Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The lone rider, on a superb gray stallion, rushed down out of the mountain pass and headed for the second pass several hundred yards away. Because his own horse was killed a day earlier, he had chosen this horse out of all the animals offered up to him in Kingdom Come to make a run seeking assistance against a band of mad renegades holding the town under siege. The wild bunch had already killed a dozen people.
And his horse.
Just as the horse he rode was chosen by him for the run to seek aid from the army, the rider was also chosen. Some men, as fate designates, are put in place to do great things, save lives, rescue the downtrodden, face innumerable odds, and become the hero that is already within them but not yet called upon. So it was that RoyBob Dascomb, a good looking young redhead, had set out on this mission. He was not stained by any natural cause or belligerent confrontation, and wore determination on his face. His boots were equipped with shiny spurs and he wore neat though worn clothes of a light gray tone. A dark gray Stetson, looped with a cord, fluttered behind him like a Union Jack strung out in the breeze.
A horseman on the move.
He thought the next section of the pass, which he had traveled before, would be like riding inside a giant coffin, the dead brought awake, most of the pass being long and narrow, with walls on both sides too steep for complete infiltration by sunlight. It was a dangerous place for horse and rider.
Some parts of the pass, down low, were black as cave mouths.
Dascomb, on his errand of mercy, was bound for the nearest town, Wind Oak, which featured an army supply route station on the banks of Parson Smith Stream. The town had been settled by a cluster of old army veterans, who admitted doing so because it’s where trout played games with fishermen as the clear water issued from the Rockies.
The horseman, recently a scout for wagon trains in western expansion, looked back over his shoulder several times as the horse pounded ahead. No one seemed to be chasing him, but he knew instinctively the renegades would try to catch him before he got to Wind Oak, or anybody breaking out of Kingdom Come looking for help.
A weight sat on his shoulders, though he knew the balance was set by the great animal running under him. “CG Queue,” a horse of another strain, came from another measure of stallions. Dascomb even knew why the stallion bore the name he did, the name first attracting him before he even noticed the magnificence of the animal.
A portion of CG Queue’s mane was plaited into a pigtail of dark gray hair hanging only on one side of his powerful neck, as if a second secret was in place … the name given the animal and the twist of his mane, into a queue, as it were. Dascomb found the irony and the humor and the pathos in the name, knowing the owner of the horse had pointed his finger right at Brevet General George Armstrong Custer and settled on this magnificent stallion the odd name.
Dascomb, from his first day in Kingdom Come, felt that the owner had little use and less regard for the unfortunate cavalry officer who succumbed to Indian initiative and strength at the Battle of Little Big Horn along with all the men of his command but one, as had been whispered. So, in some sort of retaliation, in a squeezed and denouncing memorial, he named this great gray stallion CG Queue, Captain George’s Pigtail. None of it was wasted on Dascomb, a good deal brighter than any of the young men in the besieged town of Kingdom Come, and him a late-comer at that. The name, associated with Custer’s permanent rank as a captain, was a relegation the owner highly favored, having lost three relatives at Little Big Horn.
Now he himself had been called, paired up with horse, history and Custer, admittedly in a strange manner. He affirmed once more that the calling would not be wasted by him.
He was nervous about the fate of Kingdom Come, knowing what a good band of horsemen could do if they were led well. An army veteran of three years in the war, he had seen Confederate gallantry on horseback many times, and the renegades, he believed, were led by a military man, a cavalry man no less.
In a fleeting part of his brain, images came at him from shadows, and he was accosted by visions that accompanied those images, all of them coming back from the war.
As he rode the superb animal toward Wind Oak where a large army force was currently housed, Dascomb tried to remember each detail that had come at him in the renegades’ methods of battle … ruses, odd-man sightings that threw their opponents, and thus all of Kingdom Come, into a frenzy, their tight formations, their sudden sweeps of horsemen in formation from out of silence and shadows, like trained army cavalry.
He’d have to provide all the information to the army at Wind Oak.
The renegades had severed the telegraph lines as their first action, and then cut loose with their savagery. They were relentless, crushing and murderous. Anything moving against them was shot or sabered or rifle-butted. They wanted the entire town and all the supplies in it … food, stock, and the ammunition on delivery wagons headed further west to army outposts. The women would be taken, too, and then cast off later in the mountains for Indians to find and keep as prisoners.
