Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A soft, steady breeze, with no puff to it, lifted over the edge of Soldier’s Creek and carried with it the sooty odor of a dead fire, a dank, drifting smell that came like the death of an animal a man has long known, perhaps a favorite horse, like a black stallion unseen at night but a dark star in the sunlight. Another person might say the odor was of an old market in a corner of town or an old home left to rot in the wake of a hundred battles that raged around it, the inhabitants, a man and his whole family, gone to dust in one of those fierce battles, so that their essence alone remained of them. One could almost see the house as it stood decorated with gardens, pet animals, and lusty children bouncing with life. Yet the odor, despite various images passersby would have, remained the cold, dank ashes of a fire long gone into night’s realm, thus it came back each and every nightfall thereafter.
The posse, halted on the bank of Soldier’s Creek and about to put down for the night after a long and fruitless chase, was headed by the oldest sheriff in the territory, Clayton Chalmers, former cavalry sergeant in the Great War. Chalmers had been here before, at Soldier’s Creek in the Arizona Territory. This was where he had seen the ghosts before. And he knew he’d see them again. They would not let him go. He could not hide from them.
And Chalmers carried about with him the constant realization that he’d never get rid of the ghosts until he joined them, until he was back in the ranks once more, where he belonged. “A trooper is a trooper, and a cavalryman is a cavalryman, and that’s forever,” he’d once heard Major General George Meade say just before the battle of Gettysburg. That was back on May 1, 1863, but the words hung on like an orator’s legacy. Chalmers felt them every time he climbed into his saddle, every time he thought of Culp’s Hill and other sites he’d ranged with his horse in the midst of carnage and interminable death.
Now, on this day, his posse was hunting for two killers who had escaped from an iron prison transfer wagon on the way to the penitentiary at Yuma, killing the driver and two escort riders at a rest stop. The escapees shot the wagon horses and rode off on the two escorts’ horses, taking all weapons, ammunition, canteens, and a small amount of travel food.
One posse member, Chuck Twohig, set about to make a night fire when the odor of old, wet ashes assailed him on the gentle breeze. He yelled to Sheriff Chalmers standing a ways off at the edge of the creek, “Hey, Sheriff, can you smell that old fire, like it’s out there in the middle of the creek and getting whipped up again after it’s been doused out?” Twohig did not say that he had seen a soldier walking toward him, on the water, and who suddenly disappeared. He thought better of looking foolish in front of one of the most respected sheriffs in the west, though Chalmers’ association with Soldier’s Creek was well-known in the territory.
Nor did Chalmers say that he had also seen the ghost soldier, once a friend, once a comrade, looking as he had before death came to him, a private in the ranks. Chalmers wondered if that old friend had been one of the two night guards of the fateful patrol, for he once liked his whiskey hard and often at the end of every hard ride or campaign. More than once that man’s voice had come to him in the night, as he rode alone out on the grass or on a mountain trail, “Why didn’t you duck that drunk’s bullet, Clay? You could have been with us, right here with us.” Over the rim of his canteen cup he had looked as he offered that marked invitation.
Instead of not contributing on the spot more mystery to Soldier’s Creek, Chalmers tendered a warning, “Don’t you worry about that smell, Chuck, because it’s not going away. It’s been smelling the place up since the raid near here when the troop was camped out.”
He’d continue to try to bring it more into the open. He added as if he was a narrator, “The Apaches, it’s said, left out two bottles of whiskey the night guards found and drank off. They fell asleep on their rounds and the Apaches walked in and killed every man in the troop after they had doused the campfire with water and moved in the darkness like a cougar or a puma on the kill. It was retaliation for the massacre of Apaches in Pinals in June of 1870. Lots of Apache women and children killed in that merciless raid. A terrible thing, a stain on the army forever and on those who ordered it done. I’ve smelt the ashes from that fire for at least half a dozen years. It’s there, ripe as melons in the garden, every time I come by.”
“What happened to them guards, Sheriff?” Twohig said. The ghost had retreated, and he preferred not to mention such a ludicrous vision.
“Oh, they were the first ones to get their throats cut and then they were scalped.” Chalmers spoke in a distant tone, as if his words were being measured, a fine being levied, a judgment passed.
“Then the Apaches got everybody else?” Twohig was intrigued by the sheriff’s tone, and aware that he was himself smack in the middle of something he had seen and could not believe. If it was happening to the sheriff, again, for everybody knew his history, it was not going to happen to him.
“Yup, sure as you’re sitting there ready to light that new fire, Chuck, they got the whole company.” It was not as if he had said, “They got all of them but me.” He had not brought that fully loaded into his mind as yet.
“You got a real nice way of upsetting someone, Sheriff. Might play hell with a night’s sleep … if we’re still here come morning, full morning.” Twohig looked out across the creek, checking if the mysterious soldier had reappeared. He saw nothing.
“It sure did that to the troop,” Chalmers said, as he rolled over on his blanket, thinking back to the night he fell off his horse, a stray bullet in his shoulder from a drunken cowboy celebrating the end of a long drive. He never made the patrol to Soldier’s Creek with his company. But he remembered the name of the drunk who was wild-shooting after a night on the town: Victor Rangely, dead of hanging in the territory two years earlier than this night, his body hanging for three days or so on the stout limb of a tree outside Williamsville, the vultures venturing to his eyes, his tongue, his extremities. Two army scouts buried him, taking his weapons and a private paper of a sort off his person before covering him up. It was the piece of paper that identified him, and Chalmers had no feeling when he heard of the man’s death by hanging. “Things happen,” he said to himself, “when you least expect them and they may not be your fault.”
