Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
With the most concentration he had ever mustered, the cowboy Rawlick Jensen, alone at a cool fire spot, knew he was sharing something bigger than the wide plains or the highest mountains sitting in the distance. He could not measure the impact with some animate and close things grabbing for attention. His horse, Big Fella, stood off a few steps, at attention and tethered to a small bush, making small noises. Morning had been coming alive for a matter of hours.
At that same moment, Jensen felt energy escape from him, felt it slide into the morning air where it might disappear forever. All this was his due; he had earned all that was coming at him from somewhere beyond his reckoning; he was still alive, though hurting, and the six horses he’d found were long gone after the lightning had scattered them the night before like compass points. Out of a blind canyon he had brought them a day earlier, recognizing B-Bar-Ell’s brand on them. Sugar Bates the owner would appreciate their return, and wondering aloud why they had ended up in that far canyon, a good dozen miles from their pasturage.
Above the lone cowboy, the blue sky had summoned the highest peaks and the peaks had acceded, slipping into that wide sense of blue, wide as welcome. He felt part of that universe, even as he heard a coyote give out his own acceptance of all that surrounded him. Perhaps that coyote was on the thin ledge he could see, like a line of thread on the face of the nearest foothill. Both their energies had become part of all that was around them, had been accepted. Behind him, to where he sent his long line of sight, the plains extended for close to eleven or twelve miles until they too were accepted up into the unique skies, the way a seaman had once told him the horizon, in reality, falls away from everything.
Rawlick Jensen’s thoughts, he knew, were larger than he was, deeper, more solemn at times, sadder by some minutes so that he could shake himself to sleep. Then they might come so raw and real that he could almost touch them, taste them. Why the blue and green and thin yellow colors of things around him? How were they determined? Why did the coyote’s cry come like a signal he could not understand yet could invoke images with it. Realization said his own words would fall away into silence after they were uttered, after minor echoes came along too, the way the coyote’s yell softened at length and disappeared. The two voices, perhaps, the two sounds, the energies of them, merging down the trail somewhere, becoming one thing or one nothing.
He shook his head again. What was at him? Where was the joker in this deal of cards? There was no way he was able to recount the times such an experience had hit him before. Came the sudden thought it was an omen of sorts. With a solid sense of comfort, no fright lingering on the edges, he tried to play the thought to some conclusion. That effort, too, fell away under the blue sky, the high mountain, the vast prairie leaving him or trying to catch up to him.
The coyote called again.
The sound brought another reality scene with it, another image. The bunkhouse was so different, so ordinary yet so real, that it could also capture his full attention. “Them cows can smell water from ten miles away, I swear,” July Reginess once said, amid the odors of bread and beans and beef and blackened onions all carrying an edge of burnt smell with them.”Cut loose past me, a bunch a them, took me half an hour to head ‘em back.” The conversation carried on over an hour about the sense of smell and what some of the riders had experienced or guessed or had heard about, most all of it on an unbelievable level, and not one of them had mentioned the odors existing about them all that same time, their appetites so sated.
The loose horses, not at all his responsibilities until the moment he had them gathered, were most likely scattered and would move to water or the smell of water as soon as they could. He’d try the foothill falls first, where generally a soft drop came off the face of a small cliff. One or two might be there. Sugar Bates would thank him for their return, offer supper, a place to stay the night, a job if there was one open, and sing a song before the night was over. Such possibilities were real.
Then the blue sky called out again, and the coyote, and a distant thought kicking around some place in his mind, waiting to be framed, formulated, come into being. He finally said to himself, in a sense of wonder, “I am a complex person.” He tried to remember the last book he had read, so long back he had forgotten the name of the book and the name of the author. Much of it had gone with the echoes. He had loose grips on other things that his mind scratched for. When Big Fella looked his way, Jensen tried to imagine what was in his mind, and then he began to speak aloud, to no one but himself, though he definitely knew the tone of his voice would be known by the horse.
“You at thinking like I am, Big Fella? You get caught up in stuff like this or does water and greens and healthy oats set the order for you?” He moved both hands in slow motion, sort of setting the tone, and he studied the horse’s eyes, his head the way it sat. For sure, there was acceptance of his soft voice, his smooth, and slow, hand movement, his apparent inertness. “Anybody from the bunkhouse, any outriders or line boys come up on us in this here conversation, they’ll be some uneasy about us, eh, Fella?”
His horse snickered, kicked a stick loose in the ground, seemed to be waiting for closer company. He gave the horse another drink, put the saddle blanket in place, then the saddle. The sun touched him as he did so, the slow warmth creeping along his back side as he noted how golden his wrist hairs had become. They had not turned gray yet, but that was just around the next bend, up the next wadi. The image of old Thurman Gosgrove came from out of nowhere, sitting beside a bunkhouse fireplace, the flames blinking on his legs gone too soft or too hard for the ride, one hand near frozen with stiffness that made both gun and rope useless, leather straps and reins of no further use.
The sadness rode through him like a flash flood in a forgotten canyon. When he couldn’t see one piece of old Thurman’s face, it bit deeper, sure as a snake bite. The mountain out there, and the ones behind him, would be here long after he was gone. He wondered what they would see that he would like to see, what he would miss the most. Even Thurman had missed what he was thinking about now, the wonder and the doubt and the endless questions.
“We come a long way, Fella, a lot of work and a lot of chasing the dream, if that’s what it is. You think about mares the way I do, like about ten times an hour?” He patted Big Fella on his flanks as he stepped in the stirrup and swung a leg over. The horse shook, swung his head, accepted the weight.
“We ought to head into town, after we get them horses for Sugar. He’ll be somewhat surprised I’ll bet, then we’ll bust up all this need in small pieces. Yes, sir, old Fella, into small pieces so we can handle it all. No rush. Just walk in kind of slow and get done.”
In the distance he saw Sugar’s horses at a water hole he thought was dry. “World is full of all kinds of surprises, Fella. All kinds. Now we’ll see what town brings.”
The horses looked up but stayed where they were, as if waiting on him.