking about his family. I look at him, and we each finish off our drinks, exchanging the canteen and the bag only when they are empty, having shared much more than our drinks. I feel strangely relieved having shared my story, and I hope he feels the same.
Without another word, we both settle into sleep, which I don't do for quite a while. I stare at the stars, of which there seem to be an infinite number, for what feels like hours. I try to picture Isabella as she was and Brock as he might be. It’s painful, but something I need to do. I don’t hear any snoring from Ander, so maybe he’s doing the same thing. I wonder, for the thousandth time, if I should have stayed in London, or at least gone back. Would I have made a good father, or could I still? But in my heart, I know the answer. Even as I sit here with a busted leg, having come within a day or two of dying, I can’t give this up. Or I won’t. And with that, I fall into a fitful sleep.
I wake early the next morning to find new activity in camp. Sometime last night or before dawn this morning, a second shepherd joined us, this one with a wagon and an ability to speak a little English. It doesn’t take him long to explain to me that they are cousins and this will be the second winter where they combine their herds, allowing each of them to spend a couple of weeks in town, enjoying all that town has to offer. Barkana, as best as I can understand his name, will be heading into town first, leaving today, and would be happy to take me to town in his wagon. Ander will watch the herds for two weeks, and then they’ll trade places before settling down for the balance of the winter. With no other options that I can think of, but with far more reluctance than I would have imagined, I accept his kind offer and begin to pack up my gear. They both help.
Ander and Barkana help me into the back of the wagon, which reminds me how painful the leg still is and how far I have to go before I’ll be back riding again. As we’re ready to leave, Ander speaks to Barkana, who turns to me. “Ander says that he hopes you one day are able to see your son, Brock.” He did understand. I look at Barkana and say, “Please tell him thank you.”
I ask Barkana about Ander’s family, and he assures me they are alive and well, but living in the Pyrenees mountains, waiting for Ander to make his fortune and return, which means I understood as well. I make a mental note to rethink my definition of conversation. I’d always assumed it required a shared language, but it clearly doesn’t.
I don’t know how much a fortune is in Basque country, but I reach into my bag, pull out five $20 gold pieces and hand them to Ander—who tries to refuse them. I ask his cousin to explain how grateful I am for Ander having saved my life and how, in our country, it is customary to show gratitude. He gently accepts the coins. We shake hands, and Barkana gets the wagon moving toward San Luis Obispo.