A Man in the West
We were holed up in the smallest of places, a sliver of a gap in the rocks that were piled unlikely out here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Laura and Jimmy, the two Cullop kids, and me had wandered a ways away from the two-wagon train we were taking to out west. Laura was thirteen, and Jimmy twelve. I know for sure Jimmy was twelve, because whenever he wants something more grown up than he is, like staying up late or something, he will say “after all, I am twelve” as if there is something magical in the age he is. Whenever he messes up, though, he says, “well, I’m only twelve,” using it as an excuse not to do things in a more grown up manner.
They liked taking me with them whenever they went somewhere, but it was more like taking a dog than a person. They never talked to me or nothing, but to say if I wanted to go along or not. They didn’t really ask me like they would someone else, but would walk by me and say what they were going to do. If it was something they wanted for me to hear, they’d talk real slow, figuring I was a idiot since I couldn’t talk, and then they’d kind of look behind them to see if I was following. It didn’t make me mad that they treated me like this because as far as they knew, I couldn’t of understood anyway.
We’d just been funnin’ around, and had just crawled into that small gap in the rocks when some Indians on horses came over the ridge just above us. If we had been any farther from this pile of rocks, they would have run plumb over us, and if we’d been making the regular noise of talk, I’m sure they would have heard us. It was normal prairie quiet and then all of a sudden, and a quick sudden at that, they came charging over the hill no more than a few feet away. If I’d of ever wondered before what being scared was like, I knew right then.
I’d heard talk of Indians, but never picked up enough to know which ones were friendly and which ones wasn’t. I didn’t know which ones these were, but they did not look like they were looking for friends. It wasn’t more than a few seconds after they passed us, and topped the small knoll between us and the camp that the screaming and shooting began.
“We’ve got to go help them,” Jimmy whispered.
“What could we do?” Laura asked.
“Who knows? But we’ve got to try something.”
“But what if it just gets all of us killed?” I could tell Laura was scared as I was. I was pretty sure Jimmy was, but he was being brought up to be a man, and fear couldn’t be too much a part of that. At least not so someone else could see it was fear.
Not much sooner after the screaming and shooting started, it stopped just as quick. Laura and Jimmy were talking about whether or not to go check out what had happened. Jimmy was nervous awful, but bravin it like he figured he should, he said, “I’m going to the top of the knoll.”
“Not now,” Laura urged. “If our family is okay, we have plenty of time to get back. If the worst has happened, we’d best stay where we are until everything but us is gone.”
She was right, of course. I was wishin they’d ask me, and I’d of nodded about what Laura said, but they never did. Jimmy just squirmed farther back into the crack in the rocks and squatted down on his heels. He rubbed his face with his hands and tried to cover up he was crying. But I knew, and so did Laura. And we knew in our feelings that he had reason to cry. Their family, and the Stinsons, who were kind of watching out for me for the time being, were not any kind of Indian fighters, or fighters at all for that matter, and were outnumbered and outmatched by those Indians. It didn’t seem like much good at all could have come of what happened.
Since we had just started making camp for the evening when the three of us took off, it was going to be coming on to dark soon. I wasn’t sure about the seasons, so I can’t say for sure when it was, except it was being more the time trees lose their leaves than when they grow them. Looking at them made me forget what all was happening just then. There was one tree in particular that stood out from all the rest. It was split right in two at the bottom a long time ago, but both parts of it growed anyway. One of them went straight to the sky, but the other must of dawdled for some time, because it snaked along the ground about three big steps, and then bushed out all over. It was one pretty tree, and I was glad I got the chance to see it.
I remembered that not too long back Mr. Stinson had been telling Mr. Cullop that they probably should have waited another year to go west, as Mr. Stinson’s broke leg had set them back three months before they really got started. “We should have started across the mountains in July, and not in October,” he had said. Up to that point I didn’t know anybody was worried about anything, and I didn’t truly know now if it was something to worry about, but it stuck with me for some reason. “Why should it matter when you start across the mountains?” is what I would have asked someone if I could have.
