Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A lone rider, Parker Cartbridge, on his way home from visiting a comrade wounded during the Civil War that ended three years earlier, came up out of a wadi and saw the column of smoke far down the river. The smoke rose almost arrow-straight, not an extra breath of air to be known coming down from the mountain or across the river. He closed down on the source, riding in an easy manner, alert, his horse Big Jip enjoying the leisurely moves.
Rugged as stone in his features, Cartbridge was broad at the brows that were thick as maize, alert of eyes and ears with slight movements of his head and sat the saddle as if he was born in it. His alertness on the trail was a sign of the times; readiness was the first requirement, and demand, of any man on the move. Brigands and road agents and renegades had been around for a long time, but in this part of Wyoming they had thinned out in recent years, as well as Indian surprises.
But fate works in lonely ways at times, and in lonely hours.
“Easy, Jip, slow and easy. You tell me if anything’s around, anything alive.” The man was looking at the burning remains of a small Indian village, most of the tepees down and gone to ash, embers still smoldering, nothing else moving. Cartbridge worked for extra air, drawing some of it deeply into his lungs, knowing the taste of death in it. The smell of a Vicksburg field came back to him swift as a shot, for beyond the smell of death there came comrade Leroy Palmer stretching his hand to him one last time, death making itself known to both of them.
Cartbridge wondered what kind of memories lingered out in front of him now, in the remnants of the village, trying to imagine what had set off the scene, which came to him as pure annihilation. Such things he had seen before.
He shook off comrade Palmer’s last image just as Big Jip stopped in his tracks, his ears standing at attention on the magnificent black head. The horse pawed the ground as if he was using sign language.
The man heard nothing, saw nothing, but understood the basic message. “You sure, Jip?” he said. His voice was low and without alarm. Patting the horse, Cartbridge sent his own message of trust in return.
The horse stood his ground, his ears working, but his tail hanging still. One leg was held in the raised position, the way a comma works in a sentence, or a breath is held. Jip slowly placed that hoof on the ground.
At that moment Cartbridge heard, faint as the traces of a forgotten breeze from a day earlier, an infant’s whimpers. The cries seemed to come from a blow-down that had fallen across the remains of another blow-down. The tangled mass, like night at its core, conveyed secrets in the thick shadows.
The cries came again, a little stronger, yet plaintive, like loon he heard once across a lake, as though the cries were calling for help.
Dismounting, dropping a rein on a bare limb and retrieving his rifle from its saddle sling, Cartbridge poked the rifle bore-first into the clutter of dead leaves and branches. A surprise came into his vision; an Indian infant was lying on its mother’s chest. The mother’s eyes were wide open, stuck with fright and locked into death. He closed her lids and withdrew the infant who was wearing a single buckskin garment adorned with some type of drawing burned on it, perhaps an animal. The baby was only months old, he could tell, with black hair already thick with promise. The gray eyes looked up at him. The infant whimpered again, and then fell asleep in the crook of the man’s left arm. His right hand was free beside his holster, as it always was out on the trail.
On the trail back to his ranch, Jip moving comfortably under him, the man looked down at the baby who continued to asleep. He admired the dark hair, the bright complexion as if the sun had shone on the face for long hours, and the curve at the child’s lips. A personality, he assured himself, was being developed.
“Oh,” he said as Big Jip lengthened stride, smelling water at the ranch’s dammed creek, “Cybil will love this one.” He was not sure if he should say her or him, not daring to check now that he was on the move, afraid he would drop the precious cargo. He drew the little one closer. “Oh, my,” he said, “this will be Cybil’s birthday present.”
It all flashed back at him, the way Leroy Palmer had entered his mind, coming home to Cybil after the war was over, his release from the hospital, and her rushing out of the ranch house as he rode up along the fence line in his dark blue uniform. “My childless wife,” he had muttered. “How do I tell her what’s happened to me?”
That puzzle was lost in their excitement that day as she almost pulled him from his horse.
Only later had he told her that he would not be able to give her the child she wanted so much. “We’ll do with what we have,” she assured him that night. “We’ll find a way to get along. We always have. This war has been a hell for us, but we are here, and it is now.”
