View Full Version : North of Ogallala

2007-12-08, 12:30 AM
A recent story of mine. In lieu of indentation, blank lines separate paragraphs. Leave a comment, please. Enjoy.
North of Ogallala

The firelight blocked out all but the brightest starlights over the Great Plain as it stretched ever onward beyond that black horizon in all directions. The flicker and crack in the warm orange glow was, for a time, the only sound audible for miles. The elder's horse and even the thousand million crickets that minced alertly along the prairie grass had slowed down and silenced themselves as though from respect for the prostrate young man beside that alluring, inviting fire that was the center of this flat and boundless universe.

He began again. “When a man is wounded such, he has full right to deliver a comeback; it's courtesy.” His face was pale as he stared at the man across the fire, the color he had left slowly draining out into his shirtwaist under his brown blanket. “The harder he's wounded, the more time he gets. Courtesy.”

“I reckon you had plenty of time, then.” He sat cross-legged across the humble campfire, rocking slightly with the rifle across his lap. He beheld the young man patiently, watching the slow collapse of function that wormed through his veins.

As he lay there, the blanket over his chest rose with a rasping, heaving sound, as slow and orange in the firelight as a sunrise. Hanging there in intense indecision, the trembling hillock passed a desperate eternity, deciding, hoping, before the silence of that tense apex was broken with the weary groan that signaled its resolution to rise at least once more. Another small silence passed in this manner, the chalky, pained breaths counting out the slow hours until the dawn.

“Years. It's been- years, now, since the surrender. So I came out here, to try and reason a comeback. But it's hard figuring for one man, for a vengeance of that scale.” He closed his lips with effort, frowning into the fire. “So I guess I wasted it.”

The elder rocked back and forth in his own slow rhythm, watching that black stain over the other's gut grow fiber by fiber through that dingy horse blanket, shuddering upwards and downwards with his labored breaths. On his own breast shone a glint of silver. He sat and listened resignedly, his intentions to arrest far behind him. “Go on.”

“I guess-” he began to raise his hand to gesture illustratively, and dropped his limb like rubber as a violent shudder wracked his frame. His eyes squeezed as tight as his jaw clamped, stunned. The infinite grain of the landscape began to sway a little in a meager gust, coercing a concerned whisper from the multitude of stalks, swaying like Elysium. His expression loosened at last. “I guess I can't really be blamed for failing. But when I first came out here, it was dreadful great fun. I had me such a time to try and show them- show them- it hadn't gotten to me. I must've drank half the whiskey in all the frontier all by my lonesome, laughing all the way.”

“Sounds like you weren't sufferin' as much as you let on. A man that can indulge such-like seems to be mighty fortunate to me.” The young fellow across the fire had nothing to rest his head on but that ragged gray cap, torn to tatters over the years of hard wear.

“Oh, I suppose you might think that, you being on the outside of this predicament. But what I was really aiming at wasn't to show them- I did that, I know I did- but I guess just talking to the inside of me. See,” he said, as though he were explaining the workings of complex machinery, “anyone can fool most everybody. A smart fellow can, leastwise. But that ain't winning; that's just stealing. You got to win over the inside of you; that's when you really get it.”

“So did the whiskey do it?” he prodded. “Did you 'convince the inside of you?'” The marshal knew that to take him to town was pointless. The slug that sat in his belly had struck true, and he would not survive a trip on horseback either to the hospital in Ogallala to the south nor to the marshal's jail farther north. It had not been wholly unexpected; that ornery old man was known to be as jealous a swineherd as ever farmed, and a meaner shot than even the young daredevils that crowded the saloons. He would merely sit there, he decided, and listen.

“I thought it might do her, but it wasn't any good. I knew good and well when I was sober it wasn't working, but by the time I moved on to duels it had its teeth in me.” His own chattered mightily, even as close as he was to the fireside. “Never got loose, neither.” He stared across that black horizon southward to Ogallala, still holding some wild and desperate hope of escaping there.

“You a duelist? You ain't got no gun, son.” He gave a chuckle. “What did you do after ten paces, cuss at him?”

“Oh, I don't have any guns no more.” He grew thoughtful as he thought back on it. “I made proper use of 'em. Always knew how. In Houston they know my face so well I can get free whiskey at some places. It's- it's courtesy.”

The marshal gave a quiet chuckle, and saw that his laughter made that feeble hillock rise and fall a mite faster in its indignation. Those staring eyes took on the aspect of a kicked dog, pleading the marshal's own eyes.

“It's the truth! I swear it! Why, I went out to Austin and blew down a Texas Ranger, and his captain, too, in a fair gun battle.” The pride shown brightly from his face, colorless but for the glow and flicker before him. “And- and you know the name Looziana Lou? I kilt him, and I kilt a Yankee, too, in a different town, and two more Yanks in Tucson, and them known men around those parts. As a public service, you'd say.”

