Western Short Story
The Shepherd's Keeper
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

At a campfire in foothills of the Sierra Nevada Range, Igon Mendoza, a Basque sheepherder 24 years of age, industrious and as bright as a reflection, listened to the wind caressing the rocky crests above him. For a moment he again imagined hearing the great singer Gotzen Bartolomine he had heard on the ship that brought him to the Americas from his home high in the Pyrenees country. The man had the voice of an angel, a spirit beyond the clouds, and it could soften a lonely heart. Ten years here and Mendoza still remembered the man and his voice.

The last man Mendoza had spoken to, however, was a fellow Basque as they left a drummer’s wagon down on level country a month or more before, both buying olive oil and garlic buds from the drummer. The Basque had said, in his native language, warming Mendoza’s soul regardless of the content of the message, “Watch mendietarantz, Igon. Arraro rider A askotan ondotik igarotzen, izan zen guardia ibilaldiak ere, baina entzun dugu adibidez falsities aurretik. Keen begi bat eskatzen, Igon. A gogoa begia.”

The drummer, if the message had been said in English, would have heard the Basque say, “Watch the hills, Igon. A strange rider passes by often, as though he rides guard, but we’ve seen such falsities before. A keen eye is demanded, Igon. A keen eye.”

Needless to say, the drummer, otherwise able to spread the word with his usual contacts, had no idea of a mysterious rider.

There came the times when Mendoza, instead of singing the words he remembered from Bartolomine’s song, would reflect on his countryman’s message and say to his two dogs, a continuation of the warning. He’d say in a soft voice, a tinge of mystery attached to the warning, bringing their names into it, “Watch mendietarantz, Domingo, Jose. Arraro rider A askotan ondotik igarotzen, izan zen guardia ibilaldiak ere, baina entzun dugu adibidez falsities aurretik. Keen begi bat eskatzen, Domingo, Jose. A gogoa begia.”

On a later afternoon, off to the side of one hill, there issued another muffled sound, a sound hidden by a barrier, but different in context. Some of the sheep began to bleat, and Mendoza came all the way back to earth and listened for more sounds. During the earlier calls of evening, shadows falling like autumn’s whispering leaves, he had heard other singular disturbances, ones he could not recognize; not a falling stone, not a dead limb dropping out of a tree, no heavy footstep of a heavy man off his horse. He swore he had not heard the sounds before.

Mendoza whistled through his teeth and his two dogs, from out of sight, slipped into his sight, paused when he chucked their names softly, as if in salute, whispering, “Ah, Domingo. Ah, Jose.” Once so subtly recognized, they moved on. Feeding time was on a schedule, and not yet due.

Perking his ears, staring into darkness, the dogs back to stealth work, Mendoza took himself aside in solitude to soften his anxiety. He thought about the attributes of his sheep, as he often did, admiring their qualities, comforting himself with their goodness, their promise. He’d love them like children if he had any. Unlike some breeds, his small Mexican churros were more valuable for meat than for wool, because they could survive in a harsh and arid environment, which, in time, would come to them. It always did. The host of miners, in the mountains and on the other side, seeking rare fortunes, still needed to eat, and they had no time for gardening, watching crops, harvesting. They worked and they hungered, for food as well as other things. Mendoza fully understood them. In quick reveries he’d think of lamb stew or lamb chops being the meal in a miner’s stomach when he spotted the flecks of gold in a tunnel wall, shining at him like stars in a black sky. How would that excitement be suppressed when there was no need for suppressing it at the moment of discovery. Stories of great discoveries, though, were touched by strange outcomes.

His sheep, for that matter, faced the wolves or the coyotes, and he’d have to contend with them, him and Domingo and Jose. The realizations sat with him as if they were partners at the evening campfire.

Though for many days he’d been aware of “some other person being about,” since his friend had warned him too, Mendoza had not once seen the lone rider in the hills, looking down on him like an angel on horseback, different than Bartolomine in his sweeping red cape. For fact, the lone rider wore all black except for the broad-brimmed white Stetson that sat on his head, and a cord with a strangely-shaped knot that hung below his chin, almost like a medallion. Unseen by Mendoza, or his friend, this horseman was an enigma.

Though the alarm feeling persisted for a long period, calmness finally came over the herder because he felt no threat from “him out there, the phantom of the hills.” There had been no threat to him personally and he managed to relax with that knowledge.

As he listened he heard the winds whistling in the aspens and then across the faces of figures that had been carved into tree stumps. The carving was well after the rest of the tree had been used for firewood or for erecting temporary shelters. Arbor glyphs, as they were to be called later on, had been carved by other Basque herders who had come to America from the Pyrenees Mountains, set partly against France and partly against Spain. The carvings were odd, old and open, from memorable names and dates, to poems for lovers they had left back in the Pyrenees, and to secret words or messages for other Basque herders always to follow these trails, like pages of a book. Easily imagined in Mendoza’s mind, because all herders share loneliness, were some delicate naked women carved truly to their loveliest attributes. Goddesses of the mountains, he called them, the dream-makers of the mountains, stationary lovers for lone men on the loose.

From a high point above him, as if from a hidden place inside the mountain, he again heard a sound. This time he knew it was a horse clinking a horseshoe on stone; but there followed only new silence, as if the horse was held in place, the rein pulled by the unseen hand.

For an hour, Mendoza listened, and heard nothing, and sleep finally took him down, as his dogs moved on the perimeter of the flock. The last thing he would remember before dozing off was a story about the Horseman of the Davidos, a hero to some Basque in another region of the new country. Every shepherd he met told him at least one new story of the Davidos horseman. “A countryman,” they would exclaim. “A true countryman who has grasped these ways.”

Even as he slept, Mendoza was prompted by deep thoughts; thinking back over his route, he remembered where those best looking girls were located in their stationary positions, across the breadth of the mountains. All of them were generally away from water and the great grassy acreage where other Basques lead their sheep. Though their churros, hardy sheep of the first order, often did well in dry or desert conditions, it was most pleasurable when they had the advantage of opulent grass, and herders had time to cut into wood, to whittle, to carve. He wondered if the phantom rider, who might be watching guard over him and his flock, took such care of the beautifully carved women of the hills. He wondered if the man loved one of them in particular, if he looked back over the trails at her from time to time, saw her standing by the door of a small cabin in the Pyrenees.

And the herder could look back over his life, as he looked over his sheep. Memories matched up with new days, took new turns at being old. The Sierra Nevadas, for this Basque, were like his homeland mountains, with hardy sheep, such as the Mexican churros, being their source of sustenance. The animals, here as there, wintered in the lowlands, and were driven to summer in the high grazing lands of the mountains so much like the Pyrenees. Mendoza’s father had brought him here, to these few valleys, just before a bear killed him at a campsite in the lower Sierra Nevada. He had made the two-boat trip with his son, from Basque country to South America, and then to California. The pair traveled with some sheep in order to begin a new flock.

Later, wide awake, with his mind continually full of thoughts of all kinds, Mendoza planned his meal, while working the easy slopes, the grazing underway, and his eye as keen as any. He loved beans and potatoes, like all Basques, and cooked them often during lonely months on the grass. Always he tried to have a hearty meal— lamb stew with potatoes and beans and sourdough bread, accompanied by a good red wine. Basques loved red wine and home-made cheese. Their “fromage de brebis” or sheep cheese was made from pure sheep’s milk set aside while ewes were being milked. Other Basque sheep’s milk cheeses had names like Ossau, Iraty and Idiazabal, names almost tasty enough to sit on the tongue or the lip, but best by far with wine.

Mendoza felt the angel on his shoulder like a soft feather sat there, until the day he heard a single shot. It rang clear and true from a high place in the rocks and peaks, the echo pounding down stone walls.

There was no return shot. There was no galloping horse. Stillness reined on the mountain side

Dusk came and Mendoza lit a fire. In the following darkness he heard a whisper. It was in his native tongue, and said, quite near him, a simple but distant plea from an overhead ledge: “ Mendoza, ikusten duzu dut, paisano bat naiz guardia on.” ... “Mendoza, I watch for you, I am a countryman on guard.”

Pause, breath slow, breath gathering itself.

“Txarra gizon bat zauritu dit. Ni hilen naiz, baina ez utzi hura ezagutu.” ... “A bad man has wounded me. I will die, but don't let him know.”

Another pause as Mendoza reached the speaker.

“Hartu nire arropa bihurtu nau. Inoiz ez zion utzi eta beste batzuk ezagutzeko aukera ematen dit hil zen.” ... “Take my clothes, become me. Never let him and others know that I have died.”

A cough, a deep cough issued as the wounded man said, “Hil ditut artzainen etsai asko.” ... “I have slain many enemies of the shepherds.”

Mendoza was dumbfounded, struggled for his voice, as the man, wearing a mask, continued his plea in a series of short statements:

“Wear nire arropa, ride nire zaldia, izan dit.” ... “Wear my clothes, ride my horse, be me.”

Words tumbled from him after more slow breaths:

“Ez huts euskara” ... “Do not fail the Basque.”

“Kezkaturik ditut sakon.” ... “I have worried them deeply.”

It was with great difficulty that Mendoza finally said, “Nor zara zu?” ...”Who are you?

With pain evident, the future dim, the wounded man took off his simple mask with one finger and said, “Abeslari Bartolomine naiz Eta zuk ezagutu urtez.” ... “I am the singer Bartolomine and have known you for years.”

Bartolomine, in the little time he had left, told Mendoza about the gangs that raided shepherds of their flocks to sell them to miners after the shepherds got close to their selling point. He told him how they’d let the shepherds do all the work, all the herding, survive all the dangers of a long trip, but step in just before the pay-off.

The saddened shepherd stripped the clothes from Bartolomine and buried him under rocks in a blow-down hole

Domingo, with a sniff of Batolomine’s shirt, found his horse behind another blow-down, and Mendoza, wearing the man’s shirt, easily brought the horse to camp, befriended him, watered him, rubbed him down, and hid him out of site after all the good care.

When another shepherd with a similar flock was spotted in the next valley, Mendoza swapped his flock for a piece of the coming sale.

But he could not part with his dogs.

That night, in thick darkness,in the company of only his dogs, Igon Mendoza did not become The New Horseman of the Davidofs, but the Phantom from the Pyrenees. Now the legends continue, with great evidence remaining today in many of the arbor glyphs where Basque sheepherders ranged their sheep over the mountain passes to markets fit for meat or wool. At such sites many horsemen carved into tree trunks wear the slim black mask that Gotzen Bartolomine wore as keeper of the shepherds, Phantom from the Pyrenees.