Western Short Story
A million diamonds glinted in the smooth, untouched white curve of snow in the basin, struck out by the sun that pierced the bright silver-white sky. The bitter wind whisked across it, kicking up little powdery swirls. Cal Rayburn turned up the collar of his sourdough coat with one hand, hunching his shoulders a little so the collar half covered his ears. He squinted at the blinding-bright landscape, and one side of his cold-numbed lips twisted back a little in a half-smile. Not another human being for miles, but still he fancied he could feel an odd festivity in the air. What did it come from, he wondered? The fields and mountains looked the same as they did every day. If he had not known it was Christmas Eve day, would he still have felt it?
Cal reined his horse to a stop at the crest of a white rise, and looked back over his shoulder toward the rampart of mountains that towered over the line camp. Their white peaks were seamed with black and silver where the wind scoured the snow from the rock faces, their lower slopes heavy with snowy pines. As he looked, a wind roused among the trees of the nearest slope, blowing clouds of snow like white smoke shot with crystal from their laden branches. The beauty of it caught in Cal’s chest and almost hurt. It was moments like these that he didn’t mind being alone out here.
His horse stood hock-deep in the trampled snow, its head tucked down a little against the wind. Cal scanned the empty, untracked basin again—no sign of cattle; they would all be back in the shoulder of some sheltering hill, or deep under the pines. No sign of anything. He smiled, and his lips formed the words softly aloud: “Here shall he see no enemy…but winter and rough weather.”
His horse swiveled a blue-dun ear backward, inquiringly. It was a habit that had grown on Cal from his grandfather. Gramps had always been a well of quotations: poetry, Shakespeare mostly, bits of psalms and other scriptures—an apt phrase for any occasion, and some things that sounded surprising coming from a little dried-up old man who’d been a farmer and blacksmith all his life; but the beauty of them you couldn’t deny. Gramps had set store by that.
“When you got some beauty in your mind, boy,” he would say, “it don’t matter how ugly a place you’re in. You get by.”
Well, there was nothing ugly here…except the aloneness.
Cal’s eyes were a little misty, though that might have been from the stinging cold. It seemed so long ago. It wasn’t till after Gramps died that the family had begun to come apart: that his uncles had fallen out, that his stepmother had moved back to Cheyenne, taking his half-sister with her—it was only Gramps’ good-hearted persuasions that had kept her out at the homestead after Cal’s father died five years ago. They had all scattered—and here he was, not quite seventeen and trying to keep his chin up this first winter on his own. Of course he wasn’t really by himself, with his cousin Neal working at McCourty’s ranch too; but Cal regarded himself as being on his own—perhaps because he was determined not to even think of himself as taking any help from Neal.
Cal turned his horse around and started back down the way he had come, toward the cabin sheltered under the lee of the mountain. He was almost halfway through a two months’ stay at one of the ranch’s remotest line camps. For company he had the good-tempered blue dun horse, shaggy-coated cattle that stared at him unmovedly when he checked on their winter feeding-grounds, the wild cold beauty of the mountains, and the kind of company that Gramps had set store by. His uncle Ephraim had the old family Bible with the cover that was just barely attached, but Cal had the two battered little leather-covered volumes of Shakespeare that Gramps had kept and thumbed over for most of his life. They were a more lasting kind of company than the pile of months-old magazines and newspapers left by the previous occupants of the camp…they helped to partly fill that aching little hole in his heart that made itself felt whenever he thought about the Christmas that was coming.
No enemy but winter…no enemy, but no friend either. He missed his little sister Emily, with her sunny disposition and the dark eyes and red-brown hair that linked them in resemblance to their dead father. He missed his uncles’ endless wrangles and debates; his stepmother, who had always been kind to him even though he wasn’t her boy…he missed Gramps’ warm cackling little laugh and the pat of a gnarled hand on his shoulder, commending when he’d done right, reassuring when he failed. He missed all of them except for the one relation who was still fairly near at hand.
There was really no reason for him to dislike Neal, but there was an odd, pricking resentment lodged somewhere inside him all the same. All the time of their growing up Neal had been a year older, an inch taller, a step faster, a little quicker and a lot louder at coming back with an answer. It hadn’t mattered within a family where such things weren’t a competition, but now that they were working alongside each other at a man’s job, Cal felt that other men must always be comparing the two of them, to his disadvantage…especially since Neal had fit in so smoothly and become friendly so quickly with the other men in McCourty’s bunkhouse. He felt, perhaps unjustly, that Neal must know of the comparison, and that when he teased Cal and laughed at him now it was done deliberately, to show up the contrast between them. It was partly because of Neal that he had volunteered for the line camp—not so much because he wanted to get away from him, but because he’d had a lurking feeling in the back of his mind that Neal, and the others, probably thought he wasn’t up to the job—wasn’t up to the solitude, the cold, the responsibility.
