Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Pvt. Alexander Mulvihill, still bleeding from a serious wound, sat with his back against a big rock, the Texas night sinking like a lost swimmer, a breath of prairie air mixed with a promise of cool shadows. He kept thinking of home and the smell of a roast from his mother’s great iron stove, her voice lilting and lifting angelic in the kitchen all the way back there in Pennsylvania, and the hills around home lit up in the leaves like flares the whole length of the Allegheny Valley.
He waited through the long night for the sun to come up.
A raiding party of renegade Cherokees, behind the chief on the big white horse, found him before his comrades did. The lead horseman was Tsewogi Awenitsa, the Cherokee Avenger, still doing what he said he’d do against the white man as long as he lived … and then after. “I will be true to the Nations in the face of all powers,” he’d said at many powwows, and the echoes of his words were steady on the Plains from Texas up to the Canadas. Some of the Indians agreed that Tsewogi Awenitsa had to be 80 years old in that year of 1872.
Two days later, Co. F, Fourth U.S. Cavalry, his outfit, found Pvt. Alexander Mulvihill, who hadn’t moved a muscle since Tsewogi Awenitsa had put him down, buried most of him under rocks, the avenging Cherokee sending his own talk to the soldiers from Fort Wilson; Mulvihill’s body, most of it, was covered with rocks. In the beginning only his head was visible … and his left foot, the foot that he mounted his horse with, those end parts all torn, gnawed, chewed beyond recognition.
Those parts of him had been fed upon by predators.
The troop doctor said he had been dead for at least two days, maybe three, the way he was picked apart, the scavengers coming upon him from different directions and in different forms. But only the purposely exposed parts of him gnawed, pulverized and eaten, head and foot. His uniform and the contents of his pockets made the identification positive. The doctor was particularly alert to the left foot having been left exposed; he’d seen it before, and it was supposed to be a subtle message from the Indians, especially the Cherokees in the long and unfortunate war with them, with Tsewogi Awenitsa always in the forefront.
This newest act was his deciding mark. “It’s supposed to be subtle,” the doc had said to Captain Lattimer, troop leader, “but we see it better than that.”
Private Mulvihill’s Smith & Wesson .44 revolver, issued by Co. F, Fourth U.S. Cavalry, lie in scattered pieces on the ground beside his grave, his Spencer carbine long gone with those who had interred him, Tsewogi Awenitsa and his renegades.
It was 1872, near Wells, Texas.
Most of the Cherokees had been expelled from Texas in 1840, but out there, in 1872, the Great Avenger moved with his warriors like ghosts in the woods or plains, “Gihosti Ini Wudis,” or the devils from the grass, “Dewili Womi Giwas,” as the Cherokee nation called them in turn.
The International-Great Northern Railway had built a rail line in 1872, which became the Missouri-Pacific line, and the Kansas & Gulf Short Line had run a line north to south, to several new towns. Wells was a new town and the cavalry was stationed nearby at a temporary fort.
The closest friend of Mulvihill’s in Co. F, Brendan Croughmartin, tried to relax with the troop commander who had called him in and asked him to tell him how he had escaped and tell him all about Mulvihill, all of it on a personal basis. Croughmartin thought at the time it was an act of self-appeasement on the captain’s part.
Lattimer said, “tell me all you know about Private Mulvihill before
you tell me how you got away from those redskins. It’s important to
me, as the commanding officer, in order to process the information
further.” He made a sudden point of conciliation: “You must know
it’s miraculous that you escaped from that horde of savages.”
Abruptly he held his hand up. “Time enough for that. Tell me about Alexander, all you know.” There was no twinkle in his eyes in a deeply-bronzed face, a rugged face, the face of a man with five years of service beyond the Mississippi River, and all of that time out on the Plains. He could remember the day he crossed the Great River and it always made him wish for one more sight of the Hudson. Just one more evening with Claire Reynolds. “Dreams have such bounty,” he could have said to himself.
Croughmartin responded, aware of some minor inattentions of his commander, “He hailed from the Allegheny Valley in Pennsylvania, sir. One night on bivouac he told me his mother had run away from home as a teen-ager, from down there in Roanoke, Virginia, and met his father, Silas, who was a good and sage man. The father died, though, and his mother remarried a widower with kids. Mulvihill left home because of that. I think he was about 12 or 13 at the time.”
Croughmartin, exhibiting still some of the embarrassment crawling upon him as he talked about a dead comrade, offered up a series of hesitations in his delivery.
“Once he told me that when his father died, there were no sounds left, just a void. Their old barn had become a mausoleum, like he meant the actual full grave, the real grave. The father had been caught by a storm and taken down a rushing river in spring with his horse and wagon. They were heading home from selling some farm products. They never got there. His mother eventually married the widower with kids … and with money … planning that she could care for her own son, Alex, and have her new husband’s children about her to care for, to cook for, to tend to, and she could please a man again. She could be as happy with herself as she could be, but felt sad that her son had to leave, to make his own way, for that’s what Alex did.”
There came a pause of delivery as though he was measuring the impact of what he would say, could say, meant to say, and finally had to say.
Lattimer sensed a core of knowledge was about to be explained and that it might indeed cause a deal of discomfort to Croughmartin.
“Worry not, Private,” the captain said, “this is really about Alexander at this point. But it is no longer personal, with him gone. It’s all right to let him be known again. It’s really all right.”
Croughmartin continued, the air apparently clear of responsibilities. “That’s when he really told me, sir, about his father who had told him, many, many times, ‘Make sure to cut your own star, Alexander.’ That’s the exact way he said it, ‘Make sure to cut your own star.’ Then he tried to make it clearer and said, ‘See it, haul it down, and hold it for yourself.’ I’d guess I first knew his father then. He was just like my grandfather from Roscommon in the old country. That’s just the way the old timers say things that count with them, that really matter in all the words they might have uttered in their whole lives.”
Lattimer was tuned in, he seriously knew, to a privacy he would otherwise never attain.
“Why did Private Mulvihill join the army?” Lattimer said, aware that Croughmartin was still uneasy answering questions about a comrade of the ranks, a dead comrade.
“It was the uniform, sir. He said he loved the uniform, like it meant something, had some meaning to it.”
“That’s was noble of him, I’d say,” the troop leader said, with a taste of drama. “He must have known the perils in his path. Life will be uneasy out here for a long time to come. These renegades will keep at it until we leave or they’re dead … and we’re not leaving.”
“Now, and this is highly important, for the whole troop, for Alexander’s memory, for you above all the troopers, and for the whole United States Army after it has just gone through a most horrible campaign within its own ranks, if I may say that about the Great War, and finds itself in another war with the renegades and Tsewogi Awenitsa and his cutthroats.
There was a summation pending, Lattimer sensed, as he studied Croughmartin.
“He knew the stars, Alex did,” Croughmartin further explained, “saw them coming in their turns, and saw this one coming, this special one. We were tied up inside a tipi, bound real tight to a pole, but we could move our butts a bit to rest a bone or a muscle, and we could wait for the sun to come up. We could see it through an open flap when a pelt of some kind was pulled aside.”
“The Indians on guard never said much to each other, always two of them, but the funny thing about it was, they always stared at Alex, like there was something special about him. It was eerie if you ask me, like they knew if one of us was going to escape it’d be Alex for sure. But it wasn’t that at all, it was something else.”
“Why do you say that, Private?”
“You might not believe me, sir, but Alex was different, different from all of us, all the other troopers, and I swear those Indians knew it as well as I did. It was like it sat on him or came lifted out of him and danced in the air, but unseen, like a piece of a ghost before it’s time to be seen, to scare people.”
He remembered something else; “One time one of them rushed out and came back with a couple of others, older braves, and they all kept staring at Alex who never once said anything to them, and he knew a bit of Cherokee too, sir. But didn’t say anything to them. Even those older ones.”
stop there, Private,” Lattimer said, his voice carrying a nervous
anxiety, as though Croughmartin would suddenly forget what he had
known, had seen, had brought up out of his soul. What next?
“It was the star, sir. The one star that Alex knew was coming right in through that opening in the tipi, like it was meant to happen. That star came over the peaks in the southeast and it sat right there in Alex’s eyes and I was staring at him and the reflection came right into my eyes and those braves were sure something was going to happen. Those two on guard started jabbering to each other, getting agitated, making all kinds of gestures up to the sky, what they could see out there on the horizon through that open flap. And one of them went out again and others came back, but not the big chief.
They were talking and I caught a few words and don’t know much, but Alex had pointed out the star to me before and called it the Dog Star or Sirius, bright as all hell, if I can say it, sir. Then I heard them say and I’ll say it the way I tried to remember it. It was like ‘Gitli a-i-sv no-qu-si ‘and I sure guess that’s Cherokee for Dog Star or Walking Dog Star or Dog Star Walking or something so close to that that they were concerned both about Alex and the big chief because some of them kept pointing to Alex and then to the outside and I knew it had to be the chief because they were not pointing at the star.”
Croughmartin took in a gulp of air.
“It sat right in Alex’s eyes and I stared at him and the reflection came in my eyes and the Indians started talking among themselves and I knew there was some kind of apprehension there, not real fear, but a concern for something beyond them. In Alex’s eyes, and in mine, too.”
“Captain,” the trooper said after a long pause, as though he was reconstructing images or events, ’It’s just like Alex, I’ll swear it forever. Like he just reached up and grabbed that mutt by the tail and hauled him right down there twixt us and those Cherokees, like his father said – and they damned well knew it. A couple of them went near white in the face for a few seconds and bolted out of there, almost tearing down a pole from its roots, and then the big boy, the one that rides the white horse like he’s the king almighty himself, he came in for a look on his own.”
Croughmartin rubbed his wrists again, as he had on several occasions, and the Lattimer knew he was still feeling the cut of the ropes on his wrists.
“And you know what, Captain? I wasn’t afraid any more. Even when the chief came in and his face painted up like he was going to a masquerade party, looking like the devil might look at the Horrible’s Parade back in Massachusetts. Not for one damned minute was I afraid ‘cause Alex, that good old boy, had the sign on them and they all knew it … and they knew I knew it. That’s one hell of a feeling when they have you all tied up like you’ll never be anyplace again, like you won’t even be able to mount your horse or run like hell if you even had the chance.”
Lattimer was silent for long seconds at a time, his eyes drifting off now and then, looking for answers in clouds, bushes, shadows, hoping for resolutions and images as bright as his mind could stand.
At length he found a firmness setting on his chin. “This we will do, Brendan,” Lattimer said, in the most secretive way an officer had ever spoken to Private Croughmartin and the very first and last officer of rank to address him as Brendan. “We will make an agreement. I will make you Alexander’s star. I will send you off to the academy at West Point with a Medal of Honor citation. And you can become Alexander’s star, become an astronomer. Go beyond yourself. We should be able to explain to the whole country, and the entire army, how Tsewogi Awenitsa felt about this, what he knew, what he feared if anything.”
He waited for it to sink in with the private, and then said, still as secretive as ever. “Remember this, Brendan. It is for the extreme good of the service, and for the 4th Cavalry. And somehow it will touch Alexander Mulvihill wherever his soul abides.”
He looked overhead, perhaps seeing Alexander Mulvihill’s face in a far reach.
“Oh, I know, sir, said Croughmartin. “I saw all that in the chief’s eyes a bit later, though he could not let his braves know. That’s why he let me go, making off like it was another message from him, one of those subtle messages he’s so good at.”
He nodded and said, “He’s awfully smart, sir, but Alex had his number. I’m sure of that. I saw it in his eyes more than once, that he knew Alex had a connection with whatever was overhead, who ran it all up there, who kept the stars in place yet kept them moving at the same time. And who brought the sun up every morning and brought the moon around in a cart every so many days, who changed the moon’s dress each time it was to be done, who colored it each time. Oh, sir, I know … and he knew that I knew. And Alex, bless him, sir, saw everything, like his father said. He never had a minute’s fear.”
Lattimer had a citation prepared for Croughmartin, processed it properly and to fulfillment, and transferred him to the Military Academy at West Point, “for the greater good of the service.”
The citation read:
Private Brendan Croughmartin
Organization: Company F, 4th U. S. Cavalry
Place and date: Near Wells, Texas, 29 September 1872
Entered service at: Gloucester, Massachusetts
Medal of Honor Citation: After insuring that a dead comrade, brutalized by Indians, was properly buried, he escaped from long-time hostile Cherokee renegades led by Tsewogi Awenitsa, “the Great Avenger of the Cherokee Nation.” He escaped from the hostiles and reported all details to his superior officers in a brave and circuitous and illustrious flight from captivity.
Croughmartin became, after his separation from the service, a noted astronomer and late in his exemplary life collected funds to build on a broad hilltop in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Valley, the Mulvihill Observatory of Stars and Other Celestial Bodies.
A boy, visiting the observatory one night and using one of its telescopes, turned suddenly to his mother and exclaimed, “Mum, I saw a man’s face up there right near a star!”