“Why, you're a regular terror, ain't you?” He snorted long and loudly, clearing his sinuses. He spat into the fire and listened to the sizzle it made. “And so what do they call you, gunfighter?”

His face fell, though already on the ground, and those eyes seemed to droop farther and farther, 'til almost they had closed. But as the diligent hillock rose again, he started once more. “Oh, I ain't any kind of a gunfighter any more, mister, seeing as how I retired. Lost my finger, see?” But he didn't raise his hand, knowing the consequence it evoked. He just stared there to the south, hoping, praying. “Not my trigger finger, though; got my littlest finger shot off. Gave me pain whenever I drew. So, you see, when I gave it up I wasn't forced out, I retired. You see?”

He laughed. “Well it sounds like you got out at the right time. What next? Did you decide you'd be a bandit lord instead? Or a banker or a lawyer, fancyin' a change of pace?”

The young man shook his head left to right (up and down to the marshal, as it were), so slight you could hardly tell. All his life wound its way from the limbs and up through the neck, as though to fuel this last telling. “No, nothing quite so dangerous as all that. Rode among the bulls and the bison for a few years.”

“Wanderin' about? Just around the prairie?” he replied, apparently surprised at such a bucolic detour.

“No, no, that isn't it.” He shivered and quaked as he spoke, but nonetheless managed a bright, albeit temporary smile as he thought back to it. “No, I was a ranch hand for a while. Made two drives north- cattle drives, you see- and even worked for a fellow who kept buffaloes in pens like they were cattle!” From his mouth came a long animal moan as he smiled and shook, the ruin of a laugh robbed of its vigor. Those staring eyes drank the firelight in, seeing not the fire but its passion, that passion he lapped at so thirstily, desperately, as if in the fire he could feel once again the heat of twenty-four hundred young men breaking formation about him. “Imagine that, and all them buffalo just a-runnin' and thunderin' along the plains in earshot of his little spread, and can't ride or sell or do nothing with 'em, and can't hold 'em steady to fix em up and make sure he prunes out all but good studs.”

The marshal grew a little less patient. “Where's all this headed?”

“Oh, Lord only knows. Seems a foolish enterprise to me, unless'n He withdraws his rainbow and washes all the other buffaloes away. Not worth a penny otherwise.” He sighed amusedly, resting from his discourse. The speaking tired him to an extent he denied to himself that he believed, and he tried his best to regroup as soon as possible, to keep up to both parties the illusion of some sort of strength. “I stayed with him, though; it was the honest way.”

“Well, you ain't with him no more.” He looked out to his right, long across the horizon, scanning it closely back and forth. No light yet. “You get tired of the honest way?”

“Oh, no, but he did. Mighty tired. One of them bull buffaloes kicked him right in his chest. Knocked him a good five feet.” he added as an afterthought. “Killed just like that.” In his mind his fingers snapped, and he chuckled. The marshal watched him merely lie there, silently entreating the silent south like it would come round to him and plant him in the Ogallala streets.

That was it for him. He ventured it at last. “Fascinating, truly it is. But what in Creation does this have to do with that gunshot you're carrying on you?”

His countenance took on the aspect of a startled horse. “Oh, hell, that's all you were askin' about? I stole me a hog and the damned farmer shot me in the gut.” he explained curtly.

The marshal ceased his rocking, his head snapping upward to stare at the young man intently. “So you admit to stealing that hog?”

“I ain't stole nothing!” he protested. “I couldn't even get that monster offen the ground, much less- less-” he searched for a word, the frustration of his failures compounding upon him, “abscond with him.” He spoke with a profound languor, as though this was a defeat on par with the War, that initial curse that drove him ever onward. “So I got shot when he ran out and saw me, that hog making a city's worth of racket. I'd-a been shot again but for my quick legs,” he remarked with a sort of pride, “but after a few miles I thought, 'I can't feel my feet.' And after that I couldn't walk no longer, so I just- crawled, you see, since I couldn't feel nothing under my knees no more. I was heading for Ogallala. I was just sure I'd make it!”

The marshal wasn't a stranger to gunfights, and had seen this once before: a man gets shot too close to his backbone, and pretty soon they start dying from the feet up, as though their spirit slowly retreats until nothing is left but those bloodless, moving lips and the frightened, staring eyes he saw before him now in the crackling fire's glow. “Ogallala's four miles that-a way,” he said, tossing his head in the direction of his back.

The young man seemed to take heart even as the slumping knoll rose less and less each time. “You mean- why, that's only just-” he stared longingly, pleadingly south, as though just over the horizon lied the redoubt he and the 34th Alabama had never reached.

The old man just shook his head slowly. “Don't worry about that anymore, kid. Four miles is a fair piece longer than you might like to believe.” He almost regretted his decision, wondering if, after he had found his near-paralyzed figure those few miles south of the homestead, blanketed already as though to sleep, he should have laid him over the back of his horse and blazed a trail southward rather than merely building a fire and staring callously across at him.

