Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In 1865, at the end of a long day in a long war, Corporal Thadeus "Ted" Walters was separated from the Army of the Union, with 5 years of service and a wound whose anger might hang in place. As a messenger between outfits of that conflict of interests, Corporal Walters was apt, on any day, to be in territory controlled by a Union force.
He saw many places and many faces, and was fired upon between message centers en route.
Comrades, and friends of a certainty, came out of his associations, and that included words of advice from some folks "who had been elsewhere and remembered."
One of them, a true horseman, and a volunteer from Day One of the war, said, "Ted, you gotta go west, get that sunshine square on your back and in your soul. I'll tell you this, on a pile this high of the Good Book, you'll never turn around and come back." He ended up adding, "I'm heading back to Montana myself so I could travel much of the way with you if you want company." His name was Larry Birch, a former lieutenant of arms and a most likable fellow.
Replying, Ted Walters let Birch in on his intentions of this "after-life," meaning the period right after the war and to where he was headed in it. "All well and good, Larry, but whenever I find a piece of heaven right here on terra firma, the smallest piece that comes my way, it'll be out of nowhere each time, I'm positive. But I'll know it on sight, or it'll grab me by the hand and pull me in, right on top of the glories abounding there. So I always stop to soak in that true light and I sure didn't find many in this war. It's a lock you'd get tired of me 'cause I never get tired of staying a while in any single piece of heaven that comes my way, fortune having a hand in the matter. And, for the sake of argument, it might be an eternity before you'd get all the way to Montana."
The two went their separate ways, and a few weeks later Ted Walters found a piece of heaven right under his feet, or his horse's hooves, in Pennsylvania in a village of Miami Indians who talked a strange language but made his restlessness fall right out of the saddle. One of the Miami braves, Crow's Flight by name, had been in the war and picked up a good bit of English, and served as an interpreter between the Miami tribal chief, Long-wood Walks, and Walters.
After several days at the site, Walters and Crow's Flight sat with the chief. Crow's Flight said, both languages in turn, "I have told the chief about your pieces of heaven on earth. He is in touch with our Great Chief of the Skies, and understands your own ideas of heaven and its god, and he says you may stay here as long as you like, though he feels that you must be seeking all the pieces so that you can put them together in one great heaven. 'That,' he says in judgment, 'is admirable.'"
Walters was amazed at the conversation and told Long-wood Walk, through Crow's Flight, that he had planned to be on his way the next morning.
The chief and Crow's Flight spoke quickly and Crow's Flight advised Walters, "There will be a dance tonight in your honor. Long-wood Walk will arrange all of it."
When the loveliest of all the tribe's maidens danced a special dance for Walters and offered her hand to him at the end of her dance, he refused that hand, knowing he'd not be able to leave her in the morning, she was so beautiful, one of the loveliest creatures he had ever seen, never mind her being offered up to him, a complete stranger at her threshold. .
The chief understood the weight and expanse of Ted Walter's journey and let him go on his way. Two weeks later on that segment, Walters was caught up by the beauty of a valley in Indiana, so he stayed two weeks among the high hills, saying, "I know I'm in a piece of heaven here on this earth. There's no doubt in my mind, and my soul says it's so."
The mysterious rhythms were on course, in the air he breathed, in the rustle of leaves greener than any green he had known to date, and that included previous parts of heaven he had come upon ... or had been put in his way, for noble indeed was his journey and ought to be rewarded..
He wandered about the area for those two weeks, finding peace and serenity at every turn, an almost silent music finding his ears in the solemn way silence has in its favor, every note coming to him through its own absolute journey from the Grand Master of all music.
But, the yearning moved about him, even as he remembered the beautiful Indian girl who had grasped his hand, his nightly dreams finding some others like her, even back before his military service when he lived just north of Boston.
Next, his travels took him into Iowa, to the little town of Scatterling, on the edge of a river that murmured for him first in a soft tone, then sang songs for him in a stretched-out tone. The river also shot sunlight back into the sky, and found him staring also at a most beautiful widow with a year old child. Her appeal to him was monumental, filling his dreams in a hurry at night so that they woke him up in a state of terror that he might not finish his journey. Would the dreams, and her beauty, make him forsake a love he might seek forever?
"Ted," she had said, "I do not understand why you can't stay with me. Did the war twist you onto that saddle of yours and make you a traveler for always, never to find your place of happiness here with me?" Her eyes set on him, the fire and sudden love in them lighting up her face, her full countenance, her total body at a near motionless rhythm as though it would hypnotize him on the spot.
She implored him to stay, a hand reaching, a touch of loveliness in its promise."You can only go if I let you. Maisy and I need you." She was adamant about her needs. "There are things you should know about me, Ted. The hidden spirit lingering for companionship, for the truest of loves. Do you crush my heart so easily, though I can appreciate the journey you have carved out for yourself, a journey which must have its rises and falls along the way. You need to be careful."
