Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Few people in Gallop Springs, a plain old mining town along the Ridgely Range, realized it was Sunday. Sundays seemed to have no place in Gallop Springs where one rich mine had created the whole town, almost in an instant. And now the mayor was waiting the stage bringing the mine owner’s son to town, confirming the news that his father was dead in the mine, four days imploded, four days dead, no known survivors of the mine’s collapse.
Gallop Springs might already have started to run away, as it had come out of nowhere in the beginning. In the back end of the Ridgely Range, the river too far for attracting people, little called on by pioneers and others heading west, the railroad a distant thought, such a town in such a place was not even hoped for. When the mine opened, flourished, the town grew apace with the riches of the ore. Two years later, when the mine collapsed, the vein giving signs it would run out in a few months, the town that never was, it seemed, began to die. It promised not to take too long to do so.
The son was coming back from school, two days eastward by rail, two days by coach. His name was William Kalovic, son of Djon Kalovic, a man who learned his mining in The Ukraine and brought all his training to America, where it busted out in a grand explosion. Now, it was pay-back time, some people were saying, those who thought they had no chance at riches, those who thought Kalovic’s find was nothing but luck, and those who envied a “dumb foreigner’s improper attitude about things communal.” The latter statement was attributed to the minister of Gallop Springs’ only church. At the time of the mines collapse, the church had a membership of 20.
The mayor, entirely new to political strain, a novice in handling differences, a man literally of one mind, and that beforehand limited to the saddle, spotted young Kalovic climbing down from the stage and saw, in some kind of finery he had no taste for, a young man who would never make his way in the west no matter what his father had provided for him.
The mayor, talking to himself, said, “Looks like a pale imitation of his father, who might have been more lucky than gifted, of which I can’t say. This one, though, will probably hit and run, taking what he can. It’s simple as that.”
He put his hand out to take young Kalovic by the arm, to offer his condolences, noting the size of his neck in a white shirt. It was as rugged as his father’s neck, a man he’d marveled at with a crow bar in his hands and the mountain trying to resist by degrees. “I‘m sorry to greet you this way, young man, but it’s been four days now and there’s no hope from how I see it.”
The mayor saw the reaction before he heard the reply.
“Like hell there’s no hope,” Kalovic said, fire in his eyes, chin firm as a rock bed, “find me a couple of hardy souls to tote supplies, men I can trust, real men. I’m going to look for my father.”
The mayor, somewhat surprised by the response, smiling at the impatient young man, said, “You can dig for a month, where the mine caved in, just beyond the entrance, but you couldn’t dig through. It’d take you six months or more. You can’t use dynamite ‘cause it might bring down the rest of the mountain, right on top of everything. It’s really hopeless, I’m afraid.”
“I’m not afraid, and we’re not going in from the front of the mine, we’re going to search another way through the mountain. My father always said there are many ways to find gold, and he’s where the gold is. That’s where I’m going. And from another entrance, if we can find one.”
The young man looked the mayor directly into his eyes. “Can you recommend two good men for me, two who can operate on their own if they have to, and who can be trusted. That quality is most important to me, that and the idea that this situation is not totally hopeless. Men must have nerve and belief.”
“Bull Martin and Josh Slater, they’re what you’re looking for,” the sheriff said. “Being groomed for deputies if the time comes, both of them. And both been on posses and found accountable. Good judgment, good horsemen, good friends. You can depend on them.” He had no worries about Martin and Slater depending on Kalovic, more like his father than he thought at first hand.
Those original thoughts of the father came back at him as he studied the son, compared them. Kalovic, with a good hole in the mountain from a fissure start, butchered the beef that earlier day, salted a deal of it, and placed it for keeping within the mountain itself. He knew what he was doing, right from the start, the mayor said, a foreman at the time. He also said, a number of times from those first days, “If any man on this earth can find himself a pot of gold, It’ll be Johnny Kalovic,” the name he came to be called.
Sliding back into the mayor’s mind came the first meeting with Djon Kalovic, a new prospector in the area, buying a steer to help feed his family and a couple of workers penetrating the mountain, seeking gold where no gold had ever been mentioned. But for days on top of days Kalovic kept studying the mountain as no other men had done, not trail men, or mountain men or prospectors wandering through the area and digging where their pick hit the ground. For days he rode around the mountain, not digging but taking notes in a ledger, citing differences in formations and strata that were evident to the eye, and noting where early calamity had been most active from the heart of the earth, calamities most men never dreamed of, that only Indians spoke of in hushed tones at tribal affairs.
After a month of keen surveillance, a journal or day ledger getting thick with entries, late night studies under lamplight, Kalovic stood one morning and, like some god of antiquity, said, “There,” and he pointed at a fissure in the mountain. After months of blasting, digging, hauling stone and a mix of stratified blue gravel, they found gold, a vein of it leading downward to Mother Earth.
Gallop Springs sprouted wings that day, took to life like it was a fulfilled promise, grew like crazy.
It started downward the day the mine collapsed.
Now, the mayor saw from distant ground, the young Kalovic studying for a whole day the mountain that his father had studied. He did not study it as long as his father, and made camp in the evening beside a wide crack in the heart of the mountain.