A couple minutes later the smoke started coming up over the knoll, two stems of smoke that gradually became one as they got higher. We all knew it was the wagons, but neither Laura nor Jimmy said anything. I probably wouldn’t have even if I could of. It couldn’t have been anything else burning except the wagons.
Laura and Jimmy didn’t say much more until awhile later when it got almost to full dark. “I’m going, and you two can come or stay,” Jimmy said. “It doesn’t matter to me, and I won’t think you’re cowards if you stay, but I’m going with you or without you.” I was hoping Laura would say that we would stay. People did that a lot to me, speaking for me and making my decisions. Sometimes when they made a decision for me that I wanted to do the opposite I didn’t like it, but mostly I just went along. If Laura said we’d stay, I’d of stayed without feeling too bad.
“We’ll come too,” Laura shot back. “We’ve got to stick together until we find out what has happened. You can lead if you want to, but we won’t be more than a couple of steps behind.” I wanted to shake my head to say I didn’t want to, but I didn’t. Like I always do, I went along.
Since I was the last one into the hideout, I was also the first one out. It was so narrow that passing one another would have been impossible even if we had wanted to. We had just stayed like we were. I came out first, and then Laura, and then Jimmy. I started walking to the top of the knoll we had crossed, which was probably no more than twenty or thirty feet above us. The wagons were on the other side, down about the same distance, by the creek. If the knoll wasn’t there, I could have thrown a rock from where we were to where the wagons were in three or four throws. But since the knoll was there it would have taken more, because I can’t throw uphill very far, if that would have mattered then, which it didn’t.
“Get down, you idiot!” Jimmy yelled in a whisper. “We can’t just up and walk in there. We have to sneak up on them on our stomachs.”
I didn’t know why, but I did as he said, following behind Laura, who was just behind him. I never liked crawling on my stomach, because I always ended up itching and I hate to itch. Maybe some others could crawl on their stomachs and not itch, but not me. I always itched and I always hated it. Since I was the last, I cheated a little, and crawled real low on my elbows and knees. I hoped it looked like I was on my stomach, in case they looked back to check on me, but wouldn’t make me itch. What we could see when we peeked over the edge made me feel sick to my stomach. I would of rather itched by a long ways. It also made me cry for the first time since I could remember.
There was no sign of any moving at all. I could make out three people laying on the ground, and the Stinson’s dog, too. There was no sign of Indians still being there, but we had not heard them come back by us as we hunkered in the tiny cave. I wished I could of told signs like some I heard of, but I couldn’t, so I just laid there and waited for Jimmy or Laura to do something.
“They’re all dead,” Laura said. She didn’t try either to speak in a whisper or hide how she was feeling. She was sad, and who could blame her.
“I only count three,” Jimmy said. “There’s Dad, and Mr. and Mrs. Stinson, but where’s Mom?”
I didn’t want to go down there, because as my eyes got adjusted to the low light I could see more. Both the men had arrows in them, and had their scalps missing. I had never seen a scalpt person before, and it was way more ugly than I had pictured it. I could have done without ever having to go any closer to someone who had been scalpt. I knew it would only get worse as we got closer, and I couldn’t take any worse right now.
Jimmy stood up and started walking to the camp. Laura said for him to wait up and she went over to him and softly grabbed his hand. They looked at each other for a few seconds, and then headed down the hill. I just laid where I was. I had never seen anyone dead before, not even real bad bleedin, and I knew I couldn’t just walk down there. I’d seen a few chickens, of course, and a pig or two, but never a person. A cut here or there, and that was about it for what I’d seen. They didn’t seem to be mattered too much that I didn’t go with them.
I watched as Laura and Jimmy checked each body out. They went to their dad first of course, and when they got there, they both just turned to each other and hugged each other, and cried a lot. Jimmy wasn’t trying to be a man anymore, even though most grown men probably would have cried too. He was just a kid, and trying to be something else right now was just too much to ask.
They checked each of the Stinsons out, and the dog, and I could tell from how they acted that all of them were dead. I hoped that their mom would come out from hiding somewhere