Western Short Story
Dutch Malick was lonely; for a deck of cards, a friendly voice cracking with warm humor or saddle gibes, for something that would tell him he was not the last person about in the world. For most all his life he was a line rider, low man on the totem pole, singular but almost invisible, a dot on the prairie or up a strange draw or wadie, a ghost of a person… him and his horse. His hands, in addition, were scarred from the very first day of line work years past, brutal scars from a brutal wire caught in the horns of a steer prodded wild by some unknown force. He’d never be able to draw a weapon with speed, even if his life depended on that quick draw. He tittered when he thought he was not in such good hands. Even a small laugh was worth the effort, self-inflicting humor went a hell of a long way when you were alone on the line, in a box canyon, out alone on prairie dog territory, “long as I don’t laugh at myself too seriously, poke too much fun.”
The fire was mostly orange, and the night, out and beyond, was mostly dark. And wide. Dutch Malick tried to collect himself, draw his mind in from the long reaches it had a flare for reaching, an easy temptation. Not a single star pulled at his soul. Bird calls were deeply nested. The grass was silent as saddle straps. His mind held to numberless moons he had ridden under, to suns so big and global on the horizon he thought the whole world would be crushed down around him. Once, at a forbidden distance, he had seen a rider on a far ridge, a bare silhouette, a mystery bare on the line of sight; for days he wondered who that rider was and composed at the next campfire a whole dramatic script about a cowpoke he never met.
Night, though, he had met. Sitting back, the orange of the fire touching him soft as a woman he remembered from Akoma City beside a slow river on another night, he closed his eyes and knew an odor still with an edge on it, a hand in it.
There was nothing out there but darkness, he was thinking; how it pushes down on itself like an overload of blocks and makes its way into corners and low edges and behind fallen rocks or sudden dips in the land where it gets blacker as it goes deeper, the way some men’s souls are constructed, at one end of life if not the other.
When darkness dropped down into a canyon, day letting go its finger grasping, the sun long gone over the horizon, Dutch Malick was presupposed to such thoughts (it came with the territory, he often said), about men’s souls and their road in life as he sat at the range campfire. An occasional spark threatened to fly off before it suffered from gravity, or the loss of wind, the way thermals at camp find levels only deep thinking can get to. Campfires he loved, knowing he could get mesmerized by them, losing half his mind in an orange flame that supposedly had such a simple and short life (yet orange had a way of always coming back at the campfire), a low flash of nighttime cobalt blue as a dry piece of pinion caught the ignition and gained new properties for itself. If he was a painter, he’d have no trouble remembering that last little flash of blue. Yet, trying to avoid choices or being too select, trying to be neutral over such a trivial matter, he settled on the blue because it had a shorter life than the orange flame caught up with the eternity of fire. Once he had seen a canyon swept up in nothing but orange flames and a searing wind that touched at his cheeks long after it was gone behind him on the furious trail out of that place.
“I got to get my valuables counted,” Dutch said, raising his voice as if having company for himself. Once in a while when he spoke like this, a glimmer of sound, hardly an echo really, came back to him as if some warm friend was sitting on the other side of the campfire, on the other side of a friendly card table. All this pretending made life on the range bearable for the cowboy. The lonely life he lead made demands on a man’s sanity and he knew he had to invent ways to fight it, control it, endure it, get through to one friendly night coming soon, always soon, in a warm room with good company, a deck of cards setting banter into play as well as the next hand dealt, and an accompanying good mood. All of it was a stab back at the lonely trail coming at the break of dawn. It was the way inevitability settles so many arguments.
Dutch, to this point in his latest task, hadn’t seen another man for five days while he rode the fence line along a series of canyons the top rider had plotted out for him. “Just get the string of wire across them, Dutch. We got no line shack up there, and you got to find ways on your own to be comfortable. There’s no trouble afoot that any of us are onto. No hungry injuns, no dirty riders on the loose come to our attention. Feed the hungry if you need to, after yourself of course, because you owe me and the boss, and give up one of the cows if you have to, but I want them canyons blocked off before the herd comes in with Tolliver’s men.”
In the distance, it could be as far away as the moon hiding behind a strangely dark bank of clouds he thought, a coyote sent off his name. Hungry, it also said, as lonely as he was in its call. Dutch knew the lingo. He admired their tenacity, their seemingly perfect skills of survival: he wished he was as well prepared; the hands, mostly, bothered him. They were a drawback; he could arm-wrestle with the best of the trail boys, but shooting on the quick was not his game. Then, farther off than the coyote, on the top of a ridge, on top of the very world, he heard a gray wolf claim the night. It was a matchless sound, full of ownership, full of challenge, and so simple it caused Dutch to pause in all his measurements. No other sound he had ever heard gave him such courage, such fortitude. It was a perfect match; a lonely critter talking to another lonely critter. They were brothers of the range, brothers of the plains, brothers of the deep mix of box canyons. That lead brute had probably come up from Mexico or from the far mountains he had not yet ridden his horse through.
One last thought came to him, as he settled into a simple blanket, his head propped on a piece of saddle, the campfire a small host of embers fighting the night and darkness. “If I had to do it all over,” he said to that mysterious pal across the campfire, “I’d do it all the same.”
Then the line rider had another deep sleep, the wolf intermittently talking to him from afar, the coyote obliging with his own intervention, the rustle in the grass most surely harmless.