Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
I had heard about her for a long time. She lived alone in a cave in a deep-set canyon, on a cliff looking sharply down at the edge of the prairie. She was a most beautiful Indian maiden who, I heard from several sources, had been driven from her Cherokee village. The word bandied about said she was bound in her mind to find a good man to be her husband. She would have the best of children and would be the best of mothers. For that she needed the best man she could find.
Her name was “Ageyutsa ganvhidv asgitisdi,” which is about the best I can remember of the Cherokee part, not being really comfortable with their language, but drawn in all the way to people who had been here long before me. Survival over extended times takes real character and I guess that’s what intrigued me about her, hearing that she had been driven from the tribe for some reason most likely foreign to my thinking and my way of life, short as it was at the time. Her name meant The Girl with the Long Dream.
Me? I’m just an owner of a small spread on the Texas-Oklahoma border making do with what I have and always looking out for that special girl to share my little possessions with. I have a bunch of pals and old drive hands that’ll help me when I need a lift, but they just don’t stand in for those long hours thinking about having kids. I knew a few girls and a few of the ropes and rang the bell a few times, but there was always a shortage of something I have no name for, but kept thinking about. I know you get the drag there. Life just ain’t the work you got to do and the fun you get to face, if it’s in line.
I had assumed that the Girl with the Long Dream had offended a tribal elder, and was cast out for a reason that wouldn’t amount to a pile of dried beans to me, considering the result. But I saw her once, in the sunlight of dawn, praying to her god, the sun getting spoiled as it surrounded her, getting warmed up again after its long voyage from out there. If there was no surprise there for those sun rays, it wouldn’t surprise me either. She was a knockout of a lady in her Cherokee garb.
As it was, I had been caught without my horse on the other side of the mountain, chased by a band of rustlers, and had hidden in a cave, but found myself lost in the heart of the mountain. I didn’t know east from west or any other direction and wandered in a labyrinth for a few days, glad for a few crumbs in my pockets, and water at hand.
When I heard the cry of a wolf somewhere ahead of me in a maze of twists and turns, I guessed it was her pet fully grown and trained by her. His howl was as much a protective warning as a territorial declaration; I figured that from the way the sound carried, against rock, within rock, and sharp as the fangs of a cornered snake. There were times, if I let it be, that the hair stood up on the back of my neck; the howl made way for such a time. Interfering with a protected person can bring all kinds of hell on a man who’s innocently nosing around.
I had a thing for the lady of the caves.
But I wasn’t the only one.
I had competition: His name was John Yancy and long before I saw him I heard about him, as folks would say, “John Yancy, he’s a might fancy.”
Yancy would come into town, and if it was daylight people knew him as soon as he rode down the main road between the first two buildings, the bank on one side and the livery on the other side, each one open or waiting to be opened in early light.
“There he is,” someone would say, and add, “That’s John Yancy and I do say he really is a might fancy.” The giggle would start, but the word would spread like dust in the wind. The ladies sat up at the Broken Horn Saloon and the upstairs facilities and would gab on and on about any earlier encounter, here or elsewhere. The gamblers knew a card game was en route before the day was half over. And Silas Ormsby at the general store knew he’d be selling a fancy shirt before day was done. Folks also said that Fancy Yancy, in appreciation, always dropped some of his winnings in a town on a purchase or two to keep a friendly association on tap for his next visit.
As a side note, the only dressing up I did was to wear a couple of hawk feathers in the band of my Stetson. Their flights had always filled me with dreams of my own, like seeing all they could see as they lazed on a thermal and their eyes searching every second of flight.
But John Yancy was fancy and somewhat likeable to boot, both easy and difficult to trail if someone set out to mimic him, travel his road.
But one of the gents in The Broken Horn told Yancy about the Girl with the Long Dream, “Ageyutsa ganvhidv asgitisdi,” coughing up her name as he tried to hide the fact that he really couldn’t speak any Cherokee.
I found out on Yancy’s third day in town that he had made a trip out to see if he could get a look at the dream girl. But he came back early enough to show me he was not about to go routing through any caves or half the insides of a mountain and spoil his duds in the act. It was just like what the waitress at the Steak ‘n’ Eggs said over the counter on uncountable occasions, “John Yancy’s impeccable in his attire, every time out and every time in; every time off and every time on.” Her eyes’d finish it off lit up like holiday stuff. She was dependable lady, never dropping a dish and never letting a wise poke trip her when her arms were loaded with empties.
I knew people like her who could tell you things without saying it straight out, with the eyes, half-hidden expressions on their faces, changes in stance, the movements of a hip that tossed off statements, questions or “go puff that in your pipe.”
Yancy was easy to watch because he was the center of attraction in many ways in town; his clothes sparked comment from the ladies especially, he was in every good poker game in the saloon with all manners of gawking at the size of a pot or the toss of the cards and the long reach for the pot.
I noticed that he nursed a drink like it was a sick patient and he was the doc, hanging by, checking on its condition, touching or patting it once in a while, watching how the drinks disappeared in front of others at the table but not under his care. Oh, he was as smooth as the ladies said.
