Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The High Chief of Clouds, he was sure, had sent the landslide, and vengeance was left to him and him alone. All the others were gone. Gray Dove was gone. One Wing was gone. Puma Path was gone. His best friend Eagle Claw and all the others were gone. For his own life, he said his thank you to The High Chief of Clouds, “Aahóow” it was said. In a soft chant deep in the cave, he sang his thanks repeatedly. But when he tried to chant “in the language” the names of those he had lost in the raid, they jumped around like hummingbirds and caught in his throat, threatening to choke him. “I will die with a hard memory,” sounded in his head, but strong Kiowa vengeance tossed it away like a feather from a nest, no more to be remembered. After all, he was Kiowa, fierce, relentless, warrior of the plains, horseman without match. His blood, he knew, would long sing the names.
Before all this was over, he would take himself to Bear Butte far in the north, the sacred place, “K'ówp·éytto” it was called and it would be good for him and all the others. He would lift their names to The High Chief of the Clouds and Dead River himself would come back to a good life when he offered up his name, “Pééy p'óó." All would be blessed again; many drawings on the robes of the elders said it was so, robes where events were marked and time kept in its place and where the promises coming almost became visible.
The landslide had saved his life, coming down between him and the pursuing troop of soldiers who had destroyed his village. With the onus of vengeance on him, he accepted the loss of all his implements. In his scramble for safety, the clutter of rocks and debris had taken possession of his horse, bow, arrows, quiver, his only knife, and even the blanket Gray Dove had made for him. The only things keeping him warm in the cave he had found were the pine boughs he dragged in behind him during the night, through the solid mass of devil’s claw hiding the entrance. No trooper would follow him; off horseback they were lost, and he knew it as well as they did. This was Indian country, along the Rio Grande Valley, up from the jungles south of there, down from the ice bridges in the north, past “K'ówp·éytto” sitting so proudly on Mother Earth as if the High Chief had set it in place so all would think of him.
It was only three days since he had started alone out on his hunt, as Good Chief had requested. His real name day was coming where he would meet up with himself, as Good Chief had said. “You will find your real name on this hunt. Be aware.” Now Good Chief would not know he had taken the name of “Blue Soldier Riding.” Would he understand when the name became known? Would there be shame? Would other braves make fun of his name, even if he was Kiowa? Does anybody make fun of a Kiowa name?
He reflected back on the start of his trek, saying goodbye to Gray Dove at the edge of the teepee village. Before he knew it, the great river was in front of him. With some planning and good fortune the river crossing had gone well, his horse Wolf Boy, “Kûy thalíi," strong enough to fight the surge of water that came out of the canyon wall in a quick rush, as if long rains had been chasing him for days on end. He wondered about the name “Long Rain,” but had not seen the long rain, so that name was put aside. “Great Fish” did not come or “Hawk on Ledge” or “Puma Plunge.” For two full days he was nameless.
And then, at a sharp turn in the mountainside trail, he saw great smoke rising as he came back toward his village, where three days earlier 100 teepees had spread across the plains like sunshine. Then, like a hawk had dropped it across his path in the path of the wind, he smelled fire, and the burning of flesh, a disgusting odor coming upon him.
Still astride the main trail on The Big Mountain, he suddenly became aware that some riders were nearby. Horse smell came first to him and then he saw the soldier in blue on the top of a rest, motioning to others that he had probably seen a lone Indian on the trail. One soldier caused him no fear, but he did not know how many others were behind him, back down the trail on the other side of the mountain.
It would be best to find out how many dared pursue him. He whipped Wolf Boy into a fast run back on the trail. The lone rider in blue followed him, a good rider on a good horse, he determined in a few quick looks. A strong horse, a big red horse, moved like a prairie fire in the wind, a horse as good as Wolf Boy, and he was gaining on him.
Then the gods interfered, The Mountain God and the High Chief, as a loud crack, as loud as the voice of an angry Thunder God spoke, and the Good Earth God shook all over, and part of the mountain came down on the two riders. Everything growing in the path of the landslide came down, pinon trees, devil’s claw with its thick, coarse hairs on long leaves, manzanita he knew as bearberry shrub with red bark and oval-shaped leaves, tall pine trees torn by awesome power from deep-dowsing roots gone down to unknown depths.
In that massive movement of earth mix, he thought the last thing in the world he would see was the blue soldier riding on the big horse getting caught up in the overwhelming rush of rocks and unearthed trees. That would become his name if he lived, Blue Soldier Riding. The pain that must have come upon the other rider came upon him as the rush of mountain pushed itself upon him. Wolf Boy’s front legs were broken in one swift crush of rock and stone. There was no sound except a collapse of breath escaping the great chest.
Noise surrounded him. Dust entered his eyes. Sat on his tongue. Rocks bounced their chaos around him. Unhorsed, stripped of his gear, he found himself flush against the mountain. A dark opening was beside him and he rolled into it, his hands reaching ahead of him, at search. When they touched the inside wall, he muttered, in the language, “T 'óów ts' óów," cold stone. The white man, the blue soldiers, often used cold stone to mark their graves, but he would not think the cold mountain was going to be his final holy place. After all this, he was still Kiowa.
Hours passed, stars surely passed overhead, and no sounds came from the mountain or from the debris piled up in the bottom of the canyon. And nothing from the blue soldier. No sounds came from his comrades wherever they were or had gone. No search party had made themselves known, as if the blue soldier was already forgotten, discounted, his spirit trying to find its way to wherever such spirits went.
He waited a whole day, thinking of Gray Dove and Eagle Claw and One Wing, and finally believed that they were free and in the wind with all the other birds. And Puma Path would be loose on the Great Mountain, on the scent.
