Western Short Story
The Shoshoni Sheriff
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

For a long time Jimmy Ditson nursed a deep desire to become sheriff of Sunquit. It sat in him like a tree had taken root, socked down deep, making way. Behind it was a love of the land that did not need to be nurtured: rather, providentially, that love had been in him since the beginning and that love continued to flourish. He was only 18 years old at election time but every knowledgeable person in Sunquit knew he was the best rider, the best roper and, most important, the best shooter in the whole Snake River region. He’d be the best sheriff, of course. Hadn’t he by himself faced up and beaten off five rustlers who wanted a piece of his father’s herd, had driven them clean across the valley and up along the river like a banshee was chasing them? Nobody ever heard from them again, the way stories eventually come back to their point of origin, the way crooks somehow have to come back to the scene of the crime.

It looked like a cinch that he was going to get the job because nobody was actually running against him except an old town flannel-mouth looking for free drinks and long conversation. That’s when an old ranch hand of his father, Ginger Clougherty, rickety, really slowed down, riding what might be his last horse, came loping back into town on an off-hand visit and mentioned that he thought Jimmy Ditson was really an Indian kid. He didn’t say anymore, but the threat was there and the hackles began to rise in some quarters. Another town man threw his hat into the mix, tripling the options.

Talk about “The Shoshoni Sheriff” began to circulate. Of course, none of it was mentioned in front of Joe Ditson, Jimmy’s father, a most respected rancher in the part and a great boss. But the word was out and about, as the barber would say. The word circulated throughout Sunquit, some people believing and some not as sides began to develop in the coming election. In saloon and barbershop the talk created arguments and, as often happens, out and out hostility.

“Who wants a damned Indian as sheriff?” a displaced Irishman yelled out. “He’d sell us out, any of them would,” and another man answered, “Who the hell wouldn’t blame them the way the government treats them like they were foreigners. There were here before us. Just like the Crown sent its soldiers into your old Ireland. Did you fight or run, Dolan?” His fists were doubled even as he spoke.

The fight was a major breakout, and Sunquit could feel itself breathing deep into the night.

When things cooled off from that fight, new talk started, and Ginger Clougherty jumped right back into it. “I heard up the line, from an army trooper, that one squaw is said to have left a baby someplace years ago, to get proper care while she was on the run from the army driving to get the Shoshonis onto the reservation. Nobody knows her name, but one buck said her name was White Flower Curled Over. It’s just another story that a few drunk injuns keep talking about, like the kid is supposed to come back someday when the mother calls. Like he’d know her, huh?” He paused, as story tellers do, before he said, “Heard it was the Ditson place.”

It all began about 18 years before.

Fifteen years married, childless the whole while, Grace and Joe Ditson felt the clock winding down on their chances to become parents. A local beauty with the warmest smile one could imagine, she was in her mid-thirties, and Joe, a bit older, was a rugged, dogged rancher who kept on the move. Handsome in a dark way, curried with a sense of joy at the world around him, nothing much escaped his eye or his attention. Along the Snake River the two were known as a hard-working and devoted couple whose ranch sat on a lovely piece of geography and folks in Sunquit, the nearest town a half day’s ride down river, often talked about what a great place their ranch would be for a child to grow up on. It all changed the early September morning, mountain cooled air settling onto the lower landscape, the sun just breasting Putney Peak, that Joe went out of the ranch house to milk the cow. Grace, as she usually did right through to spring, turned up the collar of his jacket before he left the house. Ditson drew in a rich lungful of the dawn. On a ridge uphill from him, lit up by the rays of the sun, he saw a figure of indistinct form looking down on the ranch, and then apparently turned to walk away. The air was sieve of cold traces, and he knew a sensation of unknown origin, as though it was pummeling him awake.

That’s when Joe Ditson, for the first time ever, heard a baby cry on his ranch, on Grace’s ranch.

The first squall, from inside the barn, sent a chill across the back of his neck, even with the collar pushed tightly up under his Stetson. Before he dared hope for an unlikely gift, he could see Grace’s smile blooming like a spring flower. As he rushed toward the barn, coolness still a valid sensation, he turned to look up the hill once more. A dot of the indistinct form disappeared over the brow of the hill, as though a quick goodbye had been said after a short visit.

