Western Short Story
Margaret Brody, on the rim of the huge ravine that plunged hundreds of feet down to the dark earth, studied the far side. Her hat thrown back, blond and beautiful, her horse as still as silence, she sat her saddle with ultimate ease. Any fall from the edge would be certain death, yet she concentrated on the opposite wall, a seemingly blank facade but one with slight discolorations in the strata, lines that moved in strange fashions if she changed her position or her line of sight. Even the slightest move on her part provided additional information to her inquisitive mind. She read the strata colors as if she was reading ancient hieroglyphics, each turn or shift having something to say to one who is observant. Abruptly, in the swift light of the mind, in one swift moment she would remember forever, the magic was on her.
Heaven was at hand.
She had just turned nineteen years old, about as bright as the sun shining down on her at that hour. For her short life, she had been awaiting arrival at this place, the awesome peaks of a great mountain range practically clouding the sky from where she sat her horse, and the mountains holding promise in their dark escarpment.
She swore she had known this place forever. But heading west on a wagon train in those days also carried a rushing of flashbacks. It was the year 1875 and the war was long over, though scars remained.
When Margaret Brody was born in Boston, a short walk from the site of the battle of Bunker Hill, it was said in the family that she gazed west with her first look. (The family couldn’t argue much about that premise; the whole bunch of them had come west from Ireland because of the famine and the new opportunities.) Maggie carried the family mantle with ease. As much as an Indian papoose gets its name from a first sign, the idea stuck and the westerly signs continued with Maggie. When she was only a dozen years old she told her parents she was born to follow the sun. “Someday I am going out there where the wind will get in my face and the mountains will get in my eyes, and where there is enough room you can invite the stars down to share it.”
She was melodic, but sincere about it. They knew there was a magic with her. She came into the world as a blond beauty and stayed the blond beauty, her luxurious mass of curls “probably passed down from some Viking raider,” her grandfather had said. The curls and her smile bought off everybody, but her interest and passion about the west culled other people with similar passions from those who surrounded her. They fed her hunger and passion.
At eighteen she was ready, to go off on her own if necessary; the stories had never stopped coming her way, and she had pursued anyone who had been west or knew someone who had gone and had sent back information in any form, oral, written or graphic. She had talked to sea captains who had gone around the horn, wagon masters that had made a return voyage, and she spent hours with an uncle who had “been west a ways, all the way out to Ohio.”
She was captivated, charmed, and titillated by the possible adventures. Then again, she was rhapsodic, musical, ran a guitar until its strings whistled, and carried a dream every waking moment of her life. Books that were available about the western part of the country constantly found their way into her possession, and the midnight oil always burned low. Heroes flocked into her knowledge from all kinds of imagination… her own and that of others, such as writers and yarn spinners. Indian lore enamored her with brightness and interest in their ways and talents, how the raw life could be lived to its fullest. All that made up the western part of the country, every last sliver of it, found its way into her lexicon, into her bursting and encyclopedic mind.
“Look at this,” she said to her father one day, “the Spanish explorer Coronado was up this way here looking for the mythical Seven Cities of Cibola, and tons of gold,” and she pointed out places on a map, “and other Spaniard explorers followed him. And this man, this foreign-born painter Albert Bierstadt, took three trips west and painted great scenes he had seen.” Then she exclaimed, “I have seen some of them. They’re marvelous. Really marvelous! They take your breath away!”
Every way she turned, the west came to hand and mind.
Another day she called off the names of missionaries.” Father, I heard today about two men, two missionaries, Cyrus Kingsberry and Alfred Wright, who have gone among the Choctaws and Pawnees, at their own peril, to teach them better ways, if that can be done. At the same time I heard about the great Indian Pushmatawa and his nephew Nitakechi, and how they were called to Washington to engage in a treaty pact. One of them never got there.” Her excitement was contagious. “I met this man at the library down on Mason Street and he knows more about the west than I’ll ever know unless I get out there.”
He felt like a school child as she filled him in on another daily lesson about Butterfield’s Over Land Stage Company, and the great cow ranches of Wilson Jones and Jonathan Nail that first brought horsemen to drive great herds to northern railheads of new and far-reaching railroads.
Her father remembered in particular the day she had carried on about how the cattle were being driven in great herds by those riders called cowboys who got a dollar a day and their meals and rode all day long moving the herds from the Red River to Sedalia, Missouri. “But that makes me think about the buffalo having lived out there for practically forever and there has to be places there already where cows or steers can live right off the land without having to be driven for months on end, usually for about twenty miles a day, to get put on a train. That’s a lot of work and riding and burning of energies. I aim to see spaces like that, perfect places to let cattle grow on their own right off the land.”
