Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
It was not an easy start for newly baptized Apollo Greysmith, his young mother, Verna, thrust into a maddening frenzy right after the trailside ceremony and the conferring of his name, when he disappeared almost at the same time as the wagon master gave the command to "move out." Verna ran about hysterically and her husband and a few of the ladies had to settle her down as much as they could while the hurried search went on.
"Perhaps one of the younger girls 'borrowed' him," joked her husband, Jeffrey Greysmith, as he scoured the area where they'd stopped for the evening, aided by some of the fathers . "They've been showing him so much love and care since his first hours. They'll be there with their own child or children before they know it," he said, projecting a quick and serious nature. "Yesterday jumps out at us in a damned hurry; we hardly see it, we have so much on our minds, so much to do. That birthmark on Apollo's chin doesn't even faze them; at least not the way it first hit me and his mother."
The look on his face was portentous, fearful and suddenly innocent, as if nothing untoward had actually happened, while overhead, but at an angle as if Boston or New York was pushing it from back east, the sun rode well into its orange blaze atop the Kansas territory.
Time, too, was on a journey; was his son Apollo now on a journey, one with an unknown destination? How would Verna handle this? How could he?
The newborn in the long hours that followed was not found and the parents stayed behind in the general area, with three volunteers, as the wagon train departed the overnight location on its trail westerly. After searching for a whole day, the volunteers left, but the parents remained in the choicest part of the area, knowing their own lives were at risk as long as they were not a part of the collective force of the wagon train. They became a lone remnant of the long column on its way west; they were, supposedly, alone in formidable country, their child stolen, eaten by creatures, perhaps reduced to the softest of bones.
Kidnapping had not entered Greysmith's mind, not here on the wide grass where you might see a horse or a buffalo a mile away; it was unthinkable that someone would steal a baby.
The search was useless, frustrating, not a sound heard, no whimpers or cries of a lost baby, the wide sweep of the prairie holding back or hiding everything that could lead to discovery. Not a single sign lead them any place, as if their child had just been swallowed up by a cloudy mystery or a mysterious visitor. But even then, the possibilities, the doubts, the realizations began to form, shape up in his mind, begin to reframe his attitude, his character, emanate to his energy.
But, in a like mode of thinking, it was logically surmised by Greysmith, that whenever and wherever his son Apollo might be sighted, from the day of birth and forward, he'd be recognized by the outstanding birthmark on his chin, a triangular birthmark as if it had been sunken or dyed in deep red by an artist, by an architect, by a God with a plan of vengeance or retribution of past deeds And he had begun thinking without sharing his thoughts that there was a reason enough for the mark to have been left on his son.
More than one person, in short order we will see, came to that same conclusion.
Vociferously, backing up that vein of thought, some of the wagon train youngsters, because of the unmistakable shape of the birthmark, had been calling him Little Tipi or Wigwamy, the mark looked so much like an Indian tipi, even to the poles as if emerging at the top of the fire red tipi, and the silent, open but shadowed flap carrying a mysterious message with it .
So much did it look like an Indian home that a lone Cheyenne scout, called One-Time Look (No'ka-he'konenóno'e) by selected name, crawling around on the plains grass, keeping track of the wagon train and its people, totally interested in and curious about the white people of the column, saw the baby with the strange birthmark and immediately knew it was a special mark delivered by the gods on high and kidnapped the baby near a thick mass of brush when the mother turned her back, hiding for two days in a cave hidden by another clutch of dense brush.
Later, after being passed over dozens of times by searchers and under cover of darkness on a cloudy night, he took him to a Cheyenne mother who had milk for the child (néstovohe) (vai). They both exclaimed about the mark and knew it meant that a messenger to and from the Great Spirit had come to the Cheyenne with the distinguished infant. Perhaps, but most likely, by way of Maheo or Weeho or the dreaded Ma'xemstaa'e, messengers from the great one residing high above all life, all things, even the stars and the moon in their endless and fabulous voyages, longer than the otters swam the long rivers or the moles worked through the heart of Earth, longer than the wild and beautiful horses that had come upon the Earth from the great curve below them where the waters were wide and warm to the touch and not from the top of the Earth where the waters stayed frozen forever, like the old people said.
One-time Look, as was noted, was not only a superb scout and tracker, but so well-versed at a young age in the history and customs of the Cheyenne that he was considered a coming shaman while already known as a brave warrior and scout. In addition, he was touted as Kahuna by the tribal elder who knew he sometimes entered trance states during rituals to practice healing of a kind along with the tones and chants of divination. When he was on the trail it was told that he was empowered by the Great Spirit to see and reflect on divine or other-than-worldly matters. Red Porcupine, who as a young brave gave half his foot to a great rock on the mountain, once said in his own language words that meant, "One-time Look sees where the brown bear walks and where the black-tailed prairie dog (squirrel) puts down its paws. If he doesn't see the tell-tale marks, he smells them or hears them after they've passed his sight. His eyes see you after he has gone by your place of the day."
