DLC's lively western short story Line Shack Winter is serialized at the online magazine FRONTIER TALES. One of four new westerns featured for March, Line Shack Winter is about how life is turned upside down at a quiet ranch outpost when the boss's teenage son arrives late one autumn to learn how to take care of cattle over the winter months. A rogue grizzly bear complicates the situation even more than it would have been with just the kid around. If enough readers vote Line Shack Winter as the best story for March, it will be included in the annual FRONTIER TALES print anthology.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
Saturday, February 9, 2013
(This one has been in three short story print collections so far, and it's set to come out in a new anthology this summer. But offering it here won't make much difference on overall book sales.)
THE UGLY MAN'S GOLD
Everyone agreed that Jacob Reese was the ugliest white man to ever wash out a pan of Bitterroot Mountain river gravel. But if he'd cut a more handsome figure, he probably wouldn't have found so much gold.
And he might not have survived his run-in with the moody Indian spirits determined to keep him from having all that gold.
Jacob spent much of his adult life trapping in the Rockies for salable animal pelts, and trying to hang onto his own hair whenever he wandered onto lands already claimed by Indians who made it clear that they didn't always appreciate his presence. He knew just about everything about every critter that swam, crawled, walked or flew in the high country, and over time he learned how to get along with most—not all of, but most—of the people whose ancient kin had been wandering the same mountains far longer than his ancestors had plowed the rich southeastern lowlands of his birth.
Even so, Jacob occasionally crossed trails with Indians who didn't get along with anyone, especially men who shared his particular shade of skin color—which was mostly why very few who saw him ever forgot his face. Some Indians were experts in modifying faces.
But while the experience left his face a ravaged mess, it also left him completely without a sense of fear. Jacob Reese wasn't scared of the devil, much less ordinary two-legged mortals like himself.
Still, he sometimes missed seeing familiar features in the mirror.
Once ruggedly virile, with a sturdy honesty and an ability to express his opinions in ways spoken words alone often could not, his face was known from Montana to the Mexican border. But run-ins with bears, cougars, wolves and the occasional proddy warrior out to impress pals had left Jacob's face a grisly mask women sometimes refused to look directly at, and that often made dogs growl when he was around.
Even growing his beard long didn't help all that much, since so much of it had been pulled out by the roots over the years, and what remained grew out in wild directions that made each individual tuft of beard hair appear to be in business for itself.
So Jacob no longer deliberately looked at mirrors. Sometimes he'd catch his reflection in a window or a whiskey bottle or the calm surface of a lake, but he was past being surprised by the ragged network of badly healed scars and sullen red rash splotches that had replaced the patrician features he was originally born to wear.
But, strangely, the more mangled his face became, the less Indians wanted to do with him. Another trapper he ran across every couple summers or so offered the speculation that he probably looked something like one of their evil spirits, and if there's one thing high country Indian people took to heart it was their belief in bad medicine. And, no offense, the man said, but Jacob's face was purely loaded with bad medicine if a body chose to think of it in those terms.
Jacob just shrugged and allowed the man might have himself a point there.
When the demand for furs bottomed out, Jacob was almost relieved. He'd never particularly enjoyed making his living by killing animals he held no personal blood grudges against, and he certainly wouldn't miss the unique stench of ripe pelts. But he would need to make a living doing something.
With a sturdy cabin tucked away in a remote hollow, and a warm fire, a man could thrive for a long time on nothing but game from the forests and fish from the creeks, he decided. But without plenty of bullets for his old but serviceable Henry Yellowboy rifle and, even more importantly, coffee and sugar and tobacco and an occasional woman—the finer things in life—merely thriving just wasn't good enough for him anymore.
But all those things cost money; and money seemed to take great pains to make sure that it and Jacob Reese crossed each other's paths as rarely as possible.
Using up the last of his credit at a general store in South Pass City one late spring day, Jacob noted to the trader how it looked like the population seemed down some in the filthy Wyoming mining town.
"That's it exactly, Jacob," the man said, weighing up a last bag of coffee before wiping his sweaty brow. "There's a big gold strike up Montana way. In the Bitterroot country. I hear tell it's one of the richest there is right now. Everyone is skinning out while there's still something left to dig—and my business is shot to hell because of it, too."
"Gold, huh?" Jacob briefly pondered his years of trapping the hundreds of creeks scattered among the Bitterroot Mountains, but he didn't recall ever once catching a glimpse of gold among the beaver and other critters he took out of there. "Any river in particular?"
"Bitterroot River." The shopkeeper shrugged. "That's the one most often made mention of."
"Hmm." Jacob drew a deep breath and motioned at the supplies on the counter. "If we're square, I reckon I'll be on my way," he said.