Or maybe it wasn’t them…maybe he was trying to prove something to himself.
The line camp consisted of a small square-built log cabin with a pole corral and horse shed tucked in behind it against the foot of the mountain. Cal unsaddled his horse and stabled it in the shed, and put an armful of fresh hay into the stall. He stepped outside—and then, at a thought that recurred uneasily to his mind, he bolted and chained the shed door. He walked down to the cabin with his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets, willing himself not to look back at the slope behind him with shadows beginning to fall between the trees.
It was yesterday afternoon, just up on the other side of the frozen stream that still trickled clear in a few places, that he had seen the tracks. He still remembered the chilly spearing sensation across the back of his shoulders, the subtle jar to all his nerve-ends. A set of perfect prints across the snow: the huge paws of a gray wolf.
They were near…too near. Cal had sometimes heard wolves calling to each other across the mountains, indistinct in the distance; and twice when he had ridden out furthest he had found the bones and torn hide of a steer that had fallen victim to them, with faint frozen bloodstains around it in the snow. But they had never been down this close before. The little herd of cattle in the basin must be drawing them.
The gold and silver gash in the white sky had closed. The gray clouds over the biggest peak were thick and soft-looking and growing darker, heralding more snow. Cal paused at the cabin door to look out across the basin, softening with dusk, toward the angle in the hills where lay the snow-blanketed trail to McCourty’s home ranch; and then he opened the door and went inside.
The cabin was chill and close. He woke the slumbering embers in the tin stove, moved the pot of cold coffee onto the front burner and lit the sputtering oil lamp on the table. Bacon and sourdough biscuits and canned fruit would be his Christmas Eve dinner—small game like rabbits and squirrels had been scarce this winter. Perhaps that was why the wolves were hungry.
By the time he had had his supper and washed the skillet and the tin cup and plate, dusk had fallen, so swift and heavy that it seemed a weight on the cabin roof. Cal stoked the fire and crawled into his bunk, with one of Gramps’ old books, and tried to settle down to read. But the wind had risen, and the lonesome sound pulled at the back of his consciousness. The stove-light shifted on the page in front of him, seeming to make the lines dance surreptitiously in the shadows whenever his eyes drifted a little away from them.
He flipped the book closed and lay down on his back, staring up at the cabin roof. It wasn’t so bad in the daytime. All he had to manage was boredom, and he was doing all right at that. But on stormy nights when the wind rushed uneasily through the heavy pines, then it was that he felt small and cold and alone, and the fears came creeping in on him. He would remember how far he was from the home ranch—and think of all the accidents that might befall him here out of the range of human help. What if his horse broke a leg and pinned him underneath? What if the dun slipped crossing the stream and he was thrown and hit his head on a rock? What if he got caught in the open when a blizzard struck and couldn’t find his way back to the cabin? Suppose he got snowed in for a month with only a week’s supply of food left, and no way for the next line rider to get in?
Or what if the wolves came?
It wasn’t so bad in daylight, but at night these terrors were real. Something about night seemed to throw off the balance of your mind. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep. He would twist and turn under the pile of sheepskins and Navajo blankets, trying to shut his eyes tight enough to make his mind stop working. He’d give himself a mental tongue-lashing. Calvin Rayburn, get a hold on yourself. You know better. You’re acting like a fool kid scared of the dark. If that didn’t work he prayed. Somehow it seemed foolish to say Lord, protect me from a million things that might never happen, so sometimes it was just Lord, make it stop…help me to stop thinking so I can get to sleep. And sometimes, lying with his eyes shut, he would draw upon that story Gramps had taught him, the words and lines that were quieting in the shape and rhythm of their beauty and nobility and resolve. And after a little while he would find that his mind had been led far enough along another pathway that he felt calmer, and tired enough to slip off to sleep.
It was Christmas Eve, and there wasn’t another human being in fifteen miles. In the bunkhouse at McCourty’s there would at least be lights and warmth and voices, men swapping stories and jokes and maybe somebody in a corner trying to sing a Christmas carol to himself. But he’d chosen this. He’d wanted to prove he could stick it out.
The wind whistled through the pines and then slackened…and then, suddenly drifting in closer as if the wind had been keeping it away, came another sound: the eerie, arching howl of a wolf.
Cal lay still for a moment…trying not to breathe. Maybe he had imagined it. But then from somewhere on the slope above the cabin the howl curled out again, long and cold and menacing. And then another answered it—as it sank, a third one tailed off from somewhere higher up the mountain, like an echo.