The difficulties in assuming his travels bothered him, a sudden doubt about reality rising from the darkness lingering in his mind, only to be squashed in a hurry by an unknown power at its fatal work ... somewhere, somehow, some place, someone was at this moment waiting for him. Destiny might be its name, or Fate, or Heaven in a circle of boundless calm, serenity, peace and beauty. Could it be nameless?
Thus, with a sheer beauty trying to keep him in one piece of heaven at its full promise, Nebraska and Wyoming and other wonder sights called him. Always, it seemed, a voice as distant as clouds mated with a disturbing golden moon called to him, the words, the messages, coming continually in dreams, days naps, sometimes in a sleep at riding as his horse gentled its way in a now-and-then mile at a time. At those moments, nothing of the surroundings summoned him, no wonder of a spirit called his name. At such times he did not despair, full of a belief that he was just passing through the "bare spots prior to Heaven's Gates," as he might have called them.
Then, the way true Fate works its wonders, he was in, of all places, Montana, right smack in the midst of splendid mountain ranges, like a whole passel of them in one sweeping view that nearly took his wanting heart on its own journey. He wondered where his old pal and comrade Larry Birch had ended up, what peak had drawn him back this way, what river he himself had crossed to get where he now stood. Had Larry crossed it, perhaps months before him... his breath too catching up in him? Good old Larry had never told him Montana would be like this, and his words came back in a slight echo climbing the mountain trail behind him: "I'll tell you this, on a pile this high of the Good Book, you'll never turn around and come back."
Larry's hand had measured the mystical pile 4 feet high.
Oh, how right Larry was, exuberance grinding away inside him, him anxious to go down into one of these appealing valleys, one with a stream singing its way through the heart of Utopia, though he knew the mountain ledge he was standing on was in a range named for the local tribe, the Absaroka Indians, the mountain named Francis Peak rising to more than 13,000 feet, "nearer to Heaven are Thee," rhythms on the move.
Water glittered, it seemed, in a dozen directions, in arrows and spirals of rivers and saucers of lakes and ponds, the richness of heaven on the earth itself.
Then the other hunger hit him, sharp as a cutlass or even an old bayonet on his wartime musket, with what he knew made the world itself go 'round, and it started moving him downhill on its own, his mind fuzzy with a girl he had known in Boston, the Miami tribe maiden dancer with her extended hand, the widow with a daughter in Scatterling, girls and ladies, women by unknown numbers from unknown places, angelic, spirited, and as lonely as he was.
From a lower ledge, letting his mount rest for a spell, he saw a large log cabin sitting on a slight rise above the junction of a river where it joined a small lake slowing the river's downward flow. A master of the trade must have built the cabin, the master also having an artful and scenic eye. He was flabbergasted at the site; not a log or board out of place in the whole design, not a rock residing on the surface without a reason, a few trees appointed for shade, and a young blonde girl, sparkling in sunlight, sitting on an open porch with a large pan on her lap. A knife was working deliciousness loose from a harder core. Her hands were petal-like, smooth, tender, yet intent at work. The Miami girl came back, and then another girl elsewhere and when they went way, in a flick of his eyelashes, he suddenly realized that they were going away for good.
He said "goodbye" in a silent voice, his mouth left open as if he had sent the word itself after friends now gone forever.
He stopped to ask if he could water his horse. The girl beamed looking at him, her eyes bluer than the sky above, the smile so real, so authentic, that he felt the vibrations that came with it.
Truly, Corporal Thadeus Ted Walters knew Heaven was at hand, his travels as near completion as possible, only a positive introduction was needed by each party, and soon taken care of.
The older man, stepping out of the cabin, said, "I saw you coming down the mountain path, son, our first visitor in several weeks. I am Oswald Cutterly. I am a widower. This is my daughter, Amy. She cooks for me, takes care of me. She's a marvelous cook, a marvelous sewer of oddest things, a magician at others, yet limited at some duties hereabouts."
Cutterly's eyes measured the young man staring at his daughter.
Wondering if there was an invitation in the man's voice, Walters said, "My name is Thadeus 'Ted' Walters, late of the Union Army, and looking here on Earth for another piece of Heaven, and by God, I think I've found it."
He threw both hands in the air as if celebrating. The "Yahoo" was almost caught in his throat, but managed to break free.
Cutterly, reacting quickly, said, "I believe you have, son, the whole lot of it." He pointed at his daughter and said, "Have you ever seen a smile more beautiful than that?"
"No, sir, I have not, and this surely is my final piece of Heaven which I have long been looking for."
He raised both arms above his head, as he exclaimed, "Heaven is mine."