Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
For much of his youth and all of his adult life, 48-year-old Bart Tarpin had heard the music of the spheres, as his Uncle Charlie called it. And Charlie had told him, in a hearthside talk that “The ancient people who lived in the caves and cliff-side rooms of Chaco Canyon once conversed with the gods, and brought the holy music away with them, down to Earth. A gift it was, the most memorable of all gifts, humming with heaven itself.”
His eternal interest was aroused.
Bart believed, as a youngster on a riding trip from their ranch into the canyon with his father, that he had heard the core of the music. And it haunted him all the ensuing years, a melody and a rhythm and a sounded myth that never left his consciousness. He had gone behind a huge rock at the base of one canyon wall that eventful and unforgettable day to empty his bladder. That’s when he saw the cave opening low against the wall. Clearly, he could recall the draw and magnetism the small opening had for him the way mysteries can pound at a person. With an unknown power it drew him inside to find the jug or gourd or container of some sort in the center of the cave floor, as if, he thought evermore, it was ceremonial and had been placed there by one of the ancient elders to exact or give tribute.
And the music of the spheres, or a hum from the past, came from the jug, a music that filled his head with visions of the ancient people filing in their resolute and stately walks along the cliff edges going down to their canyon-bottom gardens, and later, after Pizarro, looking for gold or Cibola, had brought the gift of horses from Spain by way of Mexico, he saw them astride their mounts, thundering and flying across the plains and up the base of the canyon.
The descendants rode like his own memorable range riders and champions at ranch matches, sitting their mounts as if they had been born together, man and horse coming into life as an entity. He envisioned the ancients with their feathers streaming in the wind, their plaited hair tailing out behind them, the wind whistling in their ears, almost in flight the way the hawk could float with ease on the slightest thermal. Bart knew such sights would never be seen again, the way settlers had filed into the territory and towns grew and trains had come along Chaco Canyon and all over the region. He saw those old visions at night on the trail while on watch rounds, at lazy campfires alongside the chuck wagon, in the kitchen with his parents, and in the bunkhouse when he moved out of the house to brace life on his own.
The visions never left him, or the music.
Or the jug itself.
It was his piece of history. And he never told anybody about it. It was his to dream about, to listen to, to find the warmth that his hands had felt as they circled the container, to remember, when times were tough or life needed a bolt of interest, other considerations had called on him.
An old Indian, whom everybody called One Whistle, seemingly as old as mountains or the morning star itself, mentioned secret things to him as a boy and Bart was convinced that his Uncle Charlie had commissioned One Whistle to teach Bart all he could about the ancient people.
The Indian knew just about everything, he figured. The names of Hopi and Anasazi burst upon Bart as One Whistle talked to him when they rode out among the red mesas of the area, and the visions grew, as if they were dreams fulfilled. The names of the old chiefs leaked out of One Whistle the way some people hold secrets until they came to a moment of entertainment, or need, and then spill away. Bart heard the names of One Gone and One Come and One No More and he was entranced by the drama of their fanciful and plain interpretations. One Father One and One Hawk and One Wolf Dying vibrated through his very soul, and he was rapt in their magic and the unknown lying right out there on the horizon for him. Odd legends, strange and bizarre to say the least, were revealed to Bart by One Whistle, who held that he was a direct descendent of One Keeper, a medicine man and totem of the Anasazi, the ancients who had built the canyon homes as if defense was their first mission. Enemies of all kinds abound in the world and the gods need to be fed.
Bart grew in these ways, inherited the ranch when his father and mother died in a tornado that lifted their wagon right off the edge of a cliff. He knew some girls, found some love, married and had children.
He worked hard as did those who worked for him. One of his sons, Caleb, was also captivated by the stories Bart told him about One Whistle, and started studying the ancients with great interest, listening to one and all who held stories of beliefs for the telling or the sharing. He best loved the campfires and the camaraderie of tale-spinning. But he knew, as deeply as his father knew, that legends and fables are often buried in truths, or come right from truths as if disinterred.
But work and sustenance also called on them all; survival making great demands. They ran horses, raised cattle, a dozen piglets each year to butchering time, small tracts of corn and beans and potatoes and turnips.
And the music kept coming back to Bart no matter what he was doing.
So, it was, in his 48thyear, the year already a business success, when he decided on a trip back into the secrets of Chaco Canyon. Bart told his son Caleb he was going into the canyon to find some roots he might have lost touch with, and the jug from long ago. “For the first time in years, there is a void in my mind, as if some part has been cut away or just plain eroded. I have not heard the music in more than a week. It has never been gone that long for me, a part of my blood, my mind, my real interest when I am alone.”
Caleb was a most interesting young man; a great rider, a guitar player extraordinaire, who had gravitated toward his father’s interests in the ancients, but with less enthusiasm than his father held on the music of the spheres, hearing his own sounds about a campfire, on the summer porch at night, in the bunkhouse with the hired hands. He had his own ear and it was heard in his words.
“Some might say it’s only an old jug, pa,” Caleb said, “an old jug that some Indian left behind in his hasty escape from the canyon. It’s common knowledge, at least among the Hopis, that the ancients, the Anasazi, fled from some great disruption, cataclysmic, moral or war-like, as if life swallowed them back to where they had come from.”
Bart found himself, for that moment, back with One Whistle, the man who had the most influence in his life, whose voice came to him with the music of the spheres, the hollow beauty that silence makes in one’s mind when the whole world stops to be looked at, found, and studied. He was back in the canyon marking landmarks he had not seen or thought of for years, seeing ridges and lines and demarcations he had never before paid attention to. There, he thought, was the language that the old Indian was trying to get me to learn, to interpret. One Whistle’s words sounded out again in the dead silence of the canyon, sounding like a prayer he knew from the fires of One Keeper, the word passed to him and then to a white boy who had a soul that might understand what was being said to him, what was about him, what echoed from the walls of Chaco Canyon, from the other end of history. “All flows in lines from Mowhata. All sound comes in music from Mowhata.”