Cal got up, and sat on the edge of the bunk for a minute, looking at the cabin door. He got up from the bunk and went over to the door and made sure it was fastened. It was only an ordinary latch. His horse ought to be safe in the shed; the door was bolted and chained and the one window was too small for wolves to force their way in.
He turned, his glance rebounding uncertainly round the room—the chinked log walls, the glowing stove and blanket-heaped bunk, the shelves of canned goods. He had his own gun, a second-hand Remington revolver, and there was an old Henry carbine with a box of shells on the shelf. But he was alone. There were two windows to the cabin…good-sized windows…besides the door. And one rifle…?
The howl arched and fell from the mountainside again, and the other wolf-voices answered back as Cal crossed to the shelf and took down the Henry. On the outside he was calm, moving deliberately as one would who knew how to keep his head. But inside it was different, the steely chill of panic trying to crawl up his spine with every howl. He remembered all the stories he had ever heard of solitary trappers or prospectors attacked and torn to pieces by a pack of wolves. He dropped one of the cartridges and it rolled away under the stove. When he straightened up from retrieving it, his hands were shaking as he loaded the Henry, so the cartridge rattled against the breech of the gun. He might have known he would be no good when faced with real trouble.
Would any man be terrified in his place, or was it only him?
The thought settled slowly and sickeningly, like a swirl of mud after a horse’s hoof splashed into the stream. Maybe that’s why I’ve been trying so hard to prove myself—because deep down, I never really believed myself that I had it in me.
The howls curled from peak to peak, half muffled by the blowing snow, but too near to be ignored. Always that one strong voice on the near side of the mountain, and the others answering. Once through the wind Cal heard his horse whinny shrilly; it must have been loud in its uneasiness to be heard through two log walls and a snowstorm. Sometimes the wolves would stop for a few minutes, and he would listen with sweaty fingers clutching the Henry to see if the silence would stretch out…but then the voices would rise again one after the other.
He crouched down by the stove, his face close to the dim glow its embers emitted, letting the rifle slide to rest across his knees. The coals seemed a miniature, a parody of the light and warmth from a home’s hearth-fire. They woke a recollection of something he had seemingly forgotten a long time ago. Christmas Eve, he thought.
The red embers seemed to throb a little more brightly…that old festivity lurked even in the corners of the dark cabin, doing its best even as the rattletrap stove was. Another one of Gramps’ old favorite passages drifted through his head…he could almost hear the old man’s light, rusty, lilting voice saying it.
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Savior’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
Cal slid the rifle from his knees and leaned on it, one hand gripped round the barrel and the stock resting on the dirt floor by the stove. There was something softly bewitching in those fanciful lines…a fancy born in reverence, and the notion that there was something hallowed in this night. Fancy made the embers glow brighter—in fancy, why might it not be as Shakespeare has said? All over the sleeping world men looked up at stars or falling snow, and felt the night was different, because it was hallowed in their hearts. Perhaps somewhere a bird sang in a remote thicket…and here in the dead of Wyoming winter, where there were no birds to sing, the wolves sang Christmas harmonies through the night.
The lead wolf called again, a sound clear, cruel, and eerily beautiful. The bird of dawning, thought Cal, a faint laugh shaking him. The closest thing to it that I’ll hear tonight.
Well, one could make believe, couldn’t they?
He held onto that over those next dark hours, as tightly as his fingers curled round the barrel of the rifle. The howls of the wolves rose and fell all around the cabin, and Cal fought down fear, kneeling there in the half-dark by the stove, aided by fancy that might have been foolish, but burned steady for him throughout that night. He listened, and tried to smile. The bird of dawning sang on in the form of a wolf from the mountainside, fitting for the rugged land that lay around.
Hours had passed. Cal dared to think that the sounds of the wolves had grown a little fainter, as if they had moved away; but perhaps it was only snowing more. The wind was still blowing strong. Cal, staring into the stove, mechanically followed the arch of the lead wolf’s howl—up, up, even on that one highest note for a moment, and then more swiftly down.
Another sound jolted through the end of it—a sound that startled him because it was utterly unlike anything he had heard for weeks on end: a faint shout. A distinctly, unmistakably human voice on the incline below the camp.
Cal rocked to his feet, stumbling from the numbness of crouching so long. He pressed against the cabin door and listened. He must have imagined this. If no spirit dared stir abroad, surely no mere human would be out on the range in the deep snow and cutting winds of tonight.