Even with her grasp at western history and the people who rode and worked through it, her father did not relent from his long stand of holding back on a move west, until Maggie’s mother forced the issue. Before Maggie’s father could sneeze, they were in Missouri and had become the newest link of a wagon train pointed west. The plains and the mountains and that other ocean were calling out to them.
From then on she spent many days at the head of the train with the wagon master, Jam Locus, bothering him endlessly with a barrage of questions. He finally said, “What has loosed this fire in you, Maggie? No one in my five trips hither ever showed this much fire.” He looked out at a sea of grass being swayed by a simple breeze; the mountains, a few days off yet and still waiting to be seen, might have sent the breeze, he thought.
Some people, he realized, had the knack of putting things together, and he wondered if he’d ever get to that point, where Maggie was.
Maggie, in her way, had either found or exposed admirable warmth in Jam Locus telling her that sharing was permissible, and she replied, “Some of the things I’ve never told my family are what keep me moving. They might think I’m crazy, but I’ve dreamed about heaven being out here, a place so beautiful and so hidden, I’ll be the only one to find it. It will share mountains and grass so green it will scare you, and the stars will own it all night long. When I am close to it, it’ll let me know.”
“Any idea of where that is?” said Locus, sitting his saddle out front, waiting for his lead scout to report back from his outrider task, his eyes always searching the horizon. “Ever draw yourself a map, Maggie? Do you think you’ll want to leave the wagon train right off the bat if this place lets you know it’s near, like it’s up the next gully or canyon we pass?”
“I don’t know now, but I’ll know then, right when it happens,” Her smile was so charming that Locus could have melted.
The wagon train meanwhile, like a small village on wheels, had its share of mishaps en route; two still-born children were buried out on the wide grass, a love affair floundered and passed on from one wagon to another, one father accidentally shot himself in the leg and his daughter’s boyfriend became the wagon captain, one case of poison ivy popped up so badly Jam Locus had covered the boy with mud and a donation of salt. The procedure, in a day’s time, worked wonders. Life went on in and about the wagon train, the plains getting wider, the rivers harder to cross, bands of Indians hanging on the outskirts for days at a time, trying to steal a horse, a rifle, a woman.
And then, on the rim of the great ravine, the light struck Margaret Brody head on.
“There!” she exclaimed to Jam Locus, “I want to go over there, to that side.” She was pointing to what appeared to Locus as a blank wall.
“There’s nothing there, Maggie, but the other side.”
“You’re wrong,” she said, then rode off to find her father. She explained it all to him, and they approached Locus, Maggie explaining what kind of a man they needed.
“I know of one young man, an engineer from the railroad. Not a driver, but a planner, who has designed bridges, put roads along the edge of a mountain. I’ll see he talks to you when I see him in a few days.”
In a week, young engineer Robert Marston had strung a foot bridge across the ravine, the face of the opposite side staring at him all the time, his small crew of men often laughing behind his back, yet all were enamored by the enthusiasm of Maggie Brody who was on site each morning before any of the others.
Marston guided Maggie across, left her, went back and got her parents. Around a few turns they went, wide enough for animals or a wagon, yet appearing to be solid mass from a distance of fifty or sixty feet. And in one twist and turn of the path, as if a last place on earth, they came upon a vista of glorious light and sunshine and grass that filled what might have been a thousand acres of land locked into the middle of a mountain range. At the far end the thin line of a waterfall was visible as it sparkled in its silver needle. White-tail deer grazed openly on the grass. A pair of hawks drifted lazily on unseen swirls of air high over their heads.
Maggie Brody said, “All I need is a few breeders and a staunch bull to start a herd that will have no match. There’ll be no question on that matter. I’ve known it forever.” And images, hundreds of them in glistening speed, ran through her mind.
She turned to look at her father, who turned and said to young Marston, “Sir,” he said, “can you build us a bridge over that hole in the ground that will handle cattle and wagon stock?” He looked out over his daughter’s dream land and said, “Until we find out if there is another way in or out, but I seriously doubt this place has been found yet. It’s heaven, you know. It’s right out of her dream, this meadow of Maggie’s.”
Marston, also staring out in front of them at the implausible spread of nature’s bounty, said, “That I’ll do, sir, with pleasure.”
Maggie Brody had heard none of it, lost once again in her dream, the old and the new images still rushing through her senses, as she touched and smelled a handful of green grass, saw the sun sparkle on the distant waterfall, found a breeze on her face that tasted like water, and heard the cry of a finger-winged hawk on an unseen thermal high over her head.