Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In the wild west of our recent history, some days went without the great dangers and escapades we continually read about. Thoughtful decisions at specific times often cemented the future and deeded the past. Such is this story about a man of vision in the westward plunge, in America’s splurge into open spaces and unclaimed land. The pot at boil that was America continued its mixture, becoming what it would be by individual desire and hunger for a better life, and every now and then was reinforced by a collective decision that changed a trail, chose a road, set a marker.
Actions, it all said, are not always noisy, combative, or destructive. It was also said, and is said yet about that time of our history, that the gun was the law; but law was not the gun, it was a collective drive of people of adventure, daring and hope.
Gari Yanchun, “A mix of breeds,” he said, “from the world over,” came back to the wagon train from his lengthy outride as the wagons curled into a night circle. He was, in addition to the wagon trains’ lead scout, the second man in command. But in his lonely work at times, the stars haunted him, the moon touched him, the west wind told him stories, and the land he rode on, wide as the heavens above, had already spread its arms for him. Yanchun believed the welcome was fortuitous all the way.
Proof had been in his hands.
Yanchun’s bloodline had been collected in Europe and Asia in centuries of mix. The horsemen of Central Europe, who had run ahead of the Tartars and Mongols and other wild horse battalions, and maybe a phalanx or two on the way, had fled across the two adjoining continents and some of them ended up in the green fields of Ireland. Now, as a further moving descendant of those Central Plains horsemen, he was here in another adventure, America’s west open to any and all dreams and energy as far as the mind could visualize.
Yanchun’s long scouting ride had revealed much of the landscape and topography of the area. He had cupped both hands around earth in many places, squishing, squeezing, and reaching for qualities demanded by his certain intentions. He told no one that a sense had overcome him as he came back to the campsite, telling him they, the people of the wagon train, were at home in this place. “Here,” it said, “here.” Then the voice kept talking to him, saying, “We have come as far as we need to go. This is home for us.” It was an overpowering sensation as he dismounted and headed to the night fire and a hot tin of coffee. About him, as if messages continued, the air was delicious and warm as summer set its issues out upon the earth. The grass, tall and green, seemed to wave back at him from many miles, to where the mountains interjected. In this place, this corner in the vast space of the earth underfoot, home beckoned to a descendant of the horsemen of the Central Plains of a different continent.
The other sense also told him that he was alone in this revelation and he would have to force the issue on many of those in the wagon train. Indeed, most of them thought they were headed for a grand valley in the Californias, a valley loaded with natural riches, in the tract of east-bound breezes off the Pacific Ocean where life could not be better. That’s what they had paid for, the west of riches and plenty in the land they would settle on. The arguments were steep.
At the campfire, Harry Langford, one of the riders having a break from riding guard, said, “What the hell, Gari, what’s on your hands? Looks like you been digging in mud or an old doused campfire. Been doing something special, like always? You’ve always got something else going on in that mind of yours, stuff that we can’t touch no how, like you mount from the other side of the horse than us.” The rider paused as Yanchun smiled at his suspecting grin, and then said, “What you got kicking around upstairs, Gari? I know that look of yours. Been watching it for a few weeks now.”
Yanchun had trouble holding back what was a positive response. He thought about it, gauged Langford as one who did not rant and rave on fact or fiction, so he said, “If I had the whole say in this matter, Harry, I’d say we were where we want to be. This can be home for us.”
“Here, in the middle of this?” His hand was thrown with a far and wide gesture.
“Come dawn, Harry, take another look around. For miles and miles the grass has been rich. We have passed by or over three decent rivers, and one lies directly ahead of us. The mountains off there,” and he nodded northward with a toss of his head, “have enough growth for what we need. This is cattle country, every last mile of it. The range is superb. Life, if you can believe it, sits here in a saucer for us.” He cupped his hands to reflect containment and plenty.
Langford came right back. “There are some who’ll fight you on that, Gari. I know others are tired of moving every day and want to grab a piece of earth with any promise in it. But you’ll have a fight on your hands. Hopkins, that loudmouth, will lead the way. Much as the others want a piece of California, he wants a huge chunk of it. Sees himself as some magic land grower. Man has dreams too, and they’re as big as they come. Cattle big if you want to look at it your way. He dreams about gardens ten miles long, whole valleys with crops running like the grass under our feet. He’ll fight any change in our plans.”
His pause was an alert of sorts. “Far as I’m concerned, I don’t think he cares how he gets it done.”
“Well,” said Yanchun, “I’ll ask those who want to settle down soon, those who’re tired of this long run, to do it right here. We’ve seen some cow places already. We know what they demand of ranchers. This is open country and we have to grab it now. It’s 1866, the war’s over now. We know there’s going to be brigands and roustabouts and bands of malcontents all along the way. War gives birth to such stuff, those who feel cheated, have lost something or someone, who are tired of being the underdog and want to be top dog, no matter what it takes or who it hurts. The farther we go, the more we get thinned out. There’s Indians to look for, too.”
The confrontation came in the morning, nerves brittle from little sleep and constant guard. The wagon had been surprised a few times, but they had decent reactions and good resources with weapons. Yanchun had a big hand in all of it, riding into the face of dangers, tipping the edge in their favor by sudden moves, outrageous courage that proved itself in a daring hurry. The horse flying under him in the tight situations called upon an element in his blood, and found acceptance in involuntary actions; he belonged on a horse, the tight pair of them was one.