Too, there came to Dascomb the words of the army captain in charge of the ammunition supply wagons, John Bucksmith, a veteran of the Great War, who still carried minie ball souvenirs of the encounter. The captain had assumed the decision-making responsibilities for Kingdom Come when some of the town council were killed.
“You’re the one to go, Dascomb,” he had said. “You’ve done it all from what I’ve heard, and I personally know you’re a helluva lot smarter than any of the cowboys and mountain men riding in and out of this town. At least those boxed in here now. It’s going to take something extra on your part to get through to Wind Oak. They’re most likely watching and studying the trails out of here. We’ve got a lot of ammunition, but not a lot of time. It might take a day to get through to Wind Oak, two days for them to get back here. You’ll have to use some kind of trickery on them, I’m sure of that.”
He caught his breath at that point, paused, and then declared his measurement of the renegade force. “Individuals will not be as smart as the one up front of them, this unknown cavalry officer we hear about. The wounded man of theirs we brought back here said he was an officer in the Confederate Army, still shining his sabre, it appears, still mad at anything Blue.”
Dascomb had replied, “What kind of tricks are you talking about, Captain?” The captain, he noticed, winced each time he moved his left arm a certain way. Admiration for the bravery and courage of the war veteran kept growing in Dascomb, who thought he might later be measured in that vein.
Soon thereafter he had the same feelings for the man’s intelligence and natural beliefs, for Bucksmith was again deliberate on his reply, as though he was working the scales anew. “Oh, nothing you can plan up front,” he said. “It has to come out of the situation you get yourself into. Who’s where? How many of them? What assistance you can get naturally from what’s around you? Don’t ever forget old Mother Nature, young man. She has a lot of tricks in her own kit bag. I’ve seen a few of them pop up when most needed. She can be a good friend and one helluva foe. Keep kissing her as often as you can in this life. Don’t kill unusable prey in your casual rifle sight; leave it for the hungry predator. That’s part of the game plan for survival. ”
Dascomb realized the captain had seen an old image, as he carried on in his fervor. “I saw a forest fire a few years back that ran for ten miles or more. Burned everything in sight. Leveled thousands of trees. Killed hundreds of animals. The Indians said a lightning bolt set it off and the winds grew upon themselves and rushed into the forest. I’ve never seen so much ash and debris lying about like that. We had to ride around it to get through to the other side of the first river that must have stopped the fire in its tracks. Mother Nature at work again, pushing back at herself, having second thoughts.”
The young redhead was intrigued by the captain’s intelligence, his observations.
Thinking of those words, seeing in his mind some of the images that Bucksmith had talked about, Dascomb saw three men sitting their horses abreast on the trail ahead, at its narrowest part. A treacherous overhand hung on one side and a sheer cliff on the other side rising more than 200 feet. Rifles sat across their pommels, the horses stood still in their places, and nothing moved about them.
Dascomb decided the big gray could not break through that formation. He looked about for an answer to his problem. Bucksmith’s voice came back to him saying words he could not make out. But there, off to one side, an old cliff-side trail seemed to point its way up above the overhang. It was narrow but passable. He’d take the chance to avoid them and the gunfire that seemed inevitable.
Up CG Queue went, his legs firm, his body steady, and the three men went out of sight for a few minutes. A voice yelled out, “I thought you said nobody, nothing, could go up that trail, Harry. Nothing.”
There came the clatter of hoofs on stone, more shouts, random shots that sent loud echoes through the length of the narrow pass, the resonating yells and additional shots bouncing off the rocky palisades, like a circus unloading its wagons, all its gear.
“Use old Mother Nature,” he heard Bucksmith practically scream in his ears. One of the men appeared below him, too tight beneath him to hit, so Dascomb fired two shots off the opposite wall, heard the double retort of the shots, saw the shatter against the wall, heard a yell from below. “Hellfire, he hit my horse. He hit my horse.”
Several more shots came from below but they went up high over him before they clattered off the cliff face. The echoes kept sounding in the confines of the pass, as if any moment they would let loose a landslide on top of him, or them.
CG Queue waged a serious ascent on the narrow trail. More gunfire continued to land above Dascomb. The rider of the horse hit by the ricochet screamed out, “My horse is down. He’s dead. Get that snake! Shoot him! Shoot him!”
