Western Short Story
It had been a long day and I had not slept well the previous night. The day opened up sunny and cool, one of those magical days along the Colorado River in April. The landscape was coming to life after a dry winter with relatively little snow except in the higher mountains. The blue tint of mist on the river some half mile away rose like a watery curtain against the bright morning sun and almost as soon as I noticed it was melting away under the warming light of day.
I tidied up the campsite and saddled the roan and the dun I was using for a pack horse, that one toting a large pack saddle and two sets of saddlebags. I was carrying all I owned, heading to some far-off destination as yet undecided. Just riding along, as one is apt to do between jobs in the western lands. The roan was feisty in the mornings and usually need a talking to before I could get the saddle settled on him and be sure he would not be trying to toss me off. Once he got that out of his system he was a good horse, tall and strong and he could run all day without breaking stride or breathing hard. I had bought him off a trail herd that crossed my path a month earlier, the owner finding him a bit too feisty for the work of keeping cows following their noses.
I had seen no one for the past three days, not since camping overnight with three unsavoury characters. I already had my site setup when they rode in at dusk and, given the time, I invited them to set. But I kept one eye on them, my gun hand never filled and never far from my pistol because I did not like their look. Mind you, they were friendly enough and made no unwarranted moves but I was in the saddle before they were out of their blankets the next day, one of them staring sourly at me as I rode away. I had a hunch they eyed the two horses and my stack of goods as possible to take but they did not like the look of me any more than I did them. I took care to leave very little trail, riding over rocky ground and through shallow streams. I was pretty sure they would not be able to follow even if they had the notion. Still, the hair on the back of my neck tickled from time to time and I checked my back trail pretty regularly.
Travelling for days without seeing folks was not so unusual out here. In this case it was particularly good because word had been that some of the younger Kiowa Apaches were on the trail and a growing cause for concern. There had been little trouble until recently but they were notional folks, especially the young men wanting to build their credentials. Catching a man alone with two horses and supplies might just be too tempting for them to resist. Just like those three seedy cowpokes from the night camp.
I rode along mighty careful, not skylining myself and keeping well away from the main trails as much as possible while still finding the abundant water of an early and wet spring. The roan was stepping quickly along in his typical fashion, spirited in the cool early part of the day, a prancing gait I was beginning to like. I reached down to pat his neck and when I straightened up, there she was.
I had been riding careful, especially careful, scanning the area around given the danger that might exist near and behind me. Her sudden appearance, standing beside a tree less than twenty paces from me was startling. As was her appearance. I could not see how I had missed her. She was of medium height and slim build. She wore a one-piece outfit that comprised a hood on her head and flowed down to a point below her knees. Below that were leggings and dark brown shoes on tiny feet. Her eyes were a deep azure blue like parts of the Colorado River and her expression was neutral as she stared at me, not seeming surprised or frightened. I stepped from the roan and stood there, and after a moment she came toward me, a slight smile on her face.
"Tabli, esti malcan, shushti tica pando maras," she said, watching my face. And I, who spoke languages including English, French and a smattering of more than a half dozen Indian tongues, understood not a word.
I just shook my head.
She frowned. "Supin dora quanot indis opu," she said and I sensed she was trying yet another language or dialect. Again I simply shook my head.
She frowned then, a hint of frustration evident. Then she bent, and using a stick on the ground drew a circle in the sand, then a couple of feet away a drawing of a rock formation and a flowing river. She made an arrow from the circle to the drawing and then stood in the circle and pointed toward myself and then at the drawing, communicating as best she could.
That I understood. She wanted to go from here, where she was standing in the circle, to that rock formation and wondered if I was heading in that direction. In response to her quizzical look I pointed at the rock formation and nodded.
Anyone who had been through this country knew the distinctive outline of Hanging Rock Mesa above the Colorado River. Its name had come from a single event several years earlier when a large posse led by a hard-nosed rancher named Harry Morten had caught up with a small group of Kiowa braves with forty or so head of Harry's cattle. The Indians said they had found the cattle and were planning on returning them, but Harry Morten was not an understanding or forgiving man and he and the posse with him hung the five Indians from a string of trees high up on the mesa where they could be seen for miles. Unfortunately, the Indians had been telling the truth, as a study of the tracks soon indicated, but Harry, as I said, being a known stubborn man and not particularly kind or bright had not relented, denying the clear evidence.