In the barn, from somewhere deeply inside, hidden or covered, he heard the cry again. It came from a corner where a pile of hay sat as tall as he was. In the midst of the lower edge of the pile the baby was wrapped in warm hay, a warm deer hide, and cradled in a crude but strong basket. Ditson’s rugged hand touched the soft, sweet and cool forehead of the child who had dark eyes, dark brows and a light blond tint in forelocks showing under a sleeve of a hat. The child looked up at him and smiled. The warmth almost choked Ditson on the spot, and then plunged down into his innards.

He picked up the basket, light as a bird’s nest, brushed off the hay and rushed to the house, calling out Grace’s name as he ran. “Heat up the stove, Gracie. Get some water going. There’s a baby here, Gracie.” His yells were loud, demanding, and full of surprise, and he was suddenly conscious that he had not called her Gracie in years.

Grace heard her husband’s yells and then the baby cry, a whimper of a cry as the child bounced with her husband into the kitchen. Grace was, immediately, all hands and all action … another log on the fire, a pot of water moved to the front of the stove, her hands out to hold the newcomer, to make way her kind of welcome.

Her smile broke like a May morning on the meadows, and Joe Ditson almost melted again. The new warmth broke in behind his collar and melted again down through him.

In a demanding quiz she said, “Where? When? How?” Then, shrugging her shoulders, said, “Who?” asking the really important question. Grace asked the questions practically in one mouthful as she held the baby close. She suddenly stripped the skins off to find it was a baby boy. She said, her surprise and delight continuing, “I think he’s about three months old,” as if she had been a mother forever. A woolen blanket was wrapped tightly around him with a mother’s caress.

“In the barn,” Ditson said. “I saw someone on the top of the hill out past the front pasture, looking back this way. It could have been the mother. I am not sure. It could have been a Shoshoni woman. The baby was put in among the hay, warm, but easy to spot, like he was meant to be found quickly. The deer skin says she’s Indian as far as I’m concerned. And the troops have been moving the Shoshonis around for months like they don’t even belong here.”

“If it is his mother, do you think she’ll be back?” The child was hugged to her chest, the wide eyes looking at Ditson over Grace’s shoulder. The smile continued radiant on her face. “He gets a bath as soon as the water’s warm. Get that nursing rig you used on the lambs when the yew was killed by the wolf. And go milk the cow right away. He’ll need fresh milk. You hurry, hon. I’ll take care of him.”

“What’ll we call him?”

“James. Jim. Jimmy. Jimmy Ditson. Yes. His name is James from now on. You can call him what you want. For me he’s Jimmy.”

“Jimmy it’ll be.” Ditson went to milk the cow. He had a son, for the time being, and it felt as good as he always thought it would feel.

The boy grew well on the Ditson ranch, in the care of loving parents-at-will. The blond hair belied his mysterious appearance and the connection with what Grace and her husband always believed was a Shoshoni maiden either ousted from her tribe or driven by soldiers as part of the government decree. Either in private, or often in deep thought, they wondered about her coming back. Would it be threat or salvation, for them, for the boy, for his real mother?

Sometimes those thoughts disappeared in a wink as they reveled in Jimmy’s growth and his inborn skills with rope, horse and rifle. A natural hunter he was, patient, skillful, and able to devise and react to situations met in the mountains and out on the vast plains. And he was a handsome young prince, as Grace often said, noting always the golden patch of hair that sat like a pompadour on the top of his brow.

The ranch hands, in a flux of arrival and departure, paid little attention to the youngster as he grew through the tiers of his years and the rounds of a changing of the guard, as it were. Most of the cowboys, herdsmen most of their adult life, worked hard and loyally while on the payroll, and played hard whenever they had a chance. Those opportunities came mostly down river at Sunquit. And they talked little, carried conversation in stories and escapades rather than in rumor.

Yet, Joe Ditson, no angel in his younger years, knew where most rumors were exchanged … at the bar, in a card game, or an upstairs room for rent on a Saturday night. He was fully aware that Jimmy’s arrival would surface sometime down the road, or down river, as he corrected his own thought.

The threat of such revelation never bothered him much in the face of circumstances that he never once told Grace about, and which had accidently come to him … not from town, but from the crown of the same hill where he thought he might have seen Jimmy’s real mother. A frequency of it developed and he began to enter a log of marks on a beam in the barn.

One morning, in the heart of spring, the pasture alive with color of new blossoms, a breath of surprise in the air, Joe Ditson saw again a horseback rider on the brow of the same hill. Jimmy was helping to break in a few horses and was showing off his skill at it, and a lot of whooping was going on among a few ranch hands. “Way to go, kid,” they said in unison. “You got him now. He’s gonna remember you next time he grits his teeth. ‘Member that, Jimmy, cause he’ll remember you. They don’t none forget their first ride or their best boss. That’s horse talk for you, kid.” They all laughed loudly and slapped hands, all of them thinking about Saturday night in Sunquit, half a day down the river, half way to hell or heaven.

Jimmy Ditson, they had agreed, was as dogged and determined as his father, and probably a better rider from the word go. They applauded again and laughed again at creative moves to stay in the saddle and his ordinary slight falls and thoroughly enjoyed the moment as though a shivaree was being shared.

And Ditson, the lone one among them noticing the distant visitor, played it casual, bringing no attention to the mysterious watcher.

That was when he made his next secret entry on the beam in the barn, month-day-year accompanied by a V for Visitor. He had done so for many years.

When Jimmy Ditson was 18 years old, and a party was to be celebrated for his approximate birthday, based on Grace’s guess at his age the day he came to them in a basket in the barn, Ditson saw the frequency of visits had been firmly established. 16 times in the 18 years, just about one every year, in the summer, the rider had appeared, and the visit noted.

Ditson never rode out to investigate, because he’d always see Grace’s collapse at the threat of losing her son. He assumed whoever it was was satisfied life had been decently good to the youngster. The repeated trips boded good interest, faithfulness and a sense of loyalty. In a strange way they made Ditson happy, because the visitor always made a point of being noticed, as if a message was being sent or delivered, or a love was being addressed.

But things going on in Sunquit about the election were brought to Ditson’s attention. He would go in and see how things were going for Jimmy who had been in town for more than a week. He told Grace he had to go to Sunquit.

“I’m going in with you, Joe. No way am I staying here, out of the action. You get the rig and horses ready for a ride along the river and I’ll get everything ready for the ride. Something to eat. Pack some clothes. It might be the first time he ever really needs us.”

Her husband said, “Not counting that first time, Grace. You’re the boy’s mother, out and out. Nobody can say you’re not.” He headed out the door for the barn.

Grace, relaxed for a mere minute, remembered the first time she held the boy. It all came back to her and it was all worth it. She loved him with a passion she had never known, a mother’s passion. She knew what it meant.

When Ditson brought the rig to the door, she was ready with clothes, food for the journey, and an ache in her heart that her boy might run into trouble. Jimmy had gone to town a week earlier where he had spent much time lately it seemed to her. It caused a smile she did not keep hidden from her husband.

For Jimmy the earlier ride into Sunquit was always the same for him, with the whole earth calling out to be noticed; the clutches of pine trees, the bunches of colorful flowers like checkerboards on the plains, the ridges so clearly defined in cliff faces they were like pages in a book and he knew he was being taught, that learning never ends even if you stop looking because you just start to hear it or smell it and you’re right back where you started, looking at it from an anthill to a mountain top and the sun kissing that mountain top like a girl kisses her lover in morning’s realization. Life, he knew, sparkled from that realization; he’d seen that from his parents.

Out beyond, in the wide-spread grass running to horizons, the prairie dogs called out. Overhead the hawks shifted their wings or trimmed their feathers onto new thermal edges and he swore he could read their eyes like a language spoken to him long ago, perhaps something his father had said in the shade of the barn or on the porch at night with fireflies for hovering company, or in the darkness of his room when covers were tucked in around him and the moon sat in his window like a Christmas present waiting to be opened.

Out there, beyond the hand-reach of growing things, the cholla cactus and the Devil’s Claw had made deep footholds in wide swaths of landscape, like signposts had been erected for him and those who thought the way he did and rode the same road he did. Interpretation meant survival; he could feel it.

Sub-vocal speech pounded at him as he rode along, the river at times like a sheet unwinding from a huge roller, and catching the sun in so many angles he allowed that he could at times be blinded by their beauty and brightness. He wondered if he really wanted to be sheriff, and the earth gave him the answer, as it had always answered his many questions. So much was right on the earth that everything he could do to keep it that way was his responsibility. The lime hue of mesquite wrapped around his eyes and lingered there as if it wanted to be tasted, like a summer quench of aide on the porch at home on a hot day keeps punching at you without mercy until you know lime at the back of your throat for the balance of the day.

As usual the river kept calling for attention. Ripples. Animal or fish movement. Glancing sunlight like a mirror had been struck. The odor of rank-smelling arrow weed crawled to him from the near bank of the river. The dense thickets lined the river and smaller stream beds that marched overland to reach that long rush to the Gulf of Mexico. Much earlier he had determined that arrow weed stems were used for arrow shafts by local Indians. That came at him as another lesson in the classroom of the earth, and he was able to interpret the teachings that came to him: never close your senses to what is sent your way from the earth itself. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

The ride of his parents was just as quiet most of the way. They finally loosened up from inner grasps, freeing their thoughts, as a few riders on horseback said hello and passed on ahead of them, obviously going in for the voting and what the weekend would bring to the celebration. Ditson had carriage blankets and oats onto the rig, and a rifle and ammo boxes sat at his feet. Grace paid no attention to the arms, though she realized that her husband was almost as good a shot as their son. It had taken him a few years practice to catch up to the boy who was a natural at everything he tried. An absolute natural who presumed survival. She could taste it. Long ago she had accepted his Indian blood as responsible for many of his talents, for his alertness, for his own sense of survival and that which he found himself responsible for. He never told her in words, but she saw it, as open as a page in a book.

A distant neighbor, from father up the river, caught up to them, after hailing them from a distance. “Hey, Joe, Grace, I guess we’re all heading into town to make our vote. I’ll vote for Jimmy. He’s a sure fire winner. Catch up to me at the hotel, I’m getting thirsty. Been on the road all day. My son Paulie went in yesterday, Bobby’s coming in the morning. They’re all excited. I heard we’re having some kind of fireworks when it’s all tallied. I can’t wait. See you there.” He tipped his hat to Grace and was off down the road.

From the river came three shots as they rounded a bend in the road. Other neighbors, on two boats and a raft tied together, were floating down to Sunquit and hailed them with saluting gunfire. “See you in town, folks,” they yelled out. “Good luck to the winner.”

Grace said, “Oh, Joe, I hope he doesn’t lose and I hope he doesn’t win.” She grabbed his arm and hugged him. “We’ve got to be ready.”

Puzzled for a moment, Ditson said, “For what, Grace?”

“You know as well as I do, Joe. It won’t be easy for him. People are funny with things like that, especially those who’ve lost family in the Indian affairs.”

He nodded, understanding that he had again not fooled her one bit.

That afternoon, later, with a cluster of clouds darkening the sky but no rain expected, all kinds of hell broke loose in Sunquit.

When the sun broke through a cleft in the clouds, its slanted rays almost like a beamed flash down a tunnel, a Shoshoni Indian woman rode into town, right down the main street of Sunquit, past the bank and the saloon and the general store where a cluster of people stood gawk-eyed staring at her and her horse and her raiment, a cluster of beads and leather thongs and small strips of shiny metal draping the front of her deerskin dress. With a slow and deliberate movement, she dropped her reins in front of the sheriff’s office. Regal looking, possibly a princess in the tribe, she sat so erect in the saddle people might think she was strapped to a board.

The outgoing sheriff rushed outside when he heard people yelling, a raucous screaming of threats and curses not heard in a while.

“Get her out of town, sheriff. She’s trying to win the election for the Shoshoni sheriff waiting to get elected. It’s all rigged. They’re going to take our town away from us. They’ve been waiting to get it back.”

“Easy, now, folks. Let’s see what she has to say. Don’t guess at what might have brought her here.”

“String her up like they did a few years ago to the whole McWilliams family. Even the kids. Hang her right here. I’ll get the rope.”

Jimmy Ditson, lingering on the edges, became Johnny on the spot, moving to the front of the crowd and saying to the blabber mouth, “You going to put the noose around her neck, Lugo? You going to slap the rump of your own horse to kill a woman?"

“Easy, new, easy, now,” said the sheriff again, his hand resting nervously on his holster.

“What have you got to say, lady? Who are you?”

The queenly-looking woman looked around and pointed at two men, a rancher who had come into town for the voting, and his foreman, a big hulking man.

“Ask them,” she said, her hand pointing yet at the two men.

“Why the hell ask us?” both men said almost at once.

“Because 18 years ago, when I was just 14 years old, I was raped in my own bed on the ranch and ran away because I was so ashamed. The Shoshonis took me in and raised me. I was woman to Maken’towa’ttapph, a great leader, and he let me keep the child that was in me. He was good to me, more a father than a husband.”

The rancher, seeking recognition, feeling the soul rise out of his body, remembering all the pain of a missing daughter, a runaway or victim of kidnapping, found something in her eyes. It was like looking at into his wife’s eyes, her a long time dead from the pain of a lost child.

“Is that you, Esmie?” He was crying as he walked towards her, but even then he could not put his arms out to touch her.

The big, hulking man, the foreman, tried to slip away in the crowd.

“Stop him,” she said. “He was the one who raped me, in my own bed. He is the father of the boy I left on the ranch with the good people, the people who have raised him, the one they call Jimmy Ditson.

It all came apart for many people, the long-time adopting parents, the boy who became a man, the girl’s father, the man who raped her in her own bed, the town of Sunquit.

The rapist, trying to run away, was shot by the girl’s father, even as the dead man’s son and the shooter’s grandson looked on, before he, possibly the new sheriff, could get his gun out of his own holster.

Jimmy Ditson walked to the Indian woman. “My mother? Are you my real mother?” He looked over his shoulder at the Ditsons standing in the crowd. They were as silent as the crowd had become, a taste of loss in their mouths, a tug beginning its deep pull at their heartstrings.

“Yes. When you were a baby in the basket papoose I had a dream about you as a young man and I called you He Who Walks on Warm Water. In Shoshoni language , in Sosoni’ daigwapeha, it is said ‘Udenhakki-ba’I’mi’qwa baaquyu’wai’I’. And I am called Dosa’hepinkepph’maaqwandbuubi’ba’anqu, White Flower Bent Over, because I came with a child in me, this child who has become a man despite his real father.”

In truth, she was addressing the crowd in the middle of Sunquit’s main street. “He is the image of his adoptive father and my adoptive husband, this boy has become this man who wants to be your sheriff.”

Later that memorable day in the town’s history, when the badge was pinned on Jimmy Ditson’s shirt, the talk about “a Shoshoni Sheriff “ gone like mist under sun, his two mothers were there, his adoptive father, his grandfather, and the whole town of Sunquit, practically every man and woman in the town limits.

A week later, Grace and Joe Ditson headed home after the swearing-in ceremony and enjoying Jimmy hearing from his real mother the quick legends and histories she had learned from tribal elders. A natural story teller, she spoke half in Shoshoni and half in western American, charming her son who sat bright-eyed and attentive to every word.

Jimmy beamed hearing about Mogollons and Zunis and the basket-making Anasazi and how all the way back, much earlier in the history of the world, the early Indians had crossed the ice in the north from another world and came down along the great Snake River to find new homes. He knew he was an heir, in some part, to all of it.

And further along the road, as the Ditsons approached their ranch up along the Snake River, the ride comfortable, the sun touching them with its grace, the prairie flowers all abloom about them, their adopted son Jimmy Ditson the new sheriff of Sunquit, they both turned to look back at the crest of the hill behind them. Together they waved at the figure on the crest of the rise waving back to them before disappearing from sight.


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