Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A group of folks, after a great fire destroyed much of their home property in a small town in Massachusetts, headed west, for open spaces, free land and a new life. Joshua Dannel, a youngish man of 50, adventurous, industrious, led seven wagons out of Missouri bound for the setting sun. They’d taken a boat to New Orleans from Boston, gone up the Mississippi River to St. Louis, added more river travel on the Missouri River to their land mileage, and arrived at Sedalia, Missouri and a contact there for supplies, information, experience, living almost a year on the Osage Plain learning new ways. Adaptation, Dannel knew, was a key to success in the new world.
Dannel was preparing them for life in the far west, a life he envisioned would be a long struggle against a clutch at land, good promises at work, that their past must lend much to the future, both learned as well as lost. And a wish for new riches filled his mind, a shot at making the family a new dynasty.
The handsome elder of the family, dreams as well as hard work part of his vision, enjoyed the leadership responsibilities for the entourage. He could bribe with a smile or a slap on the back, and snap a whip at laggards, if any dared disrupt the aim of each day.
They ended up, 7 wagons of them, near the small town of Great Brentwood in Nevada, with the snowcapped Sierra Mountains standing over them like sentinels.
“That’s Nikninisht-ta Peak you’re looking at,” said the livery man, Ted Cowley, at the first stop on their arrival. The lot of them had been looking at the peak for a few days on their way into
a town that might be their destination. They stared at the spectacle of it.
Ted Cowley explained. “The Indians say that La-Tontinsht or Eagle’s Face burned his woman up there when he caught her with a white man, a mountain man named Long Tom something or other, hauled wood through the snow to burn both of them. Nobody’s ever found any sign, not that they went looking, but some mountain men have been up that way more than once. Hear them tell about it when they come down to civilize a while, catch up a clear throat, whomp the belly good.”
Dannel, a thorough listener, a learner from any source showing signs of knowledge, paid heed to every word Ted Cowley said, who hadn’t completed his usual spiel. “That other one,” and he pointed to the left of Nikninisht-ta Peak, “is Barren Widow’s Plight but I can’t say it the way the Indians do, them being Paiute or Sierra Miwok or some such. You can’t hardly tell ‘em apart except by the way they wear their hair or dress. But it don’t make no difference anyway ‘cause they’re still Indians no matter how they look, and I do admit Barren Widow’s Plight does tell a story in itself you can imagine on your own,” which meant to Dannel that Ted Cowley did not know it.
“I suppose that the Indians hereabouts,” Dannel tossed into the conversation, “have a physical history attached to their long habitat here, like trophies you might say, or souvenirs that reveal more of history than talk. Sort of a lasting memory. Maybe a made-up museum of sorts, a collector’s place. Something like that makes for special reverence, a true note on history of a tribe.”
Ted Cowley nodded, aware that he knew more than any of the other folks in Great Brentwood about Indians and their ways, like a curator of their lore and now and then got a lead on a hidden portion of their past. He’d always promised himself that he’d get up there someday, take a good look.
“If you mean hidden treasure or sacred pieces from their past, I’d say yes in a minute. I’ve heard many stories about some hidden cache up in the mountains no Indian would ever reveal lest some god swoop down on him and take his soul to hell or wherever the other place is for them. I suppose they’re old squaw tales they entertain the young with, make them tribe-proud and curious at the same time, but you never know the whip from the lash with them.”
“Oh,” Dannel queried, his eyes leveled in pure innocence like he was no smarter than anyone in town, “you mean you believe there’s Indian-style relics locked up there?”
Dannel’s smile was the put-on smile of a salesman, the arguer, the manipulator stretching for gain. He looked at Nikninisht-ta Peak first, the closest, then at Barren Widow’s Plight and nodded, wondering and doubtful at the same time, waiting for an answer, truth of the matter, if it could be revealed.
Ted Cowley came right back. “Not at Nikninisht-ta Peak. No siree. Not on a bet. They don’t go near there at all, in case Eagle’s Face wouldn’t like it. They’re scared hell his spirit’s hanging around up there waiting for people looking for more than truth about his woman and Long Tom. I understand he ain’t never let go his anger, like there’d be no peace ever for him about them two her even if they were locked up by a storm wherever they was at.”
“Then,” Dannel inferred, “you mean what’s stashed away up there for history’s sake, for the future, is at Barren Widow’s Plight. Did I catch that?” It was his way of buttering bread at the right time, when the table was set, the company at ease.