The trail narrowed, widened, narrowed again as the gray clung desperately for safe footing. The way ahead of the young rider on the rescue mission looked too steep above him, near a promised turn in the difficult climb. He’d have to dismount and lead CG Queue as safely as he could, but he’d need more room to dismount, or he’d have to slip off the rear end of the animal, the trail being so narrow.
Then old Mother Nature, provident to him for the moment he realized, presented opportunities he had not counted on. Somewhere in her past, maybe thousands of years ago in some cataclysmic jolt of earth, a heap of broken rock ended up piled at the edge of the trail. She had done it, he exclaimed inwardly, and then saw a clear image of early Indians at the tasks of carving this trail against the side of the mountain.
RoyBob Dascomb had his choice of providential support.
Down the trail he looked, past where his ascent had started, and figured they would not try that climb. So, while he was caught up here, they were caught below him, in a serious bind … stone and more stone about them, rock and more rock. He decided to provide them with additional threats, and began pushing rocks and boulders over the edge of the trail. Dozens of pieces went over the edge … boulders rounded by rain and time, sharp-edged slabs of rocky break-offs from ruptured walls, and smaller debris caught up by his energy. Stronger than ever, Dascomb set loose a torrent of rocky abuse on the three renegades, him thinking all the while of Bucksmith’s prophecy about Mother Nature.
Beneath the ledge, part way down the sides of the pass, the mountainous clatter began, as the rocks and boulders bounced off one side and then the other and hit bottom strong as thunder loose on the trail below. Screams and yells came and wild gunshots whistling over his head.
One voice finally ordered, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
The way Dascomb departed turned onto a narrow level terrace, with patches of grass laid out like fragments of an ancient tapestry, green as new grass under rain, green as grass in the cemetery at Vicksburg, a comforting green that still haunted him in its turn. A holy site, a quick glance told him, with a wider trail out front, that it was the actual entrance.
Various formations on the terrace grabbed for individual attention, worked stone posing in frozen moments of adoration or testament, dozens of them, not scattered by another cataclysm once afoot in the earth, but precise, planned, a careful conception carried to fulfillment. Caught in odd stones there appeared to Dascomb colored strata of other times, footwork of another time carried out by handwork of native people so old no one knew of them; not any longer, until the signs they left might be read.
It dawned on him that the trail he took to get to this special place was indeed an emergency exit, in case the ceremonies held here were suddenly disturbed by attacking enemies.
He tried to register everything he saw, every formation, every facial or bodily acknowledgment on which stone could speak its mind, knowing he’d have fun explaining the whole adventure to Captain Bucksmith.
Being an intelligent young man, he was receptive to many things and there came, on a slight breath of air, as faint as a woman’s secret perfume, or a flower that had left its mark, a slow chant in a language he’d never understand, but figured he knew what was being said or hailed. It was spiritual. It was contagious. It was splendid. As a boy he had wandered about the land, and he recalled the Indian scouts who chanted around some of the campfires he sat at, and those intonations came back to him from that distance. They came as if dancing on clouds, sparse, ghostly, but luminous. The rhythms of their feet and their bodily expressions leaped across the thin air and atop a sense of time so deep they frightened him, or astounded him.
Needle-sharp, pricking the skin, the chanting, like vibrations, spread upon him, touching more than one sense, though he was not sure which, but it surrounded him, ran his day to ground, dwelt where it came on him for long minutes. If he closed his eyes, he was positive that he’d see what no man had seen in hundreds of years, or heard … a chorus of painted Americans before there were Americans.
Dascomb believed he was sharing something that few men ever shared. But he would carry all of it off with him, all he had seen and heard and felt in his soul.
The way from Kingdom come was open before him.
The exit from the site was easy going after his ordeal, and within a few hours he rode into Wind Oak. The troops were mustered and he led a rescue column back the way he had come. With quick work from the column of troops, the debris was cleared enough for the column to get through the section of the pass where his encounter had taken place.
The troops surprised a sizeable group of renegades, coming on them in silence and near darkness. Scattered, on the run, the renegade force was broken up by ferocious cavalry work, the renegade commander captured along with several others, and all prisoners hauled to Kingdom Come for trial.
For the better part of two days, RoyBob Dascomb spent his time explaining to Captain Bucksmith his own versions of good old Mother Nature’s ways and the alms of good Providence itself.
He had a good listener.