Such a matter was the identification of the white baby with the red birthmark as a messenger of the high gods. Other white people, taken or found, lived within the tribe and had become settled in their predicament after a period of time, especially children who integrated with Indian children and mother figures.
June, it was, month of The Fattening Moon to the Cheyenne nation, and on occasion One-time Look, out of a driving curiosity concerning Alights-on-the-Cloud's (Vaiveahtoi's) natural parents, kept his eye on them and realized they were making plans to settle in the immediate area. Soon, on the flattened rise above a wide stretch of grass, and near a small stream rolling off to the nearest river, the man of the family started building a small cabin, his wife planted a small garden, and began hauling, cutting and piling firewood beside the cabin.
A homestead arose in the wilderness, but there was no child to share it, to create love and laughter for the soft hours.
As One-Time Look knew the English, he understood what Alights--on-the-Cloud's parents said when they hailed each other at tasks, he knew they were not leaving the area where they had last seen their son, would not leave even though they faced innumerable dangers in this formidable place.
They were digging in, building up, becoming part of the land of the Cheyenne nation.
One-time Look, after a few months of scrutiny and study, realized that their wood supply would give out before new leaf's time. He left tracks in a selected area where half a dozen blow-downs were visible, along with standing dead trees, and scattered limbs with decent thickness, all those with good wood, where the man would find them and haul them away, like gold from a mine. Included in that gathering of wood were several squaw-pine limbs he had pulled down with the assistance of his horse and a rock tied at the end of a rope and flung up and around a dead limb waiting to be drawn down at pressure's call, just the way Cheyenne squaws gathered firewood.
Once, taking away the last of the logs he'd split from this arranged source, Jeff Greysmith sat his horse and studied the territory "looking for the hand of gifts and not the gifts of hand."
It all brought him up sharply, slashed into his reasoning, opened his mind. What was working here he did not expect, could not explain, dare not explain. His own horse acted queerly, as though it too looked for explanations. Was it true what he had heard about horses, that they have other senses? If he let the reins loose, could Big Chauncy find his son? Or find what seemed to be lurking in the shadows, in the brush, or exist as part of the Earth itself the way a fallen log lies that once had been the trunk of a living tree?
He wondered if he should tell Verna that he thought all this had something to do with Apollo. His heart near burst with the thought and the possibilities emanating from his feelings. He thought he'd best keep such thoughts from her, the possibilities being wide-spread, enormous and yet ominous.
She took the sense of wonder away from him."You're like a machine with that firewood, Jeff. You're catching up to Winter as you stand there, but I know you're not really standing still as you stand there and not for long." She hugged him and he knew again a slight twist of hope, but said nothing of his suspicions.
The pair were so busy otherwise with their home being built, along with necessary survival duties, that they spared little time for wonder and worry, though they never settled on acceptance, final acceptance, of their little Apollo, a fertile and growing memory around them as every gentle twist of a tale brought new memories into their triangle of love.
One time, the sense of a tear floating in the blue-green of an eye, she said, "Remember how he wrinkled his chin and it looked like a flap was opening on his tent." Much earlier, Jeff Greysmith realized that she never referred to the birthmark as "the tipi" but as "the tent." Such little admissions, such little recollections, made the situation bearable for him and often sparked his energy with sudden drives more than the usual. Though such conceptions and hopeful ideas might remain unobserved by a casual eye, they became dependent upon one another for such lifts. Greysmith swearing at times that a day every once in a while was a day bringing discovery closer to them.
As it was, in the Cheyenne camp, where Apollo, as we know him in one connection, and as Alights-on-the-Cloud or Vaiveahtois in a second connection, the infant was becoming a focal point of attention. This had all been foretold to One-Time Look by more than "one voice" and at "more than one time." And the Cheyenne "mother" said to a gathering of maidens and mothers, "This infant has come to us from the Great Spirit and the Gods of the Prairies to suckle at a Cheyenne breast. What great honor has come to us and what great joy." The twinkle in her eyes circulated widely in coming days and her own sworn brave gained additional honor himself.
Events unfolded in small and large manners, and each one heralded the new history that was being written in the lore of the plains.
It all came to One-time Look's perception that each time a cloud came over their lodge or village and at least one young Indian child was near Vaiveahtois, and grasping his attention, that Vaiveahtois pointed out some nearby and visible object, landmark or creature. One-time Look understood that a new name was being cast from the clouds on high, from the God of the Clouds and the name was being conferred by Vaiveahtois. So named in this fashion was Bear's Head, Tree-with-Horns, Gray Bark Swims and many other names that were new to the tribe. Vaiveahtois never gave a name to a child that had been previously used in the tribe.