But alert Ted Cowley shifted in place, open-mouthed, realizing he was a plain old big-mouth caught up again in bravado. “Where’d you folks say you was from? What brought you here?” His stance had changed, and brought a return to his usual business ways, not giving away anything for nothing in return, or trying damned hard to do so.
“Well, thank you, sir, for the local history,” Dannel replied. “Very interesting. My son Adam is a historian of note.”
A small grin lurked at the corner of his lips. “And I can clarify the reason for our arrival. We’re here from elsewhere and I’m looking for a friend who settled here years ago. We need directions to his place, name of Nathan Twombly. You know the man, sir?”
Dannel believed he was gifted in some ways, one of them knowing the answers to many questions before he posed them for anybody. He felt that way now with Ted Cowley, the latest book he was reading.
Ted Cowley’s face was a map of information to Dannel, but all of it was mixed in the order of replies at his command. Ted Cowley didn’t know how to tell this stranger about Nate Twombly.
His mind leaped back into a host of contacts, meetings here at the livery or out on Nate’s place, fishing, hunting cougar, delivering horses, fighting off brigands and Indians, going to dinner at the ranch house with Nate and his daughter, Sarah Jeanne. Nate’s face, most of it, came back in quick flashes, then came the wooden cross driven by Ted Cowley’s own hands into the ground out there on ranch property, pounded down with a sledge, the last goodbye to Nate Twombly.
Not a soul knew how Nate had been killed, a long distance rifle shot in the back as he stood over a dead steer. No one saw it happen. No one reported it, until his daughter Sarah Jeanne went looking for him after he hadn’t come home for lunch or supper.
His horse was loose, on the way home when, she saw him from a distance, her heart leaping with fear.
She found her father as he had died, a rope in his hand, lying across the dead steer, the evening shadows falling down on him like a cape let loose from on high. The wind had taken his gray-white Stetson, almost 100 yards away. His revolver was half out of its holster, still gripped in his hand, when he fell, pinning his arm through death. The bullet had ripped clean through him, striking bones, smashing them, tearing him apart.
Cowley had swung the sledge atop the cross, drove it deep, and walked back to his horse, and not returned once in the four months since.
It took some time, but Cowley related the whole episode to Dannel who listened attentively, never interrupted him once, and only asked at the finish if they knew what kind of a rifle had killed Nate Twombly.
“Well,” Cowley said, “both the sheriff and the gunsmith over at Dead River say it was a 45-70, maybe a Sharps or a Henry and owned by someone long in the tooth, and mean as hell, them thinking it’s an old feud come around again. Sheriff says he’ll hang him in a minute he gets guilty sworn on him.”
He gave Dannel directions to Twombly’s ranch and they headed out after picking up supplies. Eighteen people were in the party. A few hours later, topping a rise in the road, the Twombly ranch loomed low and squat on the far right, set against a wooded foothill that run up against a tall cliff. And the mountains stood guard behind it. It presented a site for many lovely homes, for most anybody really interested … and Dannel, of course, was interested.
With one look at Sara Jeanne, a lovely creature, blonde as a Nordic beauty, statuesque, shapely even in work clothes, receptive to visitors, especially old friends of her father, Dannel knew she’d be a great addition to his family … and her ranch. Sara Jeanne and Adam would gravitate quickly, he assured himself.
Within hours of their arrival, sitting at two tables drawn together in the main room of the house for a dinner of welcome, she told them they could stay on the land as long as they wanted, could set up in a corner of the ranch at their choosing, all the while her eyes returning time and again to Adam as he brought his love of history into any part of the conversation it would fit.
Dannel was elated, that the attraction was there and that he had foreseen it all. Somewhere, at the back of his brain, in a kind of rush of pictures and strange images, he saw a huge cave filled with artifacts of Indian life, and some of them were self-illuminated by their own gold.
The call of the west was alive.
Life, again, he was sure, would be good again for the family. He’d done his part to this point; the rest would be up to Sara Jeanne and Adam, and, as much as he hated to admit, Ted Cowley would have his part in the play.
It did not take long for Sara Jeanne to fall in love with Adam. He was interesting, he was different, and he had a distinction about his person that magnetized Sara Jeanne from the first day. And the first ride together out on the prairie, loping along on two horses, enjoying the rhythm of the ride, the scenery, the growing attachment and excitement in each of them, brought all of the Dannels closer to a place in the west.
Adam found her as different as she found him. Besides being lovely, she was responsible for everything she did, and said, and managed the ranch the way her father had taught her. He had heard her once say to a hand, “Garvey, that’s not the way we were taught, is it? You will do it the right way from now on. Right?” She had lathered it with a smile, but she was serious. He liked that in her.