I was broken out of the same kind of reverie one day in the following week when a freighter came in and said, “I saw that Indian gal who lives up in the caves in the company of tough lookin' hombre and she was roped to the saddle like he had just bought her and didn’t want her runnin’ off on him. Had to be her ‘cause she’s about the best lookin’ thing I ever seed in my days.”
Yancy caught my eyes right off and we understood each other. He tossed in his cards and cashed in, saying, “Gents, I’d best be going now before I get sick on top of that pot.” He let go what sounded like a mountainous belch, grabbed his stomach, and yelled to the barkeep, “Curly, take care of my holdings here. I’ll be back.”
The two of us, each vying one way or another for the attention of that beauty of a woman, Girl with the Long Dream, were saddled and heading east out of town on the Gilmore Trail, on which the freighter had come into town. We didn’t say much at all, but put our horses into an immediate gallop and in a short time were deep on the trail. The river ran on one side and the wide grass on the other side until we came to the break in a small range of peaks where water for centuries had carved a way for itself.
Yancy was ahead of me, rushing into things in a change of character I thought, while I kept my eyes on the trail.
When I saw a pair of tracks leading off the Gilmore run, I whistled him back and pointed out the pair of horse tracks heading straight for a further break in the rocky barrier.
Yancy failed to see what I saw until I pointed out a few giveaways left for a good eye.
“In there?” he said, as if he didn’t want to get his duds dirty, but I was willing to bet on him now, his having come this far this quick with me.
“Yup,” I said with some conviction. “If it’s not them, we can always come back out on the trail and start over, but I’d hate to leave here without checking. A pair of horses came in here.” I pointed deeper into the range where a high cliff sat up like a sentry. “Has to be a break up in there, or a place of rest.”
I lead my horse toward the cliff, and Yancy followed, until we had almost gone past a niche big enough for a horse to pass through. The signs were still evident, like sunlight glittering on spots where a shod hoof had struck rock and shone its passing.
We passed through a few tight squeezes until the way broadened and we both caught the unmistakable scent of burning wood working on meat.
“Dinner’s on the spit,” I said, “and not far from here. Let’s tie off the horses and do some searching ahead of us, and quietly so we don’t warn this gent we’re trailing. I’m sure she’ll hear us or see us before he does. Any gent who’s kidnapped a woman and stops to eat is pretty stupid or pretty sure that nobody knows they’re here.”
“And stupid hungry,” Yancy added, as we cleared the tight passage and saw a small valley ahead of us.
She was tied to a tree, her arms straight in the air. A big man was tending the fire and moving a chunk of meat on a rod sitting above the fire. The smell was delicious. A sense of hunger touched the both of us as we hid behind a rock out of their sight. I cautioned Yancy by holding up my hand as he put his hand on his pistol. When I took one of the hawk feathers out of my hat, he gave me a most curious look, but when I waved it once or twice over the top of the rock, almost as still as it might have been sitting on one of those unseen thermals, he smiled his handsome smile as we saw her come to attention.
‘She saw it,” he whispered. “You knew she’d see it.” He nodded his appreciation.
It was then that Girl with the Long Dream said, in a most convincing manner, “Ageyutsa ganvhidv asgitisd hungry. Ageyutsa ganvhidv asgitisdi very hungry.” Her stance changed. A hip moved in that thin animal hide she wore as a dress. One knee showed its golden-copper tone. She said again, as she moved again, “Ageyutsa ganvhidv asgitisdi very hungry.”
I moved the feather again and she nodded a slight reply, and the golden-copper leg up past her knee was further visible, further lovelier. Her hip moved as only a woman’s hip can move, full of signals, full of intentions … or guile.
The big gent, staring at her, set the cooking rod on the top of a rock and took a knife from a belt sheath. Instead of cutting up the cooked meat he approached her, put the knife blade at the bottom of the hide dress and sliced upwards through the thin material until the blade neared her chin, and the dress fell open. Three men stared at the loveliness.
Yancy had his Colt in his hand. I cautioned him again, looked around me for a stone, saw none, so I took a bullet from my gun belt, showed him a tossing motion and he understood. I softly tossed the bullet off to the right. It made a loud noise as it hit the cliff wall.
The big gent, still holding the knife, spun around to check on the noise. Yancy shot the knife out of his hand and I shot the pistol right out of his holster before he could reach for it.
Yancy stood over the big man, his Colt almost up the man’s nose.
I picked up the knife, cut the beautiful love of my life free of the tree, and looped the rope around her so she could use it to tie up her dress, cover herself. She did that quickly, smiling at me.
That smile I remember to this day, when she died from an unknown disease and we buried her in a plot beside the ranch with our three sons and two daughters standing with me as we set her down, almost 40 years to the day she fell into my arms. And “Uncle” John Yancy still comes to everybody’s birthday to celebrate with us.
I don’t know which one of us told this story best over those years, but we made it a regular part of every celebration, while my beautiful wife would excuse herself and go to work in the kitchen.