All that had been forgotten, and brought back in a second, and then lost again. He turned to his son, shaking his head, wondering where he himself had gone, where he was going to. He had no idea.
“But One Whistle,” he said, “rest his soul, said I was special and the music I heard was special, and waits for me forever. I am bound to hear it again, as it has sustained me and supported me all these years since I was a boy. I heard it when I lost my sister and again when I lost my parents in that terrible tornado, and I have heard it with or without those times that demand measurement of people. It kept me whole. I’ve always wanted to go back and look for it, though by now I fear I have no idea at all of its location. I remember that the opening was just big enough to let me get through, and I was a boy then and not even filled out.”
He sensed a pause in his own being, the way memories sometimes seem to suspend life for seconds. “My father was with me then, when I found the jug, just on the other side of a big rock when he let me go to do my business. He never had any idea of what I found and I never told him. Never once told him what I found, what I heard, because I had seen nothing in the darkness. That was all part of it, part of the ongoing mystery that I had not seen what was around me in the cave, what made up the cave, what I could have seen if there had been any light. But light could not enter the cave as I did, crawling through a tight space, and standing upright in the darkness. Not even knowing what was above me.”
“You be careful, Pa. I’d go with you but I am leading the new drive to the railhead. If you’re not here when I get back, why I’ll come looking for you as you lead that old-time band.” His smile was bright and honest and a bit of glee shone in it.
They both laughed and Caleb left with the rest of the ranch hands to drive the cattle, get them loaded on the train, and conclude the sale. Bart was proud of him and how he grasped the business of raising cattle, fighting the harsh odds and the occasional rustlers, and knew his temperament would always be steady, even with a slash of humor always on the edge. He whistled as he left and made a sing-song salute with his hand as if he was leading the fiddlers at a barn dance.
Bart immediately fell into a trance and the visions, in all their stark realism, flooded back from where they had fled to, and he could hear the music again, and the words of One Whistle as he explained a nearly forgotten legend of his people concerning One Elder’s blanket and how it held rest in its form and hid anxiety in its folds.
“Listen, young one,” he said, “and know what I have found from the Elders and from One Elder and from One Keeper and from Mowhata sitting in the high place. The blanket and the jug are like brothers. They share the great responsibilities and no one person, Indian or white, ever gets past the hard places without one or the other. Remember, a blanket or a jug. You will be lucky if you have both, but both can hide things that level this entire world. That means you must treat them well and respect what they are and what they can do. Never toss a blanket away, no matter how faded or torn, no matter if it is only rags that can be plaited, as it will bring warmth to some creature if only for a night or the surge of one storm. And never crack a jug that can hold water for a thirsty soul. A jug in the desert is often the gift of life, or death.”
Bart shivered when he heard the words coming down through the years. Eventually they trailed off in the morning air the way all sound disappears, as if all words are mere echoes of what has meant to be. He felt as though he was at the edge of a great discovery, that a strange unknown was to be revealed to him. It unnerved him, but there was no stop in his interest of a civilization that was much older than his own. The shivers of that knowledge rode his frame like an old bronco that had learned all the tricks.
Bart’s custom was always that of the early riser, and in the morning, the sun still below the distant hills and the distant mountain peaks, he slipped from his bed where his wife of 25 years slept soundly, grabbed a canteen of water and a ready-to-ride pack of dry grub. In a few hours, stars still keeping company over his shoulders, he was at the mouth of Chaco Canyon. A coyote, on alert, called out a warning and his horse’s ears straightened at the cry. A slight wind sounded louder than it would normally sound, as though it was being released from a blacksmith’s prodded bellows.
His horse nickered. “I know, horse, it is a holy place. Many things have begun and ended here since the beginning of creation itself. You know as well as I do what hangs in the air, which is a lot more than the mere facts of history. But all that is not strange, it is blessed, and it carries much of what looks down upon us.”
For the moment he realized he had made peace with all that had been here, from the beginning of time, in the heart of Chaco Canyon. With deliberation and a bit of memory working on him, he began his search for the small cave he had once visited. For much of the day he walked and rode about, seeking odd holes, dark depressions, secrets of old. Then, as if a gong had sounded in his head, he spied a small dark patch at the base of the cliff. From his saddle he unstrung a pick and shovel and set to work. An hour later, One Whistle continually in his ears, he managed to slide his way into the cave.
The next day, when his horse came home without its rider, Caleb and others started out on the search.
Even after three months there was not a sign of Bart Tarpin, and the search, though intermittent at times, petered out and life went on beyond Chaco Canyon.
What none of his family, friends or ranch hands ever knew were the events that took place in the cave on that second visit. Bart, still in good shape, had managed to get inside the cave. The jug was there, as it had been ever since he had found it, and ever since whoever had left it, in the center of the cave. Perhaps it was a sign to the gods, he thought, or a sacrifice of some strange tribal custom.
As if with the waving of a wand, the music he had longed for returned, though faint and distant. The jug was smooth and warm in his hands and he was sure the music was coming from it, from the heart core of the jug. When he bent over it to hear better what had charmed him for years, placing his ear close to the mouth of the jug, there came a bare moment of total revelation, as if One Whistle’s promise had come to being, and all he felt was the deep strike at his carotid artery where the snake’s fangs sank their poison.