Adam, too, seemed interested in her father’s death, afraid at first to speak of it openly, but Sara Jeanne felt the regard and said, “You don’t have to be sensitive with me about my father’s death, Adam. It was no accident. It was murder. Somehow, I’ll find out who did it. Then there’ll be hell to play.”
He loved that in her and told her so. The bond was in place all the way.
The Dannels, with Sara Jeanne’s open invitation to light anywhere on the property, had set up camp in a lovely corner away from the main house.
Dannel had said to Sara Jeanne, “Among the things we want to do while we are in the area, for some months anyway, is to do some historical research that Adam is deeply interested in. We plan to do some exploring up there around Barren Widow’s Plight.”
The mention of Barren Widow’s Plight brought up a new expression on Sara Jeanne’s face and Dannel, ready to read a face at an instance, understood her fear of never having children by the man she loved, Adam Dannel, and the threat of all the Dannels leaving the area was left dancing in the air.
“Of course,” Sara Jeanne said, “and if you need any help I can assign some of my men to help you, like carrying supplies or handling animals. Whatever.” The sincerity of her offer was open to see.
“Oh, no, Sara Jeanne,” Dannel replied instantly. “We can handle everything ourselves. We’re fully equipped to take on such interesting work. Adam will be thrilled with this expedition.” He patted her on the shoulder.
Dannel, his son Adam, and two rugged nephews, Paul and Clay Gentry, left on horseback and a mule loaded with supplies. They had planned for a two-week stay at Barren Widow’s Plight.
As they left the Twombly ranch, Adam asked his father, “What did Ted Cowley say that parked your interest, Pa?”
“I was in Great Brentwood three times and spoke to him each trip and he eventually told me, on the promise of a percentage of find that all the stories say there is one cave inside of another cave that was carved out of the heart of the mountain. They say it took almost a hundred years to carve it out of rock, and he believes that every time some Indian went in there to work, he brought some gold or other piece of value with him. Said more than once, ‘The place has got to be loaded with gold and artifacts we can’t begin to imagine.’ He swears one drunken Indian that he fed drink into, loosened up one night and told him one story that put the cave in a cave in the southern-most canyon near the high level of the Barren Widow’s Plight, using their name for it which I can’t collar yet.”
“You believe him, Pa?”
“I have to believe him, Adam. I don’t think he can lie about that, make up such a story.” The sincerity in his eyes was believable and made the story carry. “Legend or lore or fancy hoping, whatever it is, we’re going to check it out, and as far as we can go.
Adam thought it over for a while, and replied. “I’ve heard about steps and tunnels being carved over whole generations for places of worship, but never a cave inside of a cave. The Pueblo Indians and the Anasazi and other tribes did some amazing work, and did it for centuries in some places. If all of it’s true, something will grow out of it.”
“We will grow,” Dannel said. “We will grow.”
A week later they were in a large cave near the peak of Barren Widow’s Plight. Sounds carried like a tunnel caught in the wind, and animals of various kinds added to the music of the cave; it was vibrato and tremolo in one sense and minutes later a basso profundo delivery came like an echo from deeper in the bowels of the mountain.
The party might have missed it, a message of sorts carved in the rock face of the cave, down near the floor of the cave, nearly out of view of dust, dirt, debris and old leavings from predators.
Adam, with a swinging torch almost passed by it, too, but a few characters reined in his passage, and he knelt to study the series of symbols. He let out an exclamation, “Aha,” lowered his torch, and uttered, “Imagine, a road map.”
Hastening to his son’s side, Dannel said, “What is it, Adam? Can you decipher it? Is it a true sign?”
“I figure, Pa, that it’s part of a direction sign, pointing the way. I’m sure we are in the right cave. And the entrance to the next cave must be near here. We’ll have to go over every square inch of the place.” He stood up and pointed further on. “It must be that way. This is too close to direct us to the exit. Go that way.”
Adam Dannel started tapping on the walls, listening to the reply, measuring that echo. When he was sure the sounds were different from one area, he raised the torch, saw the stone set against the wall, and leaned on it.
It moved away from the wall easier that he thought it would.
And there, cut out of the wall how many centuries in the past he could not begin to imagine, was an entrance.
“This is it, Pa. This is it.” The excitement bubbled out of him.
The elder Dannel, taken aback, dreams flourishing already about the find, the eventual trading with the world’s ultimate powers of finance, said, “You go on in, Adam. You deserve it, but tell me what you see as soon as you can.” He patted his son on the back, lit up a new torch and handed it to him.