The merchant studied Jacob's mangled face intently for a long moment, then a crooked grin appeared at the corner of his mouth.
"You're heading out to the Bitterroots, aren't you? Gonna look for gold."
"You can tell all that?" Jacob chuckled. "Hell, if you can see something like that in this face of mine, you're the first one in a long time who could."
"It's that look in your eye," the man said, placing Jacob's merchandise into an empty flour sack he pulled from under the counter. "I'd know that gold glint anywhere. Hell, I've been following them that have that look, that spark of gold hunger, all over this part of the country for better'n twenty years now, and I ain't never been wrong about it yet."
"I reckon a man's gotta do something with his time," Jacob said, signing off on the deal in the store ledger book before shouldering the bag of supplies. "And I ain't got nothing much better to do this summer."
"Well, if you're heading off up yonder by yourself, take this with you." The storekeeper reached into a box on the shelf behind him. He came out with what looked like a pewter medallion on a cheap tin chain. "No charge," he said. "This preacher fella came through here a month or two ago running some kind of revival. He had a tent, and everything. He gave me these medals in trade for a bottle of whiskey before he moved on, and said they'd do a man some good."
"I'm not all that religious," Jacob said, peering close at the exotic designs worked into the front and back surfaces. It was about the size of a ten-dollar gold piece, and heavier than he thought it should be, being pewter. "I doubt it'd do much for me."
"He said they'll chase off any mean-natured spirits that took to pestering a man, too," the trader added.
"Spirits?" Jacob smiled at the trader, which made the man flinch slightly. "Spirits would have to be mighty bored to wonder about anything I might be doing."
"Maybe," the shopkeeper said, shrugging. "At the very least, he said it'll attract good luck. And you might need all the good luck you can get in the Bitterroots."
Jacob considered this. "Might, at that," he said, eyeing the talisman closer. "I believe you said it's on the house?"
"Won't cost you a penny. You've always been easy to get along with in our dealings, Jacob. Most aren't. So think of this as a little thank you token."
"In that case, I'd be proud to have it." Jacob reached for the gray medallion with his free hand and, feeling a little foolish, hung it around his neck. "Much obliged."
"Good luck, Jacob."
The storekeeper's dog grumbled a bit when Jacob walked past, and the man scolded it for its manners.
"It's okay," Jacob said, shrugging. "Happens all the time."
A month later, entering the southern tip of the Bitterroot River valley, Jacob saw for himself that the merchant had been right about prospectors heading for Montana. There were diggings camps along most of the creeks he passed as he walked steadily north along the river, and he'd come upon a raw new boomtown every two or three days. He also passed through a number of abandoned camps, and was amazed to find that one of them was so recently vacated that several fire pits were still warm and smoking.
"People gone crazy," he muttered, adding more of the firewood lying nearby before settling down for the night beside one of the old campfires. "Ain't no sense in letting a little gold do that to 'em."
Two more weeks of walking north found Jacob in Stevensville, and he could almost feel warmth from the gold fever in the air. But there was an ominous tinge to it, too. Every saloon in the old Jesuit mission town was packed and, instead of gold, all the conversation was about how the Lakota thereabouts suddenly seemed to go on the warpath at the same time.
Even the Flathead Salish, Crow and Blackfoot were giving the Hunkpapa Sioux in the region plenty of elbow room, and apparently the entire Gros Ventre clan had cleared out for parts unknown. Dead prospectors were turning up all over the upper Bitterroot Valley, Jacob learned, and most of the miners were sticking close to their camps and towns; and hoping the Army showed up before the end of the summer to put a stop to the Indian foolishness.
Broke and out of provisions, Jacob traded a couple weeks of work at a pair of busy livery stables for a place to sleep and enough supplies to last him at least a month. A bartender was happy to sell him, cheap, a large second-hand gold pan someone had swapped for something strong and wet. The pan and a small axe, along with his regular cache of personal weapons and the supplies, were all he expected to need. He briefly thought about working long enough at the stables to get a pack mule, too; but he knew that while he could feed himself out in the wilderness with his Yellowboy and his wits, he couldn't guarantee the same for a tame animal that would depend on him. Checking his load one night, he was sure he could carry everything he needed on his back.
Stevensville was even more crowded with grumbling dreamers than when he arrived, each suspiciously eyeing the other on the off chance that someone might know something about any changes in the Indian situation that no one else knew, when he decided the time had come. Jacob slipped out before dawn the next morning, headed due west into the high country.