It came again—a shout from the trail. Fumbling at the latch with his left hand, the rifle still in his right, Cal pulled the door open and leaned into the opening, into the wind that carried stinging snow-crystals against his face. This time, he heard it without a doubt: a clear, ringing hail carrying up some twenty yards out of the blowing dark. “Hello-o-o, in the cabin! Anybody there?”
“Neal!” he yelled. He dropped the Henry and it landed squarely on his foot—picked it up and put it on the table and hopped to catch the door before the wind blew it shut. “Up here!” he shouted.
Neal’s voice came back out of the night, wonderfully human and matter-of-fact. “Got a lantern? It’s black as tar out here, and I’ve been listening to wolves all the way up the trail for the last hour.”
“Last hour! I’ve been listening to them all night!” Cal yelled back. “Hang on and I’ll get the lantern.”
He piled into his coat, lit the lantern, crammed on hat and gloves and then took the lantern and the Henry and went outside. In the whirl of snow there was no chance for talking; Cal held the lantern out to throw a blot of light ahead of them on the half-blown-over trail up to the shed, and then waited with it in the shed doorway while Neal dragged saddle and bridle off his horse. Then they tramped back to the cabin, into the wind that was rushing up from the basin into the gap in the trees that held the line camp.
Cal slammed the door against the storm and set the rifle down against the wall. Neal, breathless, stamped snow from his boots and took off his hat. “Little windy tonight, did you notice?” he said.
Cal laughed, a little breathless himself, and slid out of his coat. “Yeah? I thought I heard something a while back.”
Neal grinned, pulling off his gloves to warm his hands at the stove. He looked just the same as ever—that flashing grin, and the way one eye crinkled up when he laughed just like Uncle Ephraim’s did. Cal had never felt so glad to see him before. He realized with shamefaced surprise that he must have missed his cousin too, even when the thought of him seemed only vexation.
“Must’ve taken you hours to get up here,” he said, watching the way Neal held his hands close to the top of the stove and stretched his stiffened fingers. “What’d you come for?”
“Well,” said Neal, “the more I thought about it the last couple days, I couldn’t stick the thought of you spending Christmas up here all alone. So I thought I’d ride up and keep you company. I waited late to start, that’s the thing—I thought maybe Dobie Tanner would get through with the mail today, and I figured there might be a letter or something from Cheyenne for you. But it was past the middle of the afternoon and he hadn’t come, so I started out.”
Something like the red embers in the stove was glowing warm and radiant in Cal’s heart, but all he could think of to say was, “Well—that’s all right. If there’s a letter it’ll be there when I get back next month.”
“Suppose Emily’s learned to write her S’s right way forward yet?” said Neal.
So Neal remembered those things too. “I guess I’ll find out.”
Neal tossed his gloves on the table and started to unbutton his coat, and then he raised his head and cocked it toward the wall as if listening. “Those wolves sounded pretty close. Have you had any trouble with them?”
“Not—trouble; not what you’d call trouble,” said Cal, smiling rather uncertainly. “They’ve killed a couple of steers, stragglers that were away from the herd. But they were down here tonight, not more than fifty yards off, I’d reckon, and howling to beat anything. I didn’t half like that.”
“Don’t blame you,” said Neal. “They set my teeth on edge just coming up that trail. Kept you awake some, I guess?” He nodded toward the rifle by the wall.
Cal had sat down on the edge of the bunk; he stretched his hands out in front of him on his knees and laughed a little weakly. “I’ll say. I feel like a piece of chewed string.”
Neal threw back his head and laughed. He’d missed that laugh, too. It almost felt like he hadn’t seen his cousin since the old days when the family was all together—counting out all those months at McCourty’s that Cal had been nursing that unreasonable little grudge against him. It was a long time since they’d talked so frankly and freely together, and it felt so much better than to be always unhappily watching his cousin sideways, fretted by the idea that Neal might be seen as the better man.
“I’ve heard lots of fellows say the same after a night listening to that kind of singing,” Neal was saying. He sat down on the bunk, then rose partly again to pull a book from under him and tossed it aside. He heaved a careless sigh that turned into a yawn. “Some Christmas Eve. Got any coffee left? How about heating some of it up before we turn in?”
Here shall he see no enemy
But winter and rough weather.
“Sure thing,” said Cal, getting up. He yawned too. He felt tired, tired but light-hearted and contented. He felt he had been given back a piece of all he had lost when the family went their separate ways. The piece he had nearly thrown away himself. There was no sense in letting his own childish hurt pride come between him and his cousin, when now more than ever they ought to stay the best of friends.
He rattled the poker inside the stove, and the embers bloomed brightly, like a last cheerful smile for the Christmas night. And somewhere far out on the mountain, drifting further off with the snow and the wind, a wolf’s howl rose once and fell away into the night.