These significant revelations to the elders of the tribe further entrenched both One-time Look's and Vaiveahtois's spiritual positions, and responsibilities, within the village, within the tribe. They became a confirmed brotherhood in the eyes of the elders. the elder brother and the younger brother, each with special gifts from the Great Spirit.
At strange moments with strange announcements, On-time Look was advised, told, warned that his trance time was approaching, making headway into his consciousness, taking over his mind and therefore his body. He and others thought it was the influence (or the intervention) of the little white baby with the vivid red mark on his face. It brought a stream of words, a sense of music, a variety of objects, places and conditions to his awareness. Was any of it real, he wondered, and how far would it go if it was real? There were times he could not bring back some of the scenes that came to him in such periods; could Vaiveahtois's influence work that deeply on him? A infant? This white infant, when the land of the Cheyenne was, in effect, being invaded by wagon train after wagon train, by clusters of folks moving west, by noise and guns and the thunder of thousands of cattle moving where the buffalo had been so free?
Was he free, himself? Was he too tied to this baby, to the parents? Did he owe them?
He was aware now, this minute, that he was caught in the arcs of life, the full range of them as they spoke to him, brought all his world to view, parts outstanding to him: The moon serves, the stars, the dead oak still leaning at the bottom of the foothill, the memory of a dead girl at the foot of a fall, leaves of autumn rushing through a dry valley, the wild spotted horse in the north country of the Nez Perce that carried a name he could not remember but dreamed of a hundred times, a white-boy child's red mark to be carved all his long life, his own hearing atop the silence of the earth when wind and breeze and the wafted odor of his own self just as the elder looks to him for a new name on an old thing and the words come from elsewhere. Does Vaiveahtois hear the names even as he points a finger, a stubby arm? How strange this association, as well as the need, the overwhelming desire to protect the parents of the infant that suddenly rose in him like the bond of a brother. Why did this rise: does it ever end, bring calamity with it?
When One-time Look came out of his trance, the elders were staring at him, wide eyed, stiff as atones in the presence of the young Kahuna caught up in his own magic. None of the elders were aware that his gaze was also on the natural mother of the child and the understanding that came to him that she was reacting to her loss in a way quite different from her husband who buried himself in work and search in the same breath, never refusing to check on the slightest lead. The father remained robust, alert, a true seeker, while the mother, he heard hailed as Verna, began to sink into a spiritless state, sadness riding her like a pony from a long ride across the desert. From many vantage points, as he studied her behavior, he wanted to ask her if she could speak Cheyenne by simply saying, "Nétsėhésenėstsehe, Do you talk Cheyenne?" But her actions and attitude said it would frighten her into a severe reaction.
He held back on any approach, hoping she could work her way out of this sour state, but each observation convinced him that she was tending toward serious action, depression, destruction. How unfair that would be to her gifted child (even with her own loss in the matter), and to her husband, and to her even as the Great Spirit might see her as she really was.
Twice One-Time Look had seen her go near the bluff over the river, as though she was in a dream. His mind flared with the possibilities and the Great Spirit was talking to him, trying to make him speak out, to say "Nóxa'e, Wait. Névé'nėheševe, Don't do that!" And when she seemed desperate enough in her reactions, the Great Spirit upon him, shoving him in her direction, the commands almost inaudible, hidden from immediate reasoning, he rushed at her as she was about to jump off the bluff into the water far below, throw herself down upon some picket of pity, gore herself forever on her loss, and as he ran on his mission he shouted the words in English; "Wait! Don't do that!" In mid-flight he caught her hand even as her husband off away in brush, himself leery of her condition, saw the pair of them jumbled and tumbled in the air and then hit the water.
Greysmith had his rifle in hand, fearing he had lost or was losing his wife, but he'd get the Indian that tried to kill her, was trying to kill her, and she had been so severely depressed since Apollo had disappeared. Was she, in her depressed state, involved with an Indian? Had she been cheating on him while he had been working? Was this how fire wood was found in a mysterious manner? The questions piled up on him. Was she pushed? He saw no others about the bluff. No other Indians except the one now with his wife in mid-air, clutching for her, reaching. In his chest his heart felt the pain of a double loss.
He'd aim his rifle ... but at what? Was there any point to going on, getting past this. But, where was Apollo?
Then Greysmith saw a strange sight in the turbulence of the river ... the Indian trying to save his wife. She seemed to be fighting him off. Her head went under the surface of the stream, came up, went under again. The Indian dove immediately after her, brought her up again. It was all crazy, difficult to look at. Why had they come west? he questioned himself. Had she been against it? He couldn't bring back an argument. The Indian brought her back up again as she continued her destiny's decision, not westerly but deadly.
Greysmith, stiffening his resolve, his hope, his tried faith, rushed downhill and came to a bend in the river where he awaited the pair coming downstream, her continuously fighting for her life, the Indian helping her while being fought off, the waters splashing about where there was no rough water, no rapids where the white of his wife clashed with the red of the Indian, where the opposites, at a glance, contended.
With difficulty, One-Time Look brought her to the bank of the river where Greysmith had placed his rifle on the ground, loosed his gun belt and also dropped it on the banking and rushed into the water.
The two males managed to get her ashore as she gasped for breath, hugged her husband, stared with wonder at the Indian whose face was deeply scratched, where blood had run from onto her clothes.
One-Time Look made the offer in English to the Greysmiths, "I have seen you search for the child with the red tent on his face. I will find him for you and brink him to your arms." He was speaking to Verna Greysmith, now recovered from her awful and dire attempt at squeezing the life all the way from her body, where little of it remained after her son Apollo was lost.
"I will travel two moons with you, leading the way west with the sun as it chases us, speaking for you all along the way through the Nations, but you must take Alights-on-the-Cloud far away from here. He has landed as special among my people, the Cheyenne, but he is a gift that the Great Spirit gave to you in the beginning of his time on Earth. I know he best belongs to you, There is enough sadness out here on the wide grass and He tells me more is coming this way."
For the one and only time they were in his company, the Greysmiths saw deep sadness descend on One-Time-Look's face. Jeff Greysmith assumed that he was looking at the future directly in the face.
He looked over his head as he spoke the English, as though asking forgiveness, "I took your son from you and I will bring him back to you, but you have to be ready to move on as quickly as you can, like a prairie rabbit running from the hawk.
The Greysmiths had one chance and it was with the Indian who had stolen their son and started all their pain. Now he promised to bring Apollo back to them and they would leave their new home
At the Cheyenne village, one elder noticed a strange mien about One-Time-Look, how his head kept dipping, his eyes averting his gaze, and realized that the young Kahuna was in another place for the time being. He did not know where that place was.
He found out soon enough, for a cry went up that Vaiveahtois was missing, that he had been sleeping and now he was gone, as if he had crawled away.
The sky turned into a sudden grayness, then a stormy blackness took over all the way from one western peek to an eastern peek, and then thunder and lightning ripped across that upper sea of darkness until the whole world seemed upside down.
The elder, in deference to the young Kahuna, entered his lodge without a word uttered, turning his back on what was happening all around them.
One-Time-Look, carrying Vaiveahtois, Alights-on-the-Cloud, Apollo Greysmith, slipped from sight and was out of the village and on a dead run for the Greysmith's cabin a dozen miles away. Apollo, of course, never understood what was being said in his ear, "Momma comes. Momma comes. Momma comes." He said it dozens and dozens of time as though he was preparing the infant for re-introduction to his birth mother, but, in his own way, in the way of his people who were making amends, he knew the words were being delivered by the gods of the winds far ahead of him, down through the valley, across the sea of grass where the eagle and the hawk and the buzzard soared in turns overhead, past the canyon where the coyote had greeted dawn before darkness disappeared, and along the river where secret eyes set on the eyes of men, toward the uphill rise and the small cabin sitting alone like a sentinel's post, eyes continually cast back along the trail and filled with expectation ... One-Time-Look's promise working along with the gods of all the Earth and Sky.
One-Time-Look learned a new word in English, one he had never heard before, but whose meaning he understood without explanation from Jeffrey Greysmith when he exclaimed, "Ecstasy, One-Time-Look. Pure ecstasy," as Verna Greysmith, her depression vanishing in one great bound as though her body had been emptied and refilled with happiness, hugged her infant son, who might have been lost forever, tightly to her breast. Then, motherhood all tightened up in her as stiff as old rawhide knots, dared feed her baby son in front of a Cheyenne brave ... all to make up for lost time, to say what could not be said.
The three adults finished loading the wagon and set off for the farther edges of the west, led by a young Cheyenne brave who stayed the whole of two full moons with them throuh other Nations.
It was understood by the three adults that they traveled as a family, which would soon break up one more time, long before they reached their destination.
Neither of the parents knew what the infant knew, what Apollo Greysmith, Alights-on-Cloud, Vaiveahtois, was bringing with him; maybe he'd never know.
No'ka-he'konenóno'e , One-Time -Look (hard), was told from above that Vaiveahtois would never forget what the Gods had given him, and what the Cheyenne first saw and gave to the future.
But the deep debt was due and payable.