Two months later they found Harry's body. He had been taken quietly from the ranch house during the night and hung from the highest tree on top of Hanging Rock Mesa. No one doubted who had done it but no one cared to do anything about it. Out here in the west, that was seen as justice.
I arranged the packs between the two horses and indicated she should ride the dun. She nodded and slipped onto the saddle with athletic ease, wrapping one knee around the pommel and letting the other leg hang to the side, some sort of a modified side-saddle approach to riding.
Then we headed out. It would be sometime the next afternoon when we reached Hanging Rock Mesa. I checked on her every now and then, studying her with interest and curiosity as she rode along beside me. She seemed quite comfortable with my attention and gave me a smile each time I glanced her way. We did not talk much, for in that short time and riding along, the gap in our understanding of each other's languages was too wide to bridge. Instead, we used facial expressions and gestures as needed, pointing out interesting landmarks and animals that we saw.
The day passed uneventfully. From time to time we stopped to rest. She pointed to things inquisitively. I supplied the name for the plants I knew and other things and she would offer a label in her language. A horse was a sidi, a tree a diro and so on. Meat was pati, water was disa. I was surprised that all the words she used were two syllables, though what that meant I had no idea.
I also noticed her jewellery. She wore several pieces including a slender necklace with a golden pendant hanging from it. It was very ornate and beautifully carved with a deep blue insignia or symbol I did not recognize. She had several piercings in each ear, a mix of what looked like golden globes, pearls and diamonds, though real or of some other material I could not tell. Rings adorned three fingers on each of her hands, each set with what appeared to be a precious stone. I noticed her clothes never wrinkled from the riding, draping smoothly down her body each time she stepped down off the dun. Similarly, while my boots, brushed each morning, were already dusty, not a speck of dust lay on her shoes. Very strange, I thought.
We made an evening camp under the shade of a tall overhang, a place where a small creek ran through a natural culvert in the ground and where grass was plentiful for the horses. I gave the horses a feed of grain from my supply. On this kind of trip one wants to be sure of healthy and well-fed animals. I cooked a meal of beans, bacon and sourdough biscuits with tea and coffee and she chose the coffee. She sampled each item and then ate more of each, especially the biscuits. I may not have been much of a cook but my biscuits were the talk of any ranch I worked on. It was a recipe that had been handed down from my grandmother with special ingredients I never shared with others.
Seated across from each other at the fire I pointed to myself and said. "Parker," for that was my name, Max Parker, though I was known by another, one less friendly and one I tended to avoid unless necessary. She understood, pointed to herself and said, "Asti," and I thought it a lovely name.
Darkness settled quietly over the landscape and I lay out my blankets behind a low row of bushes for her privacy, then pointed to her and then them. She at first declined, but I insisted, using gestures, and she agreed. She headed toward them and after one glance at me, lay down out of sight. I stretched out on the soft sand near the fire, not the first time I had slept on the ground, not likely to be the last and I always found it comfortable to be in direct touch with the earth. I tucked both of my hands behind my head and watched the stars sparkling in the blue-black night sky. At some point I drifted off to sleep.
When I awoke it was to the smell of bacon frying. I sat up and could see that Asti had restarted our fire and was cooking a meal similar to that of the evening before. She smiled and waved me to the fire. She handed me a plate of food and as I chewed the food I could tell it had been spiced up in some fashion. I looked at her quizzically and she held out a couple of plants I did not recognize.
"Spili," she said, rubbing her stomach and running her tongue over her lips. I tried another couple of bites and liked the taste.
We cleaned up and headed out on the last leg of the trip to Hanging Rock Mesa two or three hours away. We reached it about lunch time, had a meal and then stood looking up at the mesa a good height above where we stood. I looked down at her quizzically from my more than six-foot height. She pointed to the top of the mesa. "Catsa dali paru," she said and although I had no idea what the words meant I knew what she intended. We were climbing.
We left the horses behind a corner of the rock face, not really well hidden, but not really in sight. She shook her head when I took out my rifle, so she knew what it was, and gestured for me to leave it. I shook my head, and rigging a pigging string into a strap, I slung it over my shoulder as we began to climb. The climb was a bit of a struggle given the slope to the rock face but she managed to start out fine.
We were only a hundred yards or so up the slope when I heard the horses in the distance. I took her arm and pushed her down behind a row of large rocks, the surprise on her face evident. I put a finger over my lips to signal her to be quiet and pointed at the riders.
Down below, approaching from the river side were a small group of riders, eight or so Kiowa braves. There were no women and children so this could be nothing, or a hunting or thieving party. Hard to tell. I did not want to be seen and I knew if we moved we would be. Not that it would matter, for they would surely see the horses and might even still smell the morning fire. I was glad I had brought my rifle 'cause I was going to need it, not that it would do much good against eight of them but some would pay the price if they wanted to go to the party. Asti put a hand on my arm so I settled on my heels and she held up one slender finger warning me to be still. Then she sat down, crossed her knees and lay a hand flat on each one, starting to hum a melody that rose and fell. It was quiet and would not be heard below, but I wished she would be quiet.
I took off my hat and peeked from between two rocks and watched as the Indians approached, waiting for them to cross our trail, that being easy to see. When they reached it, however, they rode right across it without looking down. Now there is no chance in the world a Kiowa could miss something so obvious but maybe they did not bother to look down because it was so obvious.
They stopped and talked for a couple of minutes right below us but they did not seem to be agitated or excited like they might have been. Once or twice one of them looked up toward the slope where Asti and I were hidden but if they saw anything they did not seem to care. That was most strange for we surely had left some marks at the beginning of that climb.
Their talking done, they turned to continue southwest. I checked my rifle again because they were going to pass right by where our horses were tied and there was no way they were going to miss them. Even their horses would scent ours and would make some sort of ruckus, I was sure.
But they rode right past where they had to have seen the horses and kept on going. I watched for fifteen long and tense minutes until they were well out of sight and then I set down the rifle and wiped the beads of sweat from my brow. I do not recall being that relieved for a long time, or that confused. It made no sense to me at all that they missed seeing us or the horses.
I sensed her beside me watching. She touched my arm, pointed up the slope and smiled, then turned and continued toward the summit.
It was two hours later when we reached the top. We stopped to catch our breath, though she seemed a lot less tired than I was. I looked around but could not see anything worth the climb. But clearly she did, for she was smiling and nodding her head, pointing at a flat stone some twenty feet from us.
She turned and smiled at me. Then she signalled for me to bend. When I did, she put a hand on each side of my head and pulled it down until my forehead touched hers as she stood on her toes. We stood like that for most of a minute. Then she released me, took off the golden necklace she was wearing, removed my hat, put the chain over my head and set my hat back on my head. I stood up and she put a hand against my chest signalling me to stay where I was.
She jumped lightly down off the rock we were standing on and crossed over to the large flat stone some twenty feet away from us. She stood on it, spread her arms to the side and turned her face to the sky, eyes closed and humming that same haunting melody. She continued this for a full five minutes.
I heard a noise behind me and quickly turned, thinking maybe those Indians had returned, my hand going to my pistol. But there was nothing.
When I turned back she was gone!
I jumped from where I was standing and hurried over to the flat stone, climbing on it and looked all around. No sign of her! We were nowhere near the overhang to the river so she could not have fallen. I picked a point and covered each section of that summit but over the next three hours I found nothing, not a single sign that she was ever there. Wherever she was, it was not here and I found myself turning my head to look toward the sky, wondering.
I stayed up on that summit all the day and night long, with no fire, for that would be seen for many miles, waiting for her to reappear. But at sunrise I had to face facts. She was gone as suddenly and inexplicably as she had appeared the day before and though I did not know where or how, I had to accept it.
It took me a bit more than an hour and a half to climb, hop and slide down to the bottom of the mesa and get to the horses.
When I did there was another surprise! A small pouch was hanging from the pommel of the dun pack horse. It was made of that same smooth fawn material as her clothing. I pulled open the drawstring and tipped it up and out slid five good sized nuggets of what appeared to be gold. A small fortune in these times!
I stared long and hard at the sky again, whispered my thanks and mounted the roan. I turned east, away from the path taken by the Indians and made my way along the base of the mesa. I did not look back.
Three hours later I pulled the roan to a sudden stop. I got down and studied a whole slew of tracks, trying to work out the story. Three riders had come around the east side of the mesa. I recognized some of the tracks as belonging to one of those three seedy riders from a few nights earlier. Maybe they were looking for me, maybe just travelling that way. But one thing I was sure of was that they were being followed by that same group of Indians. The Indians must have swung east right after riding out of sight the day before. They had crossed the tracks of the three cowboys and turned to follow. This could be nothing but bad news.
It was a dilemma. The tracks were from late the previous afternoon by my guess, while I was still up on the mesa searching for Asti. Did I follow along to help out, to see if there was still anything to be done? It could be that the Indians had already caught up with those three in which case there was nothing to be done. Or should I just skirt north and east and stay well out of the way?
I remembered reading somewhere that discretion is the better part of valour and decided that north and east was beckoning. I mounted and turned the roan's head that way. Out here a man is expected to take care of his own trouble and my sense was that those three, if they were smart, would be watching their back trail and ready for the Indians. If not, well they should have been.
I heard nothing, no shots, nor did I come across any tracks for the rest of the day and I was grateful to find a sheltered spot for my night camp. I decided on a cold meal, with no fire, and then settled down to sleep.
My eyes snapped open sometime later and I found my gun in my hand. I looked at the sky and guessed it was a bit after midnight. Something had awakened me, some unusual sound. I looked at the horses and both were staring to the south, ears cocked. I was into the rocks in seconds, silent in stocking feet, pistol in my left hand and long knife now in my right. I was working my way around to the horses when there was movement to my left and something lunged at me. By instinct I fell back, tossing the Indian over me to land hard on his back. He must have hit a stone, for with a grunt he was silent and lay still. I backed against a tree waiting and listening to see if anyone else was around.
I squatted there for twenty minutes, watching the horses, until I was sure no one was around. Then I checked the Indian. He had a bullet burn across his stomach but otherwise seemed unhurt. I dragged him to a tree, went over to the saddlebags and took out a set of manacles. I had been wearing them myself a month earlier and was only too happy to put them on someone else. Leaving the Indian tied, I went to my blankets and tried without success to sleep.
He was awake and staring at me when I sat up and moved to start a fire for breakfast. He said nothing, nor did I. I made us both food and if he was hungry he did not admit it. I put some on a plate and took it over to him. He was able to move his hands enough to hold it and take food from it with his fingers and he ate slowly and carefully, not wanting to admit his hunger in front of me, not taking his eyes off me for a moment.
I spoke in Kiowa, this surprising him, and asked how he had been shot. He told me they had been following three riders when they were ambushed. Four of them were shot right away and he and the others had returned fire before riding away. He thought one of the white men might have been hit but he was not sure. His horse had been shot and it died less than an hour later, leaving him stranded in the desert. He was turning to the northwest when he smelled my horses and camp and planned to steal them and be on his way home. And to kill me and take my things, I suggested. He smiled, shrugged and simply said that was the way of things. I supposed he was right.
The horses were not indicating they had any further concern so I cleaned the campsite and saddled the horses, packing my things on the dun. Finally, I drew my gun and walked back toward the Kiowa.
He looked apprehensive but I just tossed him the key to the manacles. He unlocked them and stood up, dropping them to the ground beside him. I pointed to his rifle and knife on the ground a few steps away and told him he could have them and that the rifle was empty. I said if he continued walking west without looking back he could go, but if he turned back I would shoot him.
He smiled, nodded and went over to pick up his things. I followed him and as he turned to go he caught sight of the pendant that Asti had given me. It was hanging around my neck and had slipped out of my shirt.
He stared at it then at me, a questioning look in his eyes.
I asked if he knew this symbol and he hesitatingly nodded. He told me it was worn by a woman who came from the sky, a woman of the Kiowa but not of them, a visitor from another far-off place.
I asked if she was real or imaginary and he shrugged. He had never seen her himself, he said, but others who claimed to have done so were those he could believe. She brought with her good fortune for the Indians, for whenever she appeared there was pleasant weather, good rains and plentiful harvests. During years where she did not appear, things were more difficult.
He asked when I had seen her and when I explained that we had been on the rocky slope when he and the others rode past he nodded. It had felt strange, he relayed, as if there was a mist keeping them from seeing clearly and that would be Asti, he supposed. He thought it remarkable she would allow herself to be seen by a white man but this was the time of year when she would often appear.
He told me that as long as I wore the pendant I would be safe among the many Indian nations and could ride within them without fear. Then, without another word he turned and took long steps west toward the Colorado and home.
Damn, I thought to myself, why had I not tried to speak Kiowa to her when I was with her? It just never crossed my mind. Now that chance was gone. Not that I believed in gods or, for that matter, goddesses but I did know there are things that pass our understanding, things that transcend what we believe we know.
I watched him go while I sipped water from my canteen. When I was sure he was too far away to worry about I mounted the roan and headed east.
Four days later I rode into Waterford. I checked the horses at the livery and then went down to the bank and had the gold in the pouch assayed. It came to almost four hundred dollars! The assayer also studied the pendant I showed him and offered a thousand for it, saying it could be worth even more given the stones set into it, stones I had not noticed. I declined, thanking him. He suggested that given the rough element in town I should keep it out of sight. I agreed, tucking it back into my flannel shirt.
I took the time for a bath, haircut and to have my clothes washed, wearing new duds that chafed a bit but would do until mine were wearable again. Then I went to Cliff Thornton's downtown diner for a lunch of stew and biscuits, washed down with the hottest and spiciest coffee around.
That done, I found a comfortable wicker chair in front of the sheriff's office and hunkered down to rest my bones and watch the world pass on by.
It was a half-hour later when the three rummies I had met up with on the trail, the ones I suspected had ambushed the Kiowas, sauntered their horses down the street. I pulled my flat-brimmed hat down over my eyes and in new duds and with passing time, and now clean-shaven, I knew they would not recognize me. Nor did they, focusing on tying up in front of the nearest saloon and clomping inside. I followed out of interest, wanting to hear the story of the Kiowa attack.
I was not a moment too soon to get my pint of beer and set my back against the wall in a shadowed area. The biggest of the three was regaling those that would listen. And he was not sparing the special effects.
"We wasn't sure but there's probably fifteen or twenty of them," he was saying over his beer. "Sammy here spotted them on our tail and was ready to run, but me I says let's just scamper around and give them braves a surprise they'll not soon forget. So we finds us a good spot to settle in, catching them in a cross fire and as soon as they took the bait we opened up with rifles then pistols. They didn't expect it and we took most of them with that first volley. Nate, he took a shot to the side but he's alright, though bellying like a little girl and then them Indians rode off in all directions. We just kept shooting at 'em till they's outa sight then we took care of Nate and got the hell out of there before they returned with the whole durn Indian nation on our tails."
To be fair, he had not stretched the story all that much and I was certainly not going to rain on his parade. I just leaned away from the wall and took two long steps to the door, pushing my way outside and heading across the street for the hotel where I had booked a room. I got my key from the lady at the front desk who looked sideways at me for reasons I could not understand and took the steps two at a time to the third floor where I had a room away from the noise of the street. I wanted quiet and time to rest.
But it was not to be. For on the chest of drawers next to the washstand was a pouch. And inside, two gems, one a diamond and one a red ruby.
Asti? I shook my head. This foolishness was now beginning to invade my thinking and I could not long tolerate such foolishness. But I was no fool. I checked with the sheriff about any local robberies and there had been none, certainly none involving gems, at least as far as he was aware and no wires or wanted posters suggested anything different.
Damn, I thought. I would have to go back to the mesa. As if that was not a most foolish thing to think all on its own. Was I losing my mind?
Still, the next morning found me purchasing goods at the general store and loading the dun once again for a trip back across the desert to Hanging Rock Mesa. I told no one, not wanting to be followed, or laughed at, and headed east, only turning south and then northwest once well out of Waterford. As I turned toward the desert I could swear my two horses looked at each other and shook their heads. Maybe they knew more than me. Likely they were smarter too.
It took four days for me to return to the mesa. I was more than careful about getting there, travelling off the normal routes, resting during the day when others might be about and travelling the relatively flat land into the dark and beyond when bright moonlight permitted. On the fourth morning I sat the roan at the foot of the mesa, staring upward and feeling like an absolute idiot.
I changed into moccasins, strapped my rifle across my back along with a set of saddlebags with supplies and grabbed hold of a rock, pulling myself up and starting the climb. I moved more quickly on my own and in less than two hours I sat atop the mesa staring at the large flat rock on which Asti had stood days earlier. I backed off and found a comfortable place to sit, piling a bit of sand as a cushion and decided to sit and wait. For how long I was not sure but I had found a more secure spot for the horses, unsaddled and picketed them and hoped they would be safe from thieves.
I had lunch, read for the most of the afternoon from The Odyssey by Homer, a Greek writer, being a tattered copy I had swapped from a drifting cowboy I met on a round-up months earlier. It was no easy read, mind you, but I found myself feeling I was on a similar unending and mysterious journey.
Evening came and I ate, then darkness came and I slept.
The second day was much as the first, though I climbed down the slope to check on the horses. They seemed fine in the sheltered copse of rocks with water and grass enough for a short while. This time they were where they would not be seen, or at least I hoped not. Then I climbed all the way back to the top, stood on the flat stone for a while, failing to find any markings of any kind and settled back down with my book.
Evening came again and I ate then darkness once again and I slept.
And awoke to the smell of beans and bacon. I did not want to open my eyes lest it was something I would not want to see or just a dream, so I just lay there with the aroma thick in the air and my thoughts all askew.
"You wake," the soft voice said in Kiowa. "We eat."
I slowly opened my eyes and there she was. Asti. She wore the same outfit as she had a week earlier and had the same smile. She also wore another pendant similar to that which now rested on my neck, but this one a deep purple.
"Where have you been?" I asked in Kiowa.
She looked up at the sky but said nothing.
"Thank you for the gold and the gems," I said to her. "They will make me a wealthy man, but they were not necessary. Especially the gems."
"Welcome is yours," she said. "They are but thanks. You helped Asti, Asti helps you. And thanks for also helping the Kiowa brave Running Bear. He told me you speak Kiowa. I did not know that whites could do so. You are the first of the whites that I have ever spoken with."
"I didn't help him."
"You did not kill him. You fed him and let him go. That was helpful."
"You know I can't accept that you're from the sky."
"This I know. But it is as it is. I am from the sky. And that is so. When I left this place I am sure you searched but not finding me. Is this not so?"
I nodded. "Perhaps you just hide very well."
She laughed, a wonderful sound. "Perhaps, but perhaps I hide in the sky."
"And tomorrow when I leave?"
She looked at me. "I will walk with you to the plains and see you ride away. I will be sad to see you go for I like you, and this I did not expect and do not very much understand. Then I will go back to the sky."
She looked up at me. "Why did you return? It was not necessary."
I shrugged. "Curiosity, I suppose. And a search for a logical explanation to your disappearance since I can't accept that you flew up to the sky. And, to be honest, I missed you."
"It must be difficult to lack belief," she said simply. "Beliefs are so important. They help one understand and make sense of things."
"But no one lives in the sky," I countered. "At least I do not believe so."
"Does not your God be seen to live up in the far sky, the God of your white churches? As spoken of in your Bibles?"
I smiled. "For those who would believe such. For myself, I think of the Bible as a wonderful story with good messages but a story nonetheless. I have read it twice but my time in the world has made it difficult to believe. I think that religion may be only a form of mythology though I know that it is important for many people to believe it to be more than that."
"They may be right."
I shrugged. "They may. But I may be right."
"Why don't you come away with me across the desert? You must be very lonely up there in the sky or you would not be here so often. Running Bear said you do not travel far and there are so many things to be seen out there in the world. I would think you would be curious about them."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because you're here, not there."
She frowned. "I am lonely, Parker. It is true. And I did miss you."
"Then come with me and explore the bigger world."
"I have thought about it, to at least travel with you for some time. When I saw you had returned to search for me, I thought more about it. My heart wants to travel with you but my spirit clings to the sky. I could travel with you but you would have to promise to bring me back to the mountain if I wish, so I could return to the sky. It would have to be so."
"And if I did not wish you to go back to the sky?"
"It is, I say, the price you must be prepared to pay. It would be about my happiness. Would that not be important to you?"
That stopped me. "Very well. I give you my solemn promise to bring you back here if you wish, but I hope it's a promise I'll never have to keep."
"It may be so. We shall see in time."
In the light of an early bright morning, we went down off the mesa and into the desert. Together.