In a bright morning’s sun, a hawk cruising on a lift of air rising from the mountain, he crawled out of the cave. The sky was blue as far as he could see, with the exception of one white cloud sitting way off in the western sky like a lost rabbit out on the wide grass. Silence rode the air as if all sound had fled the earth. No wind touched his face where wind was always turning on itself in the heart of canyons, playing games with one’s face and mind, like children at play at the edge of the village.
He was hungry. He had no tools, no weapons, but he was Kiowa. He’d go hungry
as long as it took him to find food, find a horse, find a way to a friendly village. He
was still on his hands and knees when he heard a horse snickering beyond the
crush of rocks and uprooted trees. Moving cautiously among the mass of boulders
and sheered rock face, the arms and trunks of trees tumbled in a heap at the end of their lives, he stood to get a longer look.
It was amazing; the soldier’s horse was there, the great red horse that had pursued him and Wolf Boy, penned in against the face of one cliff, his saddle in place, a canteen still tied to the saddle, a rifle in its long scabbard. Then he saw the blue soldier flat on the floor of the canyon, his head nearly crushed by a stone as big as himself. For the first time he could study a blue soldier, look at his hands, study the his wrists and arms, imagine the decisions that had been made by a man now dead, now past all doubts and all decisions. This one looked to have been a strong man, one his own size, but there was no face in which to find a reflection, the way one sees into others as one sees into a placid stream.
Then it hit him; he would soon be known as Blue Soldier Riding. Villages would call his name out. He would wear the soldier’s blue clothes, his boots, and his wide-brimmed hat. He would ride his horse and use his weapons. All the world would know of Blue Soldier Riding. Pelts would come to him, beads in great designs from the High Chief himself, a slim girl who could hunt and fish and who might say he could call her Gray Dove if he wanted to.
“Ahye,” he said, as he saw a knife sticking from a place in the saddle, a long knife of a kind he had only seen once, in the hands of a great Kiowa who had taken it from a horseman in Mexico, across the wide river. “K'óo’” he said under his breath, like it was a prayer, "Knife," it would have said to the soldier if he was listening with an ear for the language.
A patch of food was in a saddle bag. Dry beef jerky, needing good teeth, did its errand. And the horse was given the first water, right from the wide hat. One large rock was moved by using a long limb shorn from a tree. The rock rolled slowly at first, and then rolled a few feet on the canyon floor. Now there was room enough for the horse to leave. The big red drank again from the hat, felt the comfort and the trust in the new hands, and heard the soft whisper in his ear.
Again, confirming he was Kiowa, he was horseman; he agreed with himself that his new horse must have a new name, as he himself had a new name.
For a long while he thought, and then, he touched the horse’s neck with a soft pat and a soft voice saying, in the language, “K’óo tséeyñ,” Knife Horse. The bonding that had begun long ago on the prairie when the horses came with the Spaniards from below the big river, began anew; a new horse and a new rider, made for each other, and new names for each. He patted the big red once more on the neck, whispered his name in still a softer voice, “K’óo tséeyñ,’ thinking it was like talking to Gray Dove out on the soft grass, under the moon laying cover on them.
K’óo tséeyñ answered back.
Studying rifle and knife and the saddle gear, getting his hands comfortable with them, he still yearned for his bow. He’d have to make one, and do that in a hurry. The horse moved easily out of the natural corral, eased his way past more boulders, turned at a reins message, and came out at the end of the landslide. The new weight sat on him evenly and comfortably. At the reach of grass he broke into a spirited run, pulling up in a copse of trees at a new command; where a bow might reside, and arrows might be found.
At a small stream nearby he found enough smelly arrow weed stems to make a dozen arrows. They looked long and true and would fly like the small thief bird. He found and cut wood for a bow, liking the feel of it immediately. Hunger coming at him, a rabbit was snared, a small fire lit at the edge of twilight, the meat cooked quickly, the fire put out, and the animal tethered and watered. He slept a few hours until a distant wolf call, disturbing K’óo tséeyñ, disturbed him. He rose up in the darkness. It was time to go back.
It was time for revenge.
He took a different way back, over another mountain, through numerous valleys, down through a final canyon cutting right into Mother Earth. He came at last to a familiar place, on the side of a mountain that looked down where the village had been, on the meadow where he and Gray Dove had spent a few nights.
The fullness of day was behind him, and when he turned to look back down the trail he had used, he saw two blue soldiers, astride their horses staring at him from a long distance. Without hesitation, the way he had planned it out all in his mind, he crazily shook his rifle over his head, waving them on. They came toward him, dipped around a turn in the trail and disappeared. When they came in sight, around a sharp turn, he dropped one of them with a single arrow. The man fell quickly from his saddle. As the other soldier turned to run or dismount, he fell dead from a rifle shot. A third rider appeared way back down the trail and galloped off.
With speed, the two dead soldiers were stripped of their gear, but not their uniforms, except the yellow patches on their sleeves. He laid them side by side and covered them with a few rocks that scavengers would have trouble moving, and rode off, down into a canyon he knew well.
In the middle of the old village, death still a living sign there, every teepee torn down and burned, but no bodies visible, he drove an arrow into the ground and attached to it the yellow patches he had stripped off the arms of the soldiers, and included those on the shirt he wore.
At the edge of evening he raised his arms to the High Chief of the Clouds who had given him the errand of vengeance. With arms lifted, his very spirit moving from him in thanks, he chanted again and again the words of thanks, “Aahóow,” he sang and kept singing, “Aahóow, Aahóow.” The echoes of the chant are heard yet, in small canyons, on mountain tops, on the wide prairies under sun and moon and the mix of stars.
The legend has run wild for many years, the legend of Blue Soldier Riding, the Kiowa trying to find again a lost village, and a girl named Gray Dove.