She smiled the smile he had carried in the back of his head for three long years, through a dozen battles, only sharing some of its being with Leroy Palmer on the last day of his life. The spark of her being was still evident and he knew why he had fallen in love with her when they were young as pups, and why Palmer had also smiled a one-time smile saying he understood his comrade’s luck.
Now, again, Cartbridge rode along the fence line, carrying the infant who had just awakened as if the smell of an apple pie had been shared. The aroma wove itself through the air, the baby cried, and Cybil was standing on the porch, her hands on her hips, the white apron halving her green outfit. The evening sun played about her. The grass was rich and green. He was home again.
“Parker Cartbridge,” Cybil said, her hands out in front of her as she heard the cries again, “what do you have in your arms? Cartbridge knew she was half afraid of the answer, and half expectant of a major surprise. Cybil Cartbridge always had a special way about her.
“It’s an Indian baby I found out there at the great bend of the river where the mountains meet. It looks like a small village of Indians was surprised by a raiding party and this little one is all that’s left, far as I know.”
He handed the infant to its new mother, who took a look under the buckskin garment. “It’s a boy,” she said, and hugged him to her breast. Her face was as glorious as a morning sunrise, her eyes as compassionate as Cartbridge had ever seen them. Warmth kindled itself within him.
In a quick decision, that came out as a question, she said, “What do we call him?”
“You have the honor, Cybil. You give him a name. From this moment, he belongs to you. You tell me how you want it handled, what I tell people. You make the decision.”
“The honest truth, that’s all. He’s an orphan that came to us. That’s it.” And as part of her quick decision, she added, “and his name will be Roy, in honor of your comrade Leroy Palmer.”
“Roy Cartbridge?” he said.
“From now on, little sweetheart,” she said to the bundled infant, “you are Roy Cartbridge.”
She turned on her heels and rushed off into the next part of her life.
Roy Cartbridge was taught much in his early years, learned about all of it, and grew into a fine young man coming up on his fifteenth year. He was as dark-haired as his father, said people who did not know of the boy’s start in life, and carried himself with the same kind of confidence that Parker Cartbridge was noted for. Often, they worked in tandem at a single chore, as good as any two ranch hands in the whole of Wyoming.
Roy said one day when the pair was working on a new corral section, “Pa, you notice that old Indian that comes around once in a while? I’ve seen him twice or three times in the last year or so, but yesterday, when I was skinning some of these poles, I saw him closer than any time before. I don’t see many Indians around here since the army moved up to new place on the river.”
Parker Cartbridge, aware for a lot longer than young Roy about the old Indian, said, “I’ve seen the old buck for a lot of years. Many times, on an old sorrel, and then on foot a number of times. I figure he lives somewhere in the mountains and stretches his legs once in a while. Too old to cause any trouble, I’d bet. He’s probably a hundred years old and knows everything he ever learned.”
“I bet he’d be interesting to talk to,” Roy said. “I can just imagine what he’s learned over the years. Lot more than I have. Heck, I just learned how to skin a deer last year. He must have done that when he was a lot younger than me.”
Cartbridge digested the logic in Roy’s words, and then said, as if in self-defense, “He doesn’t know how to brand a cow, I’d think.”
“What for, Pa? Why’d they want to brand a cow? They don’t keep a herd, but probably eat what they want only when they need it.”
“I’d say you were right on that point, Roy. Why don’t we ask him in the next time we see him? That would be a good idea. Your mother would have the same feelings, I’m sure.”
So, it was, a few weeks later, that the only two survivors of the massacred Indian village, at the great bend of the river, came together on a foothill of the mountain range near the Cartbridge ranch. And fifteen years after the sad event.
“My name is Roy Cartbridge,” he said to the old Indian he came upon walking away from a small stream with a catch of trout over his shoulder, a rawhide line running through their mouths and out their gill slots. “My father and I have seen you a number of times out here. He said I should ask you to come to visit us at the ranch, either now or whenever you feel like it. Eat with us at the ranch. You have history all around you.”
He liked the stately looks of the old Indian. Must have been a chief, he thought, as the old man held up his hand in a sign of friendship.
“I am Kiowa,” the Indian said. “My name is Eagle One-claw. I live alone up there all warm weather and cold weather, in a cave.” He pointed uphill. “I have many skins to keep me warm, many hides. I eat eggs, rabbit, goat, a lost cow in the ravines when it snows heavy. Sometimes a bear.” There was a smile on his face, as if expecting the boy’s next question.
“How do you catch a bear?” Roy Cartridge’s eyes were wide open with contemplated wonder. His dark brows accented his wonder, gave his face a new look, a new esteem.
The old Indian let a smile make its way on his face, followed by a nod that carried many unsaid words. “I let bear chase me, then drop rocks on him I gather all summer. Big piles of rocks in many places. Try not to get caught alone by bear or puma. They chase me, I hurt them, make them bait or eat them.”
Roy Cartbridge shook his head in awe. “You are a very smart and brave man, and so wise to be able to live alone with no relatives around you, no one from the tribe. My father will be pleased to meet you. My mother, too. She is a great cook. She bakes pies I can smell all the way out on the wide grass.”
“All Indians are smart. You right when you say Indians, like Kiowa, have history with them all the time. We bring it to all the tribe to know. Indian born with it.” The warm smile came again, and the accenting nod of his head. “I know smell of apples out on the grass. It is a warm smell that say apple. I have known it many times.”
The fuzziest feeling Roy Cartbridge ever knew came rising in him, as if he was being immersed in a new river, a new body of water, in a ceremony. His skin tingled. His fingers trembled to touch something he had no knowledge about but could feel. There came the fleeting thought that asked how close the old Indian had come to the ranch house, as though more than apple pie aroma and curiosity might have pulled him. He didn’t know the comfort of the gods had called on him.
At the ranch house, Eagle One-claw ate sparingly, taking his time, letting conversation control the time of the meal. He kept staring at Roy Cartbridge during the meal, which made Cybil say, on the spur of the moment, “Roy, our son, was given to us at the great bend in the river when some renegade whites destroyed his village. He was the only one left alive. Parker brought him home to me, as we could not have our own children. We have loved him ever since and have never hidden anything from him about his beginning. He knows he is a Kiowa Indian, like you.”
Parker Cartbridge, aware of many sensations and feelings, said to Eagle One-claw, “Do I know why you have lived alone all these years in the mountains close by?”
Eagle One-claw, old as the hills, old as time as Roy phrased it in his mind, replied with an honest response. “For long time I know you know things Kiowa know. You kind to papoose for many years. Both of you.” He nodded to Parker and Cybil Cartbridge as Roy Cartbridge began to feel again the fuzzy sensation sitting inside him, making way on him.
“We have done what we could,” Cybil said, “and it’s been a good job and a task we loved. He is a much-loved boy.” One hand touched the arm of Roy sitting beside her at the table. “He is a good Indian boy, of that you can be assured.”
“Do you have robe he was found in?” Eagle One-claw said.
Cybil, letting go of the only secret they had kept from Roy, said, “Yes. I have kept it aside all these years.”
She left the room, as Roy’s mouth hung open in surprise. When she returned, she was carrying the buckskin robe in which Roy was brought to her the many years ago. She handed it to Eagle One-claw as Roy Cartbridge looked at his first robe with complete surprise.
Eagle One-claw held it up, then showed it to Roy Cartbridge. “I give you name on first day. Bear-with-Wings. You take new name when you grow up, like now.”
“Why Bear-with-Wings?” Roy said.
“Only bear with wings could escape our rock pile. Only bear with wings could fly up on the mountain and laugh at us. All Kiowa know about bear with wings. What name will you take now?” He handed the infant’s robe to Roy Cartbridge. “I make the robe for you. I am grandfather to Bear-with-Wings.”
“I will be Bear-with-Wings again,” Roy said, “Bear-with-Wings, Kiowa. I will spend the winter with you in the mountains and you will teach me the Kiowa ways.”
Cybil Cartbridge, knowing the letting-go time had come, nodded her agreement.
The two Indians, grandfather and grandson, separated only by a short distance for the long years, knew the bonding as it began in earnest, as the young man’s mother and father looked on, as the legend of Bear-with-Wings began circulating once more.