“Men,” said solemnly at the campfire, “in the morning this is where we start. Tonight we will plait all the rope we have in singular strands, taking it apart to do so. Tie no knots to catch on sharp edges, but weave the strands to each other. I must know where I am in there and the way I have come. One of you will make sure the rope is fed to me when I yank on it. I don’t expect either of you to go where I go. The canteens will be filled and I will leave them along my route. I know there will be a time when you think I am lost, perhaps a fool, but the mayor said you are true men, that I can trust you. “
Martin and Slater looked at each other, assessed each other, and nodded their agreement. Martin said, “We’ll keep to our promises for as long as you say.” Both men would say later that the moon, the mountain and the mystery were upon them, and they were aware of some awed undertaking.
Kalovic’s eyes, lit by the fire, looked back at them. “If and when I have been gone for one whole week, you can figure I am not coming back. When that time comes, your jobs are done. Take what you want of supplies, they’re yours, as is the equipment, the horses, and the sum of money the banker is holding in my name for both of you. Now I must sleep.”
He rolled over, went to sleep, arose in the morning, packed a small sack and a few canteens, and set off into the large crack in the mountain. A day later he came back, ate a decent meal by the fire, got more canteens, and left again, the rope trail leading him to the point where he had turned around.
“It is six and a half days now for my father,” Kalovic said as he got to his feet and looked at marks he had made on his sleeve. ”Remember, all that might be left is yours except the pistol that I have left in the small fissure beside my new entrance into the mountain. That is for me.”
Five days later he was in the mountain yet. Martin and Slater, not sure of how much rope was left, went to sleep on the fifth night. In the morning they discovered the line had disappeared into the mountain. Neither man could fit through cracks and fissures they assumed young Kalovic had successfully entered and passed through. They stayed by the camp until ten days had passed, and slowly on that day began to pack up the remaining supplies. The sheriff and the mayor rode up to the campsite as they had a number of times.
“We don’t think he’s coming back this time, Harley,” Martin said to the mayor, and explained the situation of their promise.
“You boys did well to hang in this long,” the mayor said. “Don’t feel bad about it. Both men must sure be dead now. They’ll at least be hanging out for eternity. Seems kind of proper for them at this time. Neither one of them knows the wife and mother died last night back in town. Looks like her heart gave out on her after all this.” His hand waved at the mountain as if it was an intruding stranger. “We’ll help you pack up.”
Two days earlier, dragging the line of strands behind him, unable to see the markings on his sleeve, shaking his canteen to see how much water he had left, young Kalovic again tapped on stone with a small hammer he carried in his shirt. Every thirty of forty feet he gained inside the mountain, at every turn he managed through tight spaces, thin fissures, he tapped. The tap tap tap sounds were hollow and without echo, but he kept the small hammer working, hearing the music that was not music, but a repetition. An endless repetition. He drank less water, tapped when he was thirsty, and kept advancing.
The mountain was devious, with blind turns, dead ends, sudden rumbles sending fear through his body. His father must have known the same rumbles, felt the old mountain shaking up on top of him, getting even with the intruder. The Indians told stories about such calamitous revenge from Mother Earth.
But he kept moving, kept hammering, kept wondering how far back was the last full canteen, wondered if the two hires were holding in place. He believed that they had, provided the agreed span of time had elapsed. He was not sure. The marks on his sleeve were useless, had been that way for days.
Those days had slipped away from him. He had no idea how long it had been since he ate a bit of jerky, but thought of the few pieces in his shirt pocket, two more in his pants pocket. They would be for his father. His hand touched a cold wall. It was damp, but must be running off somewhere for there was no water under him as he crawled. He tapped again. No echo of the sound revealed tself. Crawling again, taking the line of rope behind him, he felt it catch hold to something. He could not yank it free and he was afraid of breaking it if he yanked too hard.
He would rest a while, have a sip of water, chew a piece of jerky, try again to pull the line free. He did none of that, instead tapped again and again and let go the strand of thin rope. He thought of a story about a man who had to let go the hand of a friend who was drowning; there had been no other way. Tapping again, Kalovic moved on, free of the rope, free of the rumbling and the fear, free of all things but hope. The image of his mother back in town came at him in a full picture that lasted a mere second. It was so unfair to her. He did not pursue that thought, but tapped again.
While listening for a response, or an echo, his knees felt the sensation of a smooth stone surface. It was worn smooth. Worn smooth. Worn smooth. His heart leaped. Worn smooth. The stone floor was smooth. A worn path. A waterway. Water had done it, had shaved the floor like a plane and rolled over the surface until it was silky smooth. It had been washed since the beginning of time. Perhaps since the beginning of the mountain. And since had gone on to become a stream or a river or carried on for miles underground the way water did, servicing all the wells on the face of the earth.
In his elation he did not hear that other sound, sneaking past his ears, lost in a suffusion of joy where he knew the mountain had been penetrated as his father had known it was penetrated. But there, in some corner where there were no corners, he heard the same sounds that his hammer had tapped out.
In the darkness, in the middle of a mountain, the line of string, the strands of thin rope lost to his touch, he heard the tapping coming back to him. Waiting for a proper moment, for a decent measurement, he was about to tap again when he heard the sound, the tapping, coming from the heart of the mountain.
Martin and Slater and the mayor and the sheriff, having packed all the gear, headed away from the mountain, going down into a wadi leading toward a long stretch of grass and the diminished town of Gallop Springs.
Behind them, from near the abandoned camp site, a pistol shot sounded.