The youth cursed loudly in despair. “ I shoulda- just even a little bit smaller one would a done it! I don't have no need of a whole prize hog this close to-” His jaw trembled as he reasoned vainly against history, reshuffling options, priorities, troop movements, doing everything in his power to recover another failing retreat. His eyelids drooped almost entirely shut. “But what was I going to do? If you're going to take one, you take the biggest one. That's just sense.”

“No, it ain't sense, and it got you killed.” He gave a pause as the bluntness of his own words offended him. He stared down at the young, fading man as his weak little hump rose and fell rapidly, as if to protest, to say, 'you're wrong, you're wrong, I'm still winning.' He spoke softly, “What I mean is, a hog just ain't the best thing to get shot over, you see?”

The weakening hillock paused longer than normal at it's deepest point, and resumed with greater depth as something grew there. “Oh, I don't know about that,” he retorted. “I've et most every creature Noah brought over on the Ark, and a hog's one of the finest amongst 'em.”

The breaths flew in and out with increasing rapidity as his eyes began to reflect that firelight in an altogether different manner. He spoke with a special intensity, a fury reserved for only a few times in a man's life. “I reckon a damn fine pig's a better reason to take a bullet than love! or honor!” he spat the words, “or Manifest Destiny!” He was as close to shouting as his failing frame could force. “Or the inalienable right of a State to- to-” he faltered as he swung his head up as vertical as he could manage. The immense effort made every muscle and contour on his face and neck quiver as his wide, wide eyes stared into that blaze, comprehending it, feeling it somewhere unidentifiable but special within him.

The old marshal stared with his mouth agape, not knowing what to make of the trembling wreck, defeated but fighting nevertheless. He watched silently as his head slowly lowered down towards that ragged gray cap, laying back down softly as if to drift away to sleep. Silence. And then, impossibly, that slow, ragged hump ascended indignantly, creeping with all its collected might, sucking all the life, all the spirit from that near-corpse and sending it to those quaking, colorless lips on below those baleful, desirous eyes. But for the glow of the flickering campfire, his face was as cold and pale as new-fallen snow.

The marshal gazed once again to his right, and he spied the narrow strata of pinks and purples slipping their merest fingertips over the horizon. “Why did you want to go to Ogallala?” It occurred to him only now to ask this of him, and now he feared what cost answering might exact on the withered creature.

As the slowing oscillation of that diligent breast paused for a moment at its trough, he replied abjectly, almost too quiet to make out over the flaring crackle and the whispering, murmuring sway of the boundless Elysium around them, “Never been there yet.”

The marshal stood, leaving the rifle there where he had sat these long hours. He walked slowly in a semicircle around the fire as the dawn pierced slowly into the retreating nighttime sky, stopping above the doomed. Kneeling there, placing his head as close to the young man's as he could, he whispered, almost apologetically, “Do you have anyone I should mail about- you? Maybe a wife, or a sweetheart?”

Slower than the coming day he turned his head until he stared upward into his elder's eyes and cracked the barest shadow of a smile: all he was capable of. The throaty rasp of his failing voice broke through coarsely, as his spirit fled even farther forward, every last ounce of his dying consciousness focused into those dimly staring eyes: “No sir. Swore off women, a long, long- time ago.” Those piercing eyes stared upward now as they had stared south to the city, no longer at the man but infinitely beyond him with that desirous, grasping gaze of invincible hope yet present. “There's a story behind that, but- I'll spare you.”

And that hillock shook and quivered, trying to make one last rise, and, halfway to its intended apex, merely faltered and smoothly, slowly retracted downward for the final time as the slow, weak rattle of his passing resounding chillingly through the marshal's ears.

He stared there into those eyes, those eyes with that infinity peering out from behind them into that infinity that lies beyond them, and finally found the nerve to close them, passing his hand over that ice-cold skin, no longer warmed by the fire as it lie there in the marshal's shadow.

He reached for the hem of that brown blanket to pull it up over the dead man's face, but as he caught a glimpse of his collar he held fast there with it in his hands, staring perplexedly and disbelievingly at what he knew could not, but must be real, and in a single swift motion yanked the shoddy brown blanket off of him with a whoosh!, and he gave an awed gasp at what he saw there: that destroyed gray uniform beneath that dead gray face; those bloodless, slate-hued lips as they pursed there in that ultimate expression, that final countenance of attention with his arms locked at his side and his heels together; and, he knew, behind those closed eyelids, those still-staring eyes as they traced their way infinitely onward along the path he even now was marching.

2007-12-13, 09:10 AM
cool, but long

2007-12-13, 09:13 AM
Well it's short compared to books I usualy read :smalltongue: