Western Short Story
There was a special sight out in front of him as he rested near a small cave, the weight of his own body suddenly too much for him to carry on weak legs. The decision to stop and enjoy the sight came quickly, in touch with a rare sense of goodness finding its way in him. It was akin to the old days when Sally and he sat on the small porch he’d built for her mornings, the sun giving a grand start to her day. “Oh, Sal,” he’d said a thousand times since then. A thousand times. Once, he had shrugged his head when he said it, as though belief was elsewhere, as Sally was but how long he couldn’t remember.
That had become a problem.
Sun rays came swift as spears when clouds made gentle maneuvers above the peaks of a mountain range with a name he had forgotten too and could not bring back, not at the present time, as so many memorable things that had gone their way in his memory, floating off in the new way, in the middle of an exact image, its colors alive, its sounds as good as any music, now and then carrying aromas still alive on the air. The sudden losses had, in the beginning, shaken him to his roots, blaming himself first, and then realizing it was like stories other elders had told him … “about the way it’s going to happen.”
He looked again at the peaks, somehow knowing he had been “up in there a dozen times or more,” had told stories about critters met, finds made, losing a horse once but he’d now forgotten how that death had come. All the names had run away from him. Maybe they’d come back, he surmised, but not when he needed them, like an elfin spirit teasing him with useless information, too late for the matter, too late for the question.
The instant recovery about the lost horse came as fast as lightning: the mountain lion was in mid-air when he first saw it, and he leaped from his saddle in a move as fast as any he’d ever made. The horse, though it might have smelled the critter, went down and up and scrambled off and was down trail in an instant. His pistol, with a second natural move, came up and the shot killed the lion as it prepared to leap again … then it was gone, and then came the sound of his horse falling from a place he never found to a place he never found either. Not then, not now, as the image disappeared, as if it had gone behind a veil in his mind, out of sight, out of space, gone. He trusted that it would come back, that image, in a week, a month, a year, if he managed to live that long, managing a bare second for him, if that.
He had serious doubts this particular time.
Bentley Collis was 70 years here on this day, not knowing he ought to be celebrating. “Bent” was the name Sally called him from the first night back in Peoria when they met outside the school where she taught. Early she had admitted, “You had this stare going, not a blink in it, no feigning or slippery maneuver, like you were definitely interested in me. No man had ever looked at me like that, like there was no quit in you, and never would be. I loved that in you.”
That simple statement had provoked and sealed the next 45 years; they grew with the west, melded with the town.
There were times, recently, that he heard her first speech, every word of it, saw the yellow blouse she wore and how she could use the buttons, saw the sun dressing her hair and the sky comfortable in her eyes, and what lurked hazily in the background just past the school. There had been a name on the side of a coach, long gone again, not even a letter remaining of the name. In front of the cave he fished for it again, trying to bring back the whole picture. This time all he heard was Sally’s sweet declaration, “I loved that in you.”
It would be enough for now. It would do forever.
Earlier this day another horse of his was gone, taken by a thief as Collis slept by a remnant campfire, his body aching, his bones arguing with him, weariness in full charge. His rifle was taken too and a knife that sat on a rock so close he could hear the universe in it, but not the thief. His canteen was still there in the morning, a few bits of food, and his boots.
“I sure needed that sleep,” Collis said to the morning air, then gathered what was left and began walking. “Town ought to be this way,” he qualified as he set out. “Town” was Quinnipiac, along the Snake River, a small settlement tossed into being and place by travelers sometime in the past when they could go no further.
Collis loved the story because he was from Connecticut too. “What’ll we call this place?” one of them said way back at the start.
“Call it what you will,” another said, so Connecticut Willy, laughing as ever, half a giggle, jokingly said, “Quinnipiac. I think it means the Dawnland … like a new beginning for us all.” A broad smile came with the name.
The name sufficed.
But it was in the opposite direction this sour day that Bent Collis moved in the morning, without horse, rifle or knife. He leaned over and picked up a stick, thick at one end so that he could use it as a club ... for whatever.
The barkeep in the Great Rock Saloon, Hal McGrew, was talking to several townsfolk at their noon meal. “He’s been out there four days now, not long for him if he was younger, but the edge is gone for Bent. It’s been going downhill since Sally up and died on him right on the porch. But we have to do something.”
“Like what, Hal? We don’t even know where he was going? No idea, and we all admit that.”
“But something!” said McGrew, “At least something. He’s done so much for us, for the town.”
“So name it, Hal. What? In what direction? What do we look for?”
One of them said, “We know old Bent’s tuckered and tired and hazy, if I can say so. But we owe him. Here’s what I suggest, two pair of us goes out to the road split and each pair goes off in different directions and looks for half a day. If we find nothing, then we turn around and come back. At least it’s trying to help. I know we can’t spend a week out there, where we might find nothing at all. He could be dead now for all we know. We can afford a half day out and a half day back. That’s how I see it.”
“You one of them going, Syl?”
“Sure as new shoes, I am,” Sylvester Apps said.
Out in the maze of hill and rock and dale Bent Collis, plodding along in a manner not familiar to him, not having the old kick and push in it, spied three large birds off to his left in the high sky. By what name they were called did not come to him, but they had enormous wing spans almost motionless in the high blue.
He didn’t know what idea or thought was trying to kick itself loose in his head. The wide-brimmed hat came off in one sweep of his hand. Perhaps, he thought, with the change the idea could now kick loose. The birds did not alter their presence, it seemed, and remained higher than the mountains, and the thought stayed as still as their wide wings.
A half-moon had ridden thin, pale, sheerer than silk, atop one peak, as though it had really broken loose from wherever it had been. An image of Sally in a thin silky white nightgown,” her summer issue,” she had called it, also came from wherever it had been. A sudden joy leaped on him, in spite of the weak legs in their constant torture and his trying to remember other things he knew … but sure didn’t know at this moment.
Sally always kept control of things; all he had to do was work and be ready for anything that might endanger her.
A flash of knowledge at last broke free in him … the birds were vultures, waiting for him to die … but Sally was already there ahead of him … “It can’t be bad at all. Not half as bad as being lonely out here in wherever.” His managed the words meekly.
One vulture drifted slowly apart from the other two. Was this a sign he should know? Was this the final separation of life and death? Would the final signal be so simple? The last query was accompanied by a new pain in his left thigh, one he had not known before this day, whatever day it was anyway. It didn’t matter at all. Names, outside of Sally’s, didn’t matter. So many things were attached to her; a hunger tantrum, also new, brought back from wherever her chicken pot roast in a big pan that’d last four days for them once it came off the iron hanger in the fireplace. The turtles of fresh-baked bread made their contributions with their own aroma.
Sally always had a way with the fireplace, the iron stove, the oven, the kitchen.
She owned the bedroom, too.
With the sun making a new demand on him, he turned off his apparent course and was heading south. He didn’t know what he was looking at, if it was new or old, if he had been here before. Oh, what did it matter anyway?
But in one long-range glance he did recognize his horse coming along a trail out of a thick tree growth in the foothills. “Man knows his horse every time out,” he said. Never was any doubt about his horse … wherever he left it. The pinto was unmistakably his horse, the socks decisive, as well as the wide slash of black along the flank, the crescent moon someone had said of it.
The rider rode with no hurry in his manner, ambling, looking at the vultures overhead, smiling at his own interpretation of their hovering flight; the old man would be dead soon in spite of the water he’d left him, the bit of food sitting on the rock like toads. He did have some goodness left in him; it was an argument he’d managed at mean or dirty deeds that worked on his conscience; for a while anyway.
Syl Apps, with a looking glass and sitting his horse on a hilly viewpoint, recognized the horse too. “Kurt,” he said to his riding pard in the search for old Bent Collis, “that’s Bent’s pinto, but it sure ain’t Bent riding him. Let’s amble down there and see what kind of story this fellow spins for us about riding Bent’s horse and Bent been gone all this time from town and that way he’s been lately.”
Kurt Wergens, patting his sidearm, said, “I’m ready for settling any scores with him. I don’t trust no man sitting another man’s horse and that man ain’t around.” He patted his Colt again.
Collis saw everything out in front of him. A strange man was riding his horse. Two more riders were descending from another higher elevation. They probably wanted his horse too. That critter had served him almost as good as Sally had, and she loved his horse. Right now she’d say, “Get old Rebel back, Bent. Make sure of it.” That’s just how she’d say it. He could hear her from the end of the porch where she’d set a pie to cool.
“Hi, there,” Syl Apps said as he hailed the man on Bent’s pinto, “are you heading into Quinnipiac? If you are we’ll ride along. We’re heading that way too. Gonna visit my big brother for the first time in a few years. Sure have missed him. This here’s my pal, Kurt.”
“Yep,” said the strange rider, “I been coming on from Morningside for a few days now. I heard it’s a nice town up there. Figure I’ll get my horse some rest, get him fed and took care of. He’s been good to me.” Then added a qualifier as he asked, “Any chance of work around the town, any kind of work?”
“Hell, yes, I’ll bet there is. What brings me and Kurt this way. My brother says plenty of work local. You any good at breaking horses? Lots of that available he said, my brother. His name’s Harry.” He looked off, laughed, slapped his thigh, and said, “That’s the way he is, the big brother taking care of the kid brother.”
“Oh, I done my share of bronco busting,” said the stranger. “Fact is, I broke this pinto in when we run a herd in from the hills. Had to break in the whole bunch. We lost only one with a broke leg.” A sad look crossed his face.
None of the three men had seen Collis as he came out of a small cluster of trees and yelled out, “Hey, you found my Rebel! You found Rebel!” He was stumbling in his walk, a long stick in one hand. He waved his hat with the other hand and said again, “Hey, you found Rebel for me.”
The three men on horseback stared at Collis.
The stranger on the pinto said, “Who the hell is that? What the hell is he talking about?”
Syl Apps had already seen the knife shining in the stranger’s belt, the sun shooting off the blade, and he looked again at the black crescent moon on one side and the white socks. Rebel it was. And here was Collis shouting thank for finding him.
But it was all right and all wrong for Apps and Wergens. They had found old Bent Collis. They had found his horse. The stranger, though, had said he had broken him in from a wild herd. Collis was thanking him for finding Rebel, the old man still moving toward them still waving his hat in the air.
It didn’t match up. Of course, old Bent was slipping a lot, had been slipping for a while. It didn’t get much further in the matching as Wergens said to the stranger, “You find his knife too? And that old Henry of his sitting there in the sheath?”
His name was Harry Grubbs, and he was in a sudden vise; between the old man he had robbed, who should be dead by now, as the vultures had told him, and two armed men who, it now appeared, knew the old man coming their way. One of them had spotted the knife in his belt and the Henry rifle in the saddle sheath.
He had to move now. His hand, dipping for a Colt, never got there, as Wergens drew faster and fired a round that hit Grubbs’s holster just before his hand could touch it.
Rebel had not moved because of the shot, but he raised his head … a new, and old, scent on the air.
“Rebel!” Collis yelled. “Rebel”
The pinto turned in Collis’s direction, nickered, and moved again, between the other two horses.
“Don’t think about busting away, mister,” Wergens said, his Colt still in hand, a smile on his face as though he wished the horse thief would try to make a break for it.
“How come you boys are out here?” Collis said, as Wergens made Grubbs dismount.
“Oh, the boys at the saloon thought it was a nice day to take a ride, see what you were up to out here for so long.”
“You boys worried about me?”
“Hal McGrew at the saloon thought you might be in trouble, maybe got lost out here.”
“Maybe dying too?” Collis said.
“Something like that,” said Syl Apps. “Something like that.”
Collis replied, “I think it’s too lonely for dying out here. Got to get back home, see Sally.” His eyes were searching, wandering in his new manner.
The two searchers saw Collis safely in the saddle and they headed to town, Grubbs trussed up and walking.
One week later, in the hour when the sun rose over Quinnipiac, Bentley Collis was found dead on his porch. He was still in the company of his wife Sally, her favored “thin silky white nightgown, her summer issue,” wrapped tightly about his arms.