He had fought the sense of guilt for years, and again this night it rolled over him in waves, the way grass bends in a strong wind, ever rolling, ever bending to another will, another power.
Memory, he reflected, has its good parts and its bad parts. It was still fact that he’d stiffen straight up with pride and nostalgia at the first note of special bugle calls. Reveille and Call to Colors and Last Call snuck down inside him each time and burst within, carrying a host of images that held on with a kind of desperation, as if he had not chosen the right path in life, as if a power bigger than him was measuring distance, time, achievement. It was as much haunt as it was memory.
Rangely, dead or alive, was a bad part of his memory, and here again, on the edge of Soldier’s Creek, the whole fiasco called again in a new haunting. The odor of the ashes lingered all the hours of the night and offered up a final taste when they departed in the morning.
In that long ago a young recruit had come to his bunk where he was recovering, saying he had orders to bring him to the troop commander. “Sarge, you better come quick. The Captain’s real nervous. I think something bad’s happened to the company. I thought he was going to pull my arm out of its socket, he’s so upset. Better hurry, Sarge, ‘cause I don’t know what’s bothering him so much.”
“You’re a lucky man, Sergeant,” the captain told Chalmers. “The only man left alive in your company, so I am transferring you to another company in another post. I am afraid that his incident will never leave you and I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes. That night you were shot, you could have spun the other way. It’s hard to say, ’But better safe alive than dead with comrades.’ The weight promises to be fearsome. I do not envy you.”
Only for one year did he last in the new situation, then got his discharge and turned to law where he established a reputation for fairness, perseverance and behavior that bordered on the most dangerous, as though he placed little value on his own life. People of all walks knew it was a consequence of his being the only “survivor” of his company, long since dubbed “The Lost Company B,” the original one. That, of course, is hard to carry about in one person’s saddlebag.
And here on this ghostly night he found himself once more at the site of one of the two most ignominious losses in western military annals. Custer, being present at Bull Run, and Chalmers not being present when Company B was massacred to the man, and thereby thrusting each incident into a sad story of its own, each with its own touch of irony: Custer could not carry his own story about, but Chalmers could, a man of the law caught up in fate as twisted as it can get.
Unable to sleep well the whole night, Chalmers shrugged his shoulders in the pre-dawn flush of life and caught the acrid smoke of the old, dead fire. It was a statement about the dangers of not being alert in the ranks at all times. He rolled over in his blanket to listen to the sounds that came on the early air. An owl thumped its wings as it set about catching a meal. A tethered horse’s nicker seemed an answer to a distant wolf’s cry for mate or dominion. A tin coffee pot touched a stone as the coffee started its own aroma run into day.
He thought it best not to forget what was about him, this second life he’d been given, a life saved at the hands of a drunk. Fate has its own ways, he believed, and there’s never any arguing with the manner or method of fate’s choices, though cry you might, or go sleepless amid the dark and portentous images that never let go.
Suddenly, one of the night guards cried out, “Hey, Sheriff, there’s one a them killers walking in here with no weapon. His hands are raised over his head, but I don’t trust him one bit.” There was a pause in the dramatic announcement, and then the guard said, “You want me to shoot him, Sheriff? I’d do it in a second.”
Chalmers heard the killer screaming about ghosts, and he yelled out, “Don’t shoot him. Don’t shoot him. I have to talk to him. Don’t shoot him.”
He was out of his blanket, gun in hand and facing the killer, who was still blubbering and acting like he had seen death itself. His eyes, caught in the light of the fire, glowed red and awful as if he indeed had seen death on the prowl.
“What is it, man?” Chalmers said, thrusting his gun into his belt. “What have you seen?” He stood beside the killer, now reduced to a mere shadow of a man, and saw how tremors ripped through his body, and how fear was a loose and live thing on his skin.
“I saw them, Sheriff, the whole gang of them, down there at the bend of the creek, yellin’ and screamin’’ at me, sayin’ it was my turn, sayin’ it was somebody else’s turn, too. They’re all in them uniforms of theirs, that blue and yeller ones, and you can’t touch nary a one of them ‘cause they won’t let you. They keep siftin’ away like they was clouds.”
“Who else were they talking about?” Chalmers said, and Twohig, off to one side, realized he had seen something out on the creek, and the sheriff would not laugh at him if he told him. Not like some other posse members would laugh, carrying the whole story back to town, laughing all the way.
The escaped killer, his hands still over his head, still shaking because of what he had seen, what he had heard on the creek, said, “They was talkin’ about you, Sheriff. Said so right out. Called you Sergeant Chalmers like it was your name all the time and they was waitin’ for you.”
The escaped killer didn’t know how much truth he had uttered in his reply to the sheriff. He only saw what he felt himself, an unknown knowledge come into his consciousness, come home, like a lost dogie home from the scrub.
Neither the killer nor the sheriff, the one-time sergeant of lost Company B, saw the second escaped killer, never aware of any ghosts but aware of the posse leader that had hounded him and his pard for such a long time, kneel beside a log, lay his rifle over a protruding but broken limb, and take deadly aim at the sheriff.
He squeezed off the fateful shot that was a long time on its way. Behind him, at a bend of Soldier’s Creek, lost Company B scattered and disappeared forever, all the ranks accounted for, the muster complete.