Roger Hopkins started it off by asking Yanchun a few pointed questions in front of a dozen pioneers ready to start the new day on old sleep.
“What’s this I’ve heard you want to drop the anchor right here in the middle of this wilderness, Yanchun? Out here smack in the middle of nothing? Is that what you have in mind for yourself, you all by your lonesome? That you want to break off in the middle of nowhere? Seems poor planning or tired bones to me. It’d take a man of guts to make a stab for land out here. We know you have the guts, but is it good thinking?”
“Well, Roger,” Yanchun said, “you’ve seen the grass we’ve been riding through for miles and miles. This is great grazing country, cattle country. We’ve seen the longhorns loose all over. We’ve fed on enough of them. They get fat on this land. I think it’s a very decent place to pitch in.”
“What will you live in? There’s not enough wood in site to build a half dozen houses. You’d be in the open before you know it and winter coming off the hills or up your backside.”
“Have you looked close at the land around us, Roger? We have all the materials we need to build cover for ourselves,” and he added a quick solicitation, enlisting or enticing those he could, “for anybody who wants to put in here on this great grass country. Before you know it, the cattle will be breeding all over this land. It’ll become cattle country, lock stock and barrel.”
He had put the “why” ahead of the “how.”
“You’re kidding me and all these other folks if you’re telling them they can build here. I don’t see a tree within a mile of us right now.”
“That’s right, Hopkins. All you see is cow grass, miles after mile of it. This is a rich place for those who can dig in and hold on.”
A voice in the crowd said, “You lead a good fight, Gari. I’d follow you into Hell if I had to, but I don’t like sleeping in the open any longer than I have to. Last winter in Illinois was almost enough for me. Sounds like you got a pretty good idea of what you’d do but haven’t told us yet. “
Another voice said, “Amen to that, Bobby Joe. Amen. Except the Hell part. My britches was warm enough last winter.” He added a braggadocio laugh.
A horseman still astride, at the back of the gathering, said, “Well, Dirk, what was her name?”
Everybody enjoyed the levity for a moment, and then Hopkins said, “You ain’t said what you’d do to get through the winter, Yanchun.”
“I’m building my house out of adobe. Clay, sand, mud, straw, water, whatever works and we find, mix ‘em up, form them in bricks with wooden molds, and let ‘em dry. They get rock hard in about two weeks’ time. There’s a great deal of mud and clay and sand around. I’ve seen it all, all along the river ahead and behind. We could build an adobe city here if we had to. People are doing it other places. They’ve done it in Asia and Europe for a long time. I’m convinced it’s what will go out here. Do the trick for us.”
The rider, still astride, said, “I’m all for that, Gari. I’d rather ride herd on cows than poke for weeds in the gardens of some California valley. Sounds like this is a place for me, right here.”
There was one good drover in the mix.
“I’m a farmer, Gari,” a small man in front said. The slope of long years was apparent in his shoulders, in the span of his large hands that wore toil as well as age. “All I can do is farm. I’m good at it. I don’t know cows and don’t hanker to know. It’d take me too long to learn something new. I ain’t taking a thing away from you. I sure am glad you were around plenty of times and I’m hoping we won’t miss you down the trail, but I want California for me and the family.” He looked about for nods and got some.
Yanchun said, “I’m staying. I’m not asking anybody to stay with me, but if you want to get in on the start of a good thing, you can do it right here and now. Cow beef back east, from Chicago all the way back to Boston and New York, will be in demand. We got the grass to fatten them up, the whole plains are full of it, and the breed will get stronger the more we mix the good ones. The Spanish left a tough breed that has survived here a couple of centuries I guess. We’ll raise a new strain of cow the whole world will hear about, all the way back to where my folks come from.” He nodded his head in serious salute, and added, “Yes, a long way back, and going right through the dinner tables of New York, London and Paris, if I have anything to say about it.”
Another on-looker, stocky and rugged as the landscape, said, “Gari, you say things that seem impossible to happen, from where I’m standing. That’s a long way to move cow meat. How can that happen? Is that painting a rosy picture for these sad eyes?” He swayed his head in an iffy gesture, the mark of a decision maker sitting on the fence.
Yanchun was right on it. “Look at the railroad that’s chasing us even as we move now. What’s it going to be 10 or 20 years from now? What else will it bring? Isn’t that a picture that fits us as we sit here posing ourselves for the future? Can you see the railroad cutting right across the land, around mountains, over rivers, heading all the way to one ocean from another ocean? I’m talking big and bigger, better than better, and we can be part of it.”
From off to one side, a broad-faced man, with thick features that spoke of strength and fortitude, offered his stance. “You always dream big, Gari, and I don’t fight that at all. I didn’t come all the way out here, me and Zelda, to be servants or slaves to someone who beat us to the punch. I want the chance to be more than that, so if you’re looking for comrades at work or in arms, I’m with you. Of all the men in this wagon train, you have been capable in all you try, from riding that damned horse of yours, to waging the good battle when necessary. Me and Zelda will stay.”
So the discussion carried on, as history moved on desire and collective agreement, as issues were separated, as sides developed, and part of the wagon train continued toward California’s gardens, and part of the wagon train stayed put where a city eventually found itself growing upward from a mix of straw, clay, sand and water caught up in the form of adobe bricks.