Western Short Story
In the middle of the 19th century lived a widowed teacher in Independence, Missouri where trails to the rest of the country opened up. He was a dedicated teacher, a man of his own black cloth, and once in a while in his schoolroom he’d find a gleam in a student’s eye, or a formulation in an answer that totally and joyfully surprised him with its great promise. In a time like that he felt he was a hungry man sitting at a table suddenly set with a banquet meal.
Carsson proved right from the beginning that he was such a student, most likely born with a natural intelligence.
The teacher’s name was Rubin Cheshire and he was more than a teacher, more than an historian of the times, more than a most delightful man in the midst of constant turmoil, hustle and bustle, departures, and long preparations for those departures. Rubin Cheshire, as charming as a man could be in the midst of the expansion business of Independence, Missouri, kept his eyes on the changes, and the advances, that happened right there in front of him, in front of his schoolhouse at one edge of town. It appeared to Cheshire as if parts of the whole world were passing through Independence, passing by him, on to the western regions of the country, all the way to the Pacific Ocean lapping on the far side of the continent, at the other edge of America.
When Carsson eventually found the gun, as many boys did not far from busy Independence, Cheshire knew the boy’s life would change; the west did it that way, practically without fail, the endless talk and appreciation of good shooters, marksmen. The trail, if taken, made it necessary in a hurry, made it a demand on young men, boys not shaved yet, not long from the lap. Dangers lurked all about, from all sources; from darkness and shadow, from direct sunlight blinding behind a rush of brigands or Indians, from every piece of landscape where men could hide in their wait for prey.
Independence, truth be known, was on the southern bank of the Missouri River at a stretch where steamboats still plied the river. He could hear some of the townsmen say, when looking at the tide of people every day on the move, “This place was born to be fled from,” or “From here you can find your wandering star.” Those words would end up in his chronicle.
Cheshire agreed that Independence had a definite place in his observance of history. Where many of these journeys began in distant countries, the final leg for sure often started at Independence in trains of wagons, Conestoga and other types, all filled to the brim for the long haul wherever. It was only after the Civil War that railroads made the full connection of East-to-West.
The self-motivated historian could see, and almost count, the energy moving on wheels of covered wagons and saddled on horseback. Oftentimes he wondered how long a wagon train would be if all the wagons that left Independence were lined up one after the other. From coast to coast they would line up, he imagined, an endless energy heading for the mountains, the wide rivers, the deep canyons, the endless plains that promised more bread than Europe could imagine all by itself, with cattle in numbers as heavy as the buffalo herds he had heard about, and “chunks of gold found on the ground big enough to weigh down any pocket.” He’d find a category for such observations.
These people dared themselves onto the rugged trails, in search of the big prize; a big hit, a place to call their own, land wide open for the settling. Each and every one of those prizes calling for endless toil.
There had also come past him a wide majority of differences, designated by the clothes they wore or language they spoke or papers they carried and read at all hours, or the kinds of food they asked for. They were the Norsemen, Danes, Swedes, Finns, Russians, or Mediterranean Italians and Frenchmen and Spanish and Portuguese, and Asian Greeks and Maltese and Turks and heartland Europe’s Germans and Austrians and Poles and Slovaks, and any and all in between. Too, came the Scots and the Irish and the Welsh and the English, all those who excelled in horsemanship that had come to them from long in the past when the Mongols drove the Central European horse riders further west, onto the British Isles, and to the next stop, in America, onto the rare opportunity in the New World.
Cheshire saw it all, and recorded all of it, every twist and turn, every dream bared and all past sins put aside … for the time being. He never shared it with any of his students, grades 1 to whatever was attained by an occasional older student, but he would share all openly with any adult who expressed interest in the formidable expansion of the country, much of it starting the final legs from right there in front of him in gateway Independence.
The pioneers heading west to such places as Santa Fe, Oregon and California obtained their supplies and joined others for their western voyage in this town, for that’s where the trails west really started, the launching point for their 2000 mile adventures.
Times aplenty he imagined himself off on that adventure, a horse under him, a great stallion with fire in his eyes, twin six guns strapped to his waist, the trail as open as the mouth of a canyon. But there were the young students that would be left to squander, find themselves lost or left open to minor enterprise. They would be doomed, he believed, if he was taken from them, or delivered himself from their gain.
Of course, Cheshire had a continual surge of memory and inspiration, like that of Carsson, who had come under his tutorial wing, leaped from the nest too quickly, then flew off forever, taking all his potential with him. The schoolroom without him dimmed and saddened for weeks of classes before Cheshire’s energy returned.
The boy had excelled in expression, composition, all senses at his command. And the day Carsson departed the school, he’d seen him for the first time stand in a stirrup, swing his leg, mount a horse as though he’d been a horseman forever, as though he was a descendant of the noted horsemen of Central Europe, that talent still flowing in his blood, finding expression in his muscles.
Cheshire thought it odd that he had never seen the boy on a horse and couldn’t fathom why. School work and school duties demanded so much, of teacher as well as the student.
At that first sight of him on a horse, the horseman’s flair came immediately noticeable in Carsson’s movements. The reins worked in his hands as though they were extensions of his arms, the horse’s head swinging to the slightest command direction, his head also swinging in a final nod so that Cheshire, at the door of the school, could offer only the simplest goodbye. He nodded in his prim suit, in his teacher’s garb and in his teacher’s stance, just like a student formally leaving his teacher on the first great adventure past his reading. This one, unique boy, this Carsson, had read each book in Cheshire’s ample library, the only student of his ever to accomplish that task.
Cheshire was glad he did not meet all the people who had passed through Independence on their way west, for the news kept coming back from many sources of whole wagon trains beset and annihilated on the trail, of singular memorable people, or their children, who had suffered great losses. Some of those he saw returning to Independence, on the way back home, as sad as any lot could be; not all had reached Santa Fe or California or Oregon, or the ample places in between. Some of the lucky returnees had once been students of his, now too wizened for the classroom. In their eyes he found the unwritten part of their history on the trail.
For months he wondered about Carsson, said his prayers for him, wished him back in that enlightened seat in his classroom, making the whole schoolhouse a place of pride, of curiosity, of written and verbal exploration of the language.
Carsson had made a change. It was not all the teacher’s fault.
On Saturday evenings, Cheshire had a few drinks at the Last Goodbye Saloon, sharing a table with the owner of the livery, the mortician and coffin maker, the chief teller at the bank, and the sheriff. Each one making few waves but maintaining on-going friendship with each other. None of the men ever spoke of Carsson after he had left town, fully aware of the impact on the teacher, and on the evening as it developed. None could blame him. They talked of horses, crimes and criminals, strangers to be wary of, which business operation profited most from those amassing supplies and passing through with another horde. The runs were continuous and so varied in make-up that that became the common trait, the multitude of differences, the first great mingling of cultures coming on the wagon move, the wagon stops, the night fires, the circling up for protection. All the stories were swapped and embellished, or polished down to suit a particular need of the narrator. Lessons were to be learned from every wagon train, and eventually that knowledge came back to Independence with successful wagon masters or scouts. The to-and-from of lore and survivors’ knowledge was incredibly useful to new batch of itinerants heading west.
When the word finally came about Carsson, from the heartland of the west, from the prairie town of Atchibola in the Oklahoma Indian Territory, it was the first real and personal terror that Cheshire had known; Carsson was critically wounded by robbers and was housed by a kind woman in the small town. The woman had written to him Carsson’s thunderous message: “I am lost here and will lose everything.” She had explained all the details in her own message attached. “Something nice about this boy. He needs more than me. Here’s what happened to him …”
In a turmoil, knowing what the loss would be if the boy died, weighing all his past efforts against his current crop of students, Cheshire threw in his hand, dealt himself out of teaching, and mounted a horse. He was westbound in the morning before the sun broke a distant rim. All the talent Carsson had developed, all he was capable of becoming, sat upon Cheshire as the most volatile threat he had ever known.
The boy had to be saved. Cheshire remembered so many teachers and instructors who had said that one great or near great student would make a career of teaching worth all the heartaches, all the failures, all the losses. They’d often say one empty chair, one empty certain chair, where a special student sat, was the most disheartening sight of any classroom.
He had become what the others had become. Clumsy on his horse, clumsy with a pair of guns strapped on his waist, Cheshire brought to each activity the art of practice, the strict routines he had been teaching in all his classes. And repetition became part of his approach; repetition outmanned any creative bent he could bring to gunplay. And so he practiced on his journey to Atchibola, with his guns and on his horse, bringing proficiency to an art form.
He learned not only to ride well but how to take care of his horse. The importance of the animal astounded him once he saw expected things on the trail; how others ended up not taking care of their horses, the exertions that a horse made in place of the rider.
And getting all the ammunition he could carry, he shot up half the rocks he had seen on the trail, practicing the art that he feared, remembering that it had come to Carsson and might have brought him to his troubles.
In turn, as a student in new studies, not of the classroom but of the whole western world, he soon excelled, feeling the proficiency at first like another sense settling within him, and then as if it had always been part of his make-up but never called on. The teacher was once again a student, and then a graduate who had passed the course with best of colors and best of promise. There, on the trail far from the bustle of Independence, and swift as a thought, the revolver on his right side came into his hand, and a round landed on the face of a rock ahead in the dusty road. The rock skittered sideways and then broke into pieces.
The teacher smiled at his new art.
The new art told him he had been brought to his full person, his full capabilities.
It came at a good time because his son needed him now more than ever.