He didn't know the name of the third large creek he came to north of the town—he didn't know the names of any of the streams he passed—but it looked promising, and seemed to offer a fairly gentle uphill slope toward what looked like a long-extinct volcano in the western distance. After a week's hike, he no longer saw evidence of gold panning along its banks.
A slight sound woke him just after sunrise one morning, and Jacob opened one eye to see an Indian squatting across the fire and pawing through his supplies pack. Slowly, he fisted the axe he had taken to keeping in his bedroll, along with the Henry, at night in the hope of discouraging any bears from visiting without wasting precious ammunition. When the Indian glanced away at a sound farther out in the woods, Jacob jumped from his blankets, the axe in his hand, and screamed a war cry he'd learned from some Northern Cheyenne he used to travel with on occasion.
Startled, the Indian surged to his feet, a tomahawk appearing in his own fist. But with a close look at Jacob's face, his eyes seemed to go as big and round as Jacob's gold pan.
He shouted something unintelligible and lit out before Jacob moved any closer, and leaped aboard a skinny mare standing a few yards into the trees. Man and horse were gone almost before the echoes of the combined yells stopped bouncing off the slopes all around.
"Boy looked like he saw a ghost," Jacob muttered, running a hand through his long, tousled hair and walking over to make sure his supplies were okay. "I hope so, at least."
But Jacob suspected the brave would be back soon, and he'd probably bring along a few friends looking to count a little coup on a white devil man. And he was proven right that very afternoon when, working his way along the narrow bank at the bottom of a sheer canyon wall, he heard what sounded like at least a dozen unshod ponies splashing up the creek a couple hundred yards behind him.
He glanced back once, then started running as fast as he could on the uneven ground toward a large rock just ahead to his right along the steep slope wall. There, he hunkered down and peeked over the top and saw that his guess was very close. He couldn't count them, because they were moving too fast, but there was easily ten painted braves heading straight for him.
Even with the Yellowboy and his axe, and his other weapons, he knew he couldn't keep them off for long. He glanced to his left and saw that beyond the handy pile of boulders, with a creek of its own joining the main stream, a narrow cut led back into the sheer sandstone outcropping. Without thinking, he jumped into the shallow water and started running as quick as he could up the cut.
A few bullets bounced off rocks around him, but Jacob kept going. Within sixty yards, the narrow cut opened into a wider side canyon, and he dropped behind the first substantial pile of rocks he came to. He shucked his backpack, laid the Yellowboy across the top of a boulder and sighted down the cut, and waited.
He could still hear the braves screaming their war cries, and bullets occasionally whizzed from the cut, but the Indians didn't seem inclined to follow him. And if they had, he figured he could drop most of them before they even emerged from the narrow opening.
"Now you're getting smart," he mumbled. "Won't be long before you get tired of waiting for me and wander off."
"They're not going anywhere."
"Sure they are! They're—"
Jacob spun around, bringing his Henry up and ready to fire. But he was alone in the small canyon.
"Damn," he muttered, ducking when another bullet ricocheted off a rock nearby, stinging his arms with pulverized rock. "I need a drink."
He turned back toward the canyon opening and leveled his rifle across the top of the boulder, and was watching for something to shoot at when an icy blast of air blew past him, rustling grass and weeds along the ground as it exited the valley through the canyon mouth.
Three more rifle shots sounded before the shooting stopped. Seconds later, he heard the faint noise of hoofbeats disappearing quickly back down the creek.
Jacob watched awhile longer to make sure it wasn't some kind of trick, that maybe some of the Indians had ridden off while others were trying to pull off some kind of sneak attack. But he only heard the sound of the breeze, the creek and . . . and nothing else.
"Ain't there any birds living in this canyon?" he muttered, turning to take in the scenery he found himself part of. "Sure is quiet."
Laying back against the rock, he took in the scenery.
From fifty or so yards wide where the side branch entered the thin cut leading to the main creek, the canyon spread out as a grassy plain about a quarter-mile wide at its fattest points, and heavily treed slopes rose fairly steeply several hundred feet in every direction he looked. He wouldn't be able to climb out; leaving the way he came in as the only exit. About a mile back from where he sat, the branch entered the canyon as a series of tall waterfalls.
"There's either a plateau or a mesa up there," he murmured, breaking the endless silence. "Might be worth wandering over for a look."
Beyond the top of the waterfall, he could make out what looked like the broken cone of an ancient volcano. It was smaller than the one he'd seen when he was leaving Stevensville. This one couldn't be more than five or six miles away, and he guessed it would look a lot higher to him from the peak of one of the other mountains scattered within sight.
At least—until he could get out and away—he had water. And where there was water in these mountains, there was always plenty of trout. He didn't particularly care for fish, but he liked them better than starving; and he hadn't seen sign of anything but himself alive in this place yet.
Making sure he was out of a direct line-of-sight with the canyon entrance, he stood and removed his coat and outer shirt, and laid them carefully on top of the boulder with his Yellowboy. The branch couldn't have been more than ten feet wide, and he knew it was shallow enough to wade comfortably. The sandy bottom was mostly dark gray to black.
But were there any trout?
At first, he was a little worried, until a flash of movement in the clear water to his right caught his eye. Looking close, he spotted two large cutthroats and a rainbow holding position in the current with their backs to him as they watched for food coming toward them from upstream.
"You'll do," he said, chuckling as the rainbow darted forward ahead of the others after a bug or something only they saw. "Go get good and fat, now, because . . ."
Jacob peered intently at the creek bottom where the fish had been. Someone had been here at some time, he decided. If not, how could that gold watch have gotten into the branch?
"Wait a minute here, that's not a watch."
He walked over and, ignoring the irritated trout, knelt down and reached into the water. He came up with a smooth, flat gold nugget almost as big across as his palm. Peering closer in the water, he saw the unmistakable glint of color scattered throughout the black sand creek bottom everywhere he looked.
The tops of the pine trees in the distance began swaying, but Jacob could only stare at the gold. When he glanced back up, and spotted another big sparkle in the water, he jumped in and reached for it, wrapping his fingers around something even larger than the nugget he still held in his other hand.
He pulled it from the water and stood to study it in the sunlight. It was another nugget so large that his mind dismissed the word nugget altogether.
"That there's a gold boulder," Jacob murmured, not noticing that a gust of wind approaching from the direction of the waterfall had trees dancing and grasses whipping in a manic frenzy. "It's a whopper!"
Suddenly, the wind arrived and air around him was so icy cold he could see his breath. And among the wild gusts was a frantic wailing and moaning that turned his blood as cold as his skin.
He spun around, his pewter medal bouncing on its chain, and, through squinted eyes, thought he could make out a half-dozen or so wispy man shapes in the dirt and grass of what appeared to be a big dustdevil swirling around him. One of the figures floated a few inches above the ground no more than two feet away, and had what looked like a hand reaching out for him.
"What the hell?"
He held tight to the massive gold chunks, ready to throw one if he had to. But the wispy figure jerked backwards, seemingly startled a bit, a moment after Jacob turned. The man figure studied him for a few more seconds, than backed slowly away. Jacob transferred the gold in his right hand to his left side, where he held it tight against himself with his elbow, and on a whim he jumped at the ghostly vision.
"Howdy!" he barked.
When he did, the . . . whatever it was suddenly backed further away. Screaming an eerie, agitated wail, it rejoined the others.
"Now get the hell away from my gold!" Jacob took two steps toward the spirits and grinned an evil smile of his own. "I'm not gonna tell you again!"
Like startled sheep in a pen, the wispy figures jumped, shocked, and began screeching what sounded like a ceremonial chant in an incoherent howl before rising a good ten feet or more into the air.
With one last frigid gust, the dustdevil, along with the ghostly figures inside it, then lifted straight up and shot toward the waterfall in the distance. Jacob watched it go, noting how trees and other brush under it thrashed about wildly as it passed.
Jacob fingered the anti-spirit medal, and peered closely at the designs on it.
"You sure didn't do me much good," he muttered. "Evil spirits all over the place, and you just hung there asleep. What have you got to say for yourself?"
Disgusted, he let the silent medal fall back against his chest, where it seemed every bit as unconcerned about the odd events of the past few moments as ever.
Jacob put the useless medallion from his mind and reached for the gold under his elbow; and when he looked back up he noticed a white man standing a few feet back the creek bank a hundred yards or more upstream. He was so startled that he dropped the massive gold nugget—which, he saw glancing down, rolled back into the water.
When he looked back up, the man was nowhere in sight.
"Well don't it get just more and more peculiar 'round these parts?" he murmured, searching the open grassy plain on both sides of the creek. "Where'd he get off to?"
The man, if he'd been there at all, was gone. Jacob sighed and turned back to the creek, looking for the nugget he dropped. But, like the man, it was gone.
Holding tightly to the other nugget, Jacob peered intently into the clear, fast-moving water. Thinking the current moved the one that got away, he was getting ready to search downstream to his left when movement upstream caught his eye.
"Now that just ain't possible," he muttered, staring as the enormous nugget rolled slowly along the sandy creek bottom and upstream against the current. Stepping into the stream, he followed the nugget for a few feet before reaching for it.
But it jumped just out of his reach.
"Okay," Jacob barked, standing and grabbing his long hair with both hands, and leering angrily at the nugget, "I told you to stay the hell away from my gold! Now—" he waved his hair and spread his eyes as wide open as they'd go "—git!"
The surface of the stream boiled like a trapped gator was thrashing around in the creek. Trailing water, a sudden wind gust blew from the creek and off in the direction the spirits had gone just moments before.
"And don’t come back," he yelled, reaching for the nugget.
On the bank, with both nuggets in his hands again, he looked around for a place to camp where he could dig a hole; intending to spread his bedroll over the gold and sleep on it if he had to. And, apparently, he might have to if he meant to keep it.
He scanned the area closely, and his eyes slid right past the white man in the same place again before his mind registered the presence. When he jerked his head back to where he'd seen the figure, it was gone, again, and he wondered briefly if he'd actually seen it or just imagined it.
But the medallion felt warm against his chest. Looking down, he saw it glowing faintly.
"Okay," he said, raising his voice and moving closer to his rifle and other weapons, "who are you, now?" Standing beside the big rock he'd used for cover earlier, and reaching for his Yellowboy, he suddenly dropped to his knees when a rifle bullet spanged off the front of the rock and whistled away across the creek.
"I told you they're not going anywhere."
Ignoring the . . . voice? Ignoring the intrusive voice in his mind Jacob gingerly reached for his rifle again and, levering a round into the chamber, bounded to his feet and pegged a couple of shots down the cut in the otherwise solid sandstone wall.
"I'm not going anywhere either," he shouted. "Not until I get the rest of that gold!" He fired another round through the cut, and thought he heard a cry of pain in the distance. "Good! That'll teach you to respect your betters!"
He turned back, expecting to see the mysterious stranger again. But if he was around he was keeping himself hid. And there weren't any dust devils moving in the tops of the trees anywhere in sight.
"Good enough," he mumbled.
Jacob gathered up the gold, his clothing, backpack and rifle and moved carefully toward where the spruce trees crowded down the slope of the canyon to his right. From a spot fifty or so yards back from the creek, he reasoned, he could easily see the entrance to the mysterious canyon, but anyone coming in would be well within his sights before they could spot his camp.
He wrapped the two gold nuggets in his shirt and, using his axe to break up the dirt, dug a foot-deep hole in the ground. He dropped the nuggets into the hole, and looked around for some rocks to make a fire ring. Then he gathered up some firewood.
An hour or so later, he stretched out on his bedroll, the gold buried safely under him, and considered his situation.
He had plenty of water and, with the fish to supplement the scant supplies in his backpack, food. There might not have been any birds, or any decent eating game in the canyon, but there was plenty of firewood in the trees—he'd already gathered up enough wood to last him a couple of days and piled it beside a neatly arranged circle of stones within easy reach of his bedding—and it was still early enough in the year that he didn't have to worry about building some kind of shelter for the winter.
So, he guessed, all he had to do was get as much of the gold out of the creek as he could fit in the flour sack he got from the storekeeper in South Pass City, and be on his way before the end of summer.
But considering the sheer weight of gold, could he pack out enough of it to . . . to what? To do him some good. To make him rich, of course. Rich enough to enjoy an easy life in a nice warm house, in a nice little town somewhere far away from the monotonous mountainous wilderness he'd wrestled a hard-won living from for so long. Enough to find a good woman who could look past his obvious facial defects and see the man behind the scars, even if the bright gleam of gold in his hands meant she had to squint to do it.
Maybe buy a farm.
Maybe buy a ranch!
Maybe buy a big ol' house in town, too!
"What the hell?"
The very ground under Jacob's bedroll started rippling like wavelets on a lake, and something—he could clearly see where it looked like the bottom edge of his bedroll was bunched up as if hands had hold of it—started pulling him slowly toward the creek.
"No you don't!" he roared, sitting up and glaring at the invisible entity moving him off the gold. He stuck out his tongue and shook his hands wildly. "Did I mention how much I like to eat Indian spirits? They're mighty tasty!"
Screaming "And I'm damned hungry, too!" he lunged at the end of his blanket.
It instantly stopped moving, but the ground continued to ripple. He whipped around and pulled his bowie, and saw a faint image reaching for the depression where the gold was buried.
"Might as well start with you, pardner!" he cried, coming to his knees and thrusting the massive blade at the specter. "How 'bout a little bite?"
The ground settled down and, with an eerie howl, the second figure disappeared in a dusty whirlwind that quickly blew off into the distance.
"I told you don't come back," Jacob shouted at the retreating dustdevil. "And I mean it!"
With them gone, he drew a deep breath and, noticing movement in his peripheral vision, cut his eyes upstream.
Where he saw the white man again.
Heavily bearded and with long, dark hair, the man was dressed in ordinary clothing—a hickory shirt and sturdy pants, with suspenders and tall mule-ear boots—and he leaned on a shovel. Beside him a boulder about the size of a clothing trunk tipped up on its edge stood in the knee-high grass.
Jacob raised a hand to wave.
Wordlessly, the man waved back, and then pointed at the ground under his feet. He nodded once, and slowly faded away.
"Hmm," Jacob muttered. "'Fella must be buried over that way, or something."
He watched the spot for a long time, until the sun slipped over the western ridge and out of sight. The man didn't come back, so Jacob eventually sighed and noted the lateness of the day.
He scanned the trees up the canyon for a moment and didn't see any unusual wind activity in the treetops. Satisfied he was alone for the time being, he piled up some dry kindling in his stone circle and lit a fire, adding larger and larger pieces of wood to work it up to a size he could use. In the gathering gloaming, he balanced his pint-sized tin frying pan on a couple of rocks at the edge of the flames. A little later, canteen water in the hot skillet re-hydrated a few chunks of buffalo jerky and a handful of coarse yellow corn meal for his supper.
Jacob briefly wished he had an egg to help make the meat-stuffed corn cake a little heartier, a little firmer, but he wasn't packing along any eggs and had yet to see the first bird in the odd canyon.
Not being used to sharing his camp with either the wild spirits of Indians or more genteel and well-behaved ghosts of white men—or, indeed, human ghosts of any skin color or occupation or, come to think of it, religion, lodge affiliation or political party—Jacob felt an unusual twinge of concern over the night to come. He had his Yellowboy and other firearms, along with his bowie knife and a freshly re-handled iron-headed tomahawk; and he could, and definitely would, use any or all of them if any of the braves waiting outside the narrow cut decided to be a big man in front of the others and come sneaking up on him in the dark.
But he doubted all the weapons in the hands of every prospector and hunter in the whole Bitterroot range would do him any good if the damn Indian phantoms acting so touchy about the gold came howling back before sunup.
Sighing, he reached into his backpack for his rusty harmonica. Figuring his only chance was to stay ugly enough to keep the mean-natured spirits cowed awhile longer, at least until he could load up on as much of the gold as he could carry out of this canyon, he played a few dear old hymns before drifting off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Birdsong woke him just before sunup the next morning.
Groggy, he stretched and sat up to look around . . . and found himself and his bedroll smack in the middle of the braves' camp outside the canyon! He counted six of them lying asleep around the dead fire.
Not knowing what else to do, he grabbed the nearest old repeating rifle from beside a sleeping warrior and screamed as blood-chilling a wail as he could manage.
All half-dozen Indians came awake instantly. Jacob levered and fired wildly at them, and was gratified to see them all take off running down the creek, most leaving their weapons behind. When the last of them were out of sight, he quickly gathered up his bedroll and as many of their rifles as he could carry and made his way back into the narrow cut.
A stiff wind blew down the entire length of the sixty or so yard gap, but he kept trudging through the shallow water and emerged into the canyon, where he quickly crabbed to the side in case one or two of the braves came back and still had something to shoot at him. The wind ceased the moment he emerged from the cut.
"That weren't too damned funny," he yelled. "You're not getting rid of me that easy!"
He made his way to his campsite, and wasn't surprised to find the stones of his campfire circle scattered and an empty hole where the massive nuggets had been buried. His backpack and other gear—including his weapons—were undisturbed.
He arranged his bedroll on the ground, and refashioned his campfire circle. Gathering up some of the scattered firewood, he left it ready to light come suppertime.
Then, feeling eyes on his back, he turned to see the white man standing in the same place.
"What?" he snapped, knowing he shouldn't be taking his irritation with the Indian spirits out on this ghost who'd yet to show him any ill will. "I mean, is there something you want from me, pard?"
The specter stabbed his finger twice at his feet and, as if in a snit, suddenly flicked out of existence.
"All right, dammit!" Jacob hefted up his Henry rifle. He carefully scanned the entrance to the canyon again before turning and walking toward where the ghost of the white man had been standing beside the large rock in the tall grass. The medallion against his chest became warmer and warmer the further he walked.
"Now what's so damn . . ." He slowed to a stop when he saw that the remains of the white man weren't buried. What was left of the corpse—which must have been here at least a year or more—lay atop the dirt, grasses growing up through the gray-white ribs and one otherwise empty eye socket. "Begging your pardon, friend," he said, lowering his head and sitting on the sandstone rock. "I reckon I could have ended up like that once or twice in my time, too."
Glancing away, Jacob noticed the bony carcass of a dead mule a couple yards away. In a pile beside it was what must be the departed prospector's equipment and supplies, and Jacob noticed a rusty shovel among the gear.
Sighing, he carefully set his Yellowboy on the ground and walked over to retrieve the shovel.
"Someday, it might be me in your place," he said softly, returning to the dead man's side. "If it ever is, I'd hope someone would give me a proper burial, too."
The dirt beside the body was softer than Jacob would have figured. An axe would have helped him break up the earth, but there were none among the dead man's effects, which struck Jacob as rather odd. Without an axe, how did the prospector expect to get wood for warmth and shelter out here in the tall and uncut? Still, Jacob had a decently deep hole dug within a couple hours.
He was as careful as he could be with the corpse, but pieces broke away from it anyway when he gingerly used the shovel to roll it into the hole and arrange it more or less face up. That's when he noticed that the left shinbone was severely damaged about halfway down from the knee. It looked to have been cut almost clean through by something, and could very well have been what killed the man. But he was here to bury the prospector, not investigate the man's death.
With all the body parts accounted for and in the grave, he carefully covered the remains over, and then filled the hole as quickly as possible when the body was completely out of sight. The stranger properly put to bed, Jacob straightened up and worked some kinks from his back, and bowed his head for a long, respectful moment.
The sandstone boulder made a dandy grave marker. Using a rusty bowie he found in the prospector's supplies, Jacob scratched the word "Unknown" and the year.
Sitting on the stone again, he relaxed for a few minutes and considered his handiwork, and decided under the circumstances it was the best he could do for the poor dead wretch. It wasn't long before he felt his eyes inexplicably drawn to the remains of the mule.
"Sorry," he said out loud. "I don't mind helping out a fellow . . . well, fellow when he needs it. But I don’t bury no mules."
That settled, Jacob was coming to his feet and reaching for his rifle when he saw something shining yellowish in the dirt under where the corpse had lain. He brushed away the surface soil and found it was a once-shiny brass keepsake box. Thinking it might contain some clue as to the dead man's identity, he slowly eased it open and pulled out a single folded piece of paper.
"Okay, I'll carve your name too," he muttered at the headstone. "I just might not get to it right away."
But the paper was a hand-drawn map. A map, he realized when he studied it for a few minutes, of this very canyon; with an X in the creek beside the large rock Jacob had first taken cover behind, and another X in what appeared to be a drawing of a cave somewhere off in the distance toward the waterfall. "Break the pot" was written in a sloppy scrawl under a drawing of what appeared to be a piece of pottery decorated in a jagged Indian design. A smaller drawing showed the vessel inside the cave.
Jacob stood and walked a few steps toward the waterfall and consulted the map again. It must mean there's a cave up there somewhere, he reckoned, and it must have some kind of Indian pot inside.
"Break the pot?" he muttered. "Now what in the world—"
"Do you want the gold or not?"
Jacob whipped around, and only saw the serene grave and silent headstone he'd just finished working with.
"Okay," he said, "but half the day is already over. Them waterfalls yonder are at least a mile off, and it'll take me awhile to find this cave of yours. I'll get on it in the morning when—"
Suddenly the medallion blazed hot against Jacob's chest, and the white man was standing in front of him on the grave and slowly shaking his head. Without a word, he brought up his hand and pointed into the distance, and then jerked his head in a single, no excuses accepted, nod.
Jacob jerked the chain from his neck and held it out in front of him, causing the ghost to flinch and take a small step backwards. But instead of disappearing, he clenched his jaw jerked his finger at the distance again.
"Okay!" Jacob dropped the medallion into his pocket. "I'll go now. But if I'm killed, I swear I'll haunt you for as long as we're both stuck in this damn canyon together!"
The white ghost shrugged his eyebrows, nodded subdued agreement, and faded away.
"At least he's an amenable cuss," Jacob muttered when the apparition was gone.
He turned toward the waterfalls and, consulting the map one more time, lay his Yellowboy over his shoulder and started walking.
At first, the going was easy. Jacob strolled casually toward the series of cascades, which became louder the closer he got. The wind also picked up more and more as he approached the falls. A hundred yards or so from where he could see several cave openings of various sizes in the steep slope to the left of the falls, where the canyon should be protected from such heavy winds, he had to lean into strong gusts blowing directly at him.
As he got closer, he realized he needn't worry about which cave he was looking for. All the wind blew from one of the larger holes in the canyon wall.
"So that's where you've been hiding out," he muttered, pretty sure the Indian spirits could hear him. "Now it's my turn to pester you some!"
As if in answer, the wind almost doubled in strength. Jacob dropped to the ground and began crawling toward the cave on his belly. The gusts were shrieking like a train whistle over his head, but he kept going.
And then he was at the mouth to the cave, and the wind stopped.
He came to his feet and allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimness. A couple yards back from the opening, in the diminishing light from outside, he could make out what looked like deteriorating buffalo hide shields, a bow and a few arrows, and a handful of lances. Lying on a dirty deer skin, he saw a pot about the size of a large pumpkin. It had the zigzag pattern the dead prospector had drawn on the map.
"Well look what we've got here! It's—"
The inside of the pot began glowing like someone set a fire in it, and a hoard of spirits suddenly flew up and out of it to surround him, their unearthly screeching almost deafening him.
But none came close.
Oh, several tried, but when he turned to catch them at it, they shied back and joined the others.
"Never come across someone meaner and uglier than you, did you?" he yelled, his voice getting lost among the screeching, and the almost hypnotic constant swirling of the spirits. "Now you have!"
He glanced at the pot again, and noticed that it was even brighter. In a moment or two, it would be like the sun took up residence inside the cave, and he might not be able to see.
He definitely didn't want to be blinded in this situation.
Looking down, he saw something at his feet that he recognized instantly. Its iron head was rusty, even inside the dry cave. It didn't take long to figure out why the dead prospector's leg was cut, and why his axe wasn't among his possibles.
A new sound began coming from the pot, a deep vocal rumble in some language he didn't recognize. The overexcited spirits in the cave became even wilder in their movements and screams, and Jacob realized something even worse than them was coming.
He started to reach for the axe, and remembered what happened to the dead man.
Instead, he levered a round into his Yellowboy and fired at the pot. Then, pumping bullet after bullet into it, he saw it begin to break up.
The spirits became a dizzying blur of swirling noise and wispy menace.
A malicious black mist began to float from the pot when Jacob, out of bullets, swapped rifle ends and attacked the pot with the butt stock. He smashed the vessel, and kept on smashing it until it was nothing but glowing shards.
The dark mist rose to the cave ceiling before settling in front of Jacob and taking shape. It had a face and looked . . .
"Damn!" Jacob murmured.
It looked a little like him!
Its mouth opened as if saying something, but only a deep growl came out.
"You got nothing to say that I want to hear," Jacob shouted. "Now get the hell back to wherever you came from!"
The dark, misty face expanded until it was taking up most of the space in the cave, and its bellow became a roar that shook dirt and small rocks from the ceiling and walls.
But Jacob refused to back off. Instead he took a step closer to the entity and smiled an evil grin. He stretched out left arm, and put his fist right into the phantom's eye. Even though the only difference he could feel was that his fist suddenly went ice cold, he swished his hand around in the mist and steadied his voice.
"Now don't make me tell you again" he said softly.
The misty black creature suddenly backed away. Then, swirling with the other spirits before diving at what was left of the pot, it rumbled one last time and was gone among the many broken pieces. The wispy specters immediately followed it.
Breathing heavily, Jacob backed off and, in the gathering darkness, cussed softly.
In the lingering ghostly light, he gathered up the deerskin that still held most of the still-glowing pot shards. Like a housewife whipping dust from a long unused quilt, he scattered the broken pottery chunks as widely as he possibly could, and hoped it would be enough. It took only seconds for the glow to completely subside.
In total darkness, he made his way back to his camp and a supper of cold jerky. The next morning, with a bird chirping brightly in a young spruce nearby, he cooked and ate a leisurely breakfast before ambling down to the creek. There, gold lying in the black sand glinted merrily in the morning sun as far upstream as he could see. He couldn't help smiling, his terribly devastated face taking on an almost beatific radiance.
He wished the ghost of the white man would show up so that he could thank him. But the dead prospector was apparently content to just lie peacefully in his new grave, now that he had one.
Jacob spent the next two weeks panning as much gold from the creek as he could. He'd never seen so many large nuggets in one place before, and he doubted anyone else ever had, either.
When he'd recovered all the gold he could get at, and had most of it buried safely under a large rock just inside the edge of the woods, he went ahead and buried what was left of the mule beside its owner. After all, it had seemed to matter to the dead man; and Jacob wouldn't have been able to get the gold if the prospector hadn't shown him how to eliminate the spirits who so jealously guarded the creek.
Three days later, with birds singing in what sounded like every tree in the secret canyon, and a flour sack filled with as much of the gold from the hidden stream as he could carry, Jacob walked boldly through the narrow cut. As he expected, the braves were nowhere in sight.
Glancing back once, he saw the wispy man at the grave waving at him before he turned and started walking down the creek toward town.
Posted by DL Chance at 2:57 PM