Adam Dannel, historical student and buff of old remains, feeling the magnitude of expectation, thinking of Sara Jeanne and how she’d greet his discovery, knelt, fit himself torch first into the narrow opening and crawled into the end of one world and the beginning of a new one he was sure, seeing the harvest of all harvests.
The first thing his eyes lit on was a six-pointed star sitting directly in front of him as though set there long ago to be the lead-in piece of s most holy place. Its sheen in the flare of the torch jumped into a series of golden flashes, from the core of the star to the six rounded points. It was only as big as his hand, so he put his hand forward, grasped the star and stuck it into his shirt. The cold touch of the star made him shiver at first, and then the thought of the largest chunk of gold he had ever seen set his mind ablaze. The rumbles in his heart and chest seemed part of that burst of heat.
Lifting the torch on high, he realized he could stand to full height, so stand he did, slowly flashed the flickering torch about him, the swift tongues of fire leaping, fading away, leaving the source of their being, and saw the treasure of treasures. There was no doubt about it … it was the most amazing find he had ever heard about or ever read about. And nothing like this had he ever seen. The amazement touched again at the bottom of his feet, running the length of his body.
There were niches and shelves and fissures cut into the cave, hundreds of them, some shallow, some slim, some vertical or horizontal, some with shadows so deep they appeared to be exits, cut to fit each piece contained, for in each one loomed a piece of history. The artifacts were not trinkets or trifles, not paltry or frivolous, but made of gold and assorted gems the types of which he had no idea, except they shone in their settings, in the torch’s glare, in a cave in the heart of a mountain.
“We hit it, Pa!” he yelled out, the echo of his words leaping back like quick thunder, a shaking in the walls they had seemed to set off.
He yelled out again and heard the echo before his father said, “Hold it down, Adam. Hold it down. Now come out and let me take a look.”
Adam, left the torch burning in a fissure, gleams of gold behind it, and crawled out of the cave.
“Pa,” he said as he came out of the opening, “you won’t believe it until you see it. Nothing like it ever seen. Go take a look. Bring a new torch with you. I don’t know how long the one I left in there will last. Go now, Pa.”
“I will, Adam, but tell those boys we want them to go back and get another two weeks supply. Tell them we’ve found some signs that definitely say we’re on track. Tell them leave what we have and be back in three days. We’ll live on what we have left. Do it now, Adam, but don’t be so excited. Don’t give them a clue so they’ll run off at the mouth. Keep it in the family.”
The elder Dannel knelt, thrust the torch ahead of him and squeezed into the opening. He had already heard his first offer to the banker who had taken the family fortune: “It’s like I have said, Mr. Stocker … this is the last offer I am going to make to buy your institution, or it’ll fall in ruins at your feet.” It made him feel good, before he had seen a single artifact, the shaking in his abdomen part of his excitement.
Then he spotted the glitter, the exorbitant treasure enough for any family in the known world. Adam was right! It was beyond dreams. He stood in the midst of glory of the Nations, back past most beginnings. Staring at the walls aglow with gold sheen and precious stones, he felt overcome, but the break with the sorry past was at hand.
Adam, as bidden, sent the others off on the requested errand, and sat to enjoy a rest. The water was sweet on his tongue, in his throat, and he got a small snack for himself and one for his father. He was putting them in a sack to carry back to the cave, along with three other sacks folded tightly together, when his feet started shaking as they had done previously.
He stood to listen, to get away from the tremors at his feet, until he realized the whole mountain was shaking. He felt it all before he saw walls of the canyon begin to shiver, crack, give off explosive sounds, and a separation from the past began in earnest.
He screamed, “Pa!” and rushed toward the initial cave entrance and the thunder came from inside as he heard much of Barren Widow’s Peak feel nature’s next cataclysmic struggle with its being. The roar and the thunder seemed to generate movement, shifting of atoms as large as the imagination, while the heart of one whole mountain felt the strain.
Joshua Dannel, once Massachusetts, dreamer, fortune hunter, was interred forever with the greatest cache of precious items and historical artifacts of significant value that the whole continent might ever reveal.
Who knows what piece he might have held in his hand when the mountain came down on top of him, interloper at history’s feet?
Sara Jeanne was glad that Adam was not too very much like his father. He didn’t need all the riches that his father dreamed about, of which he had made the center of his life. Adam would be fine with just her; she had enough for both him and her right there where Barren Widow’s Plight looked down on them, along with Nikninisht-ta Peak, like a pair of sentinels on high.
A good life sat in front of them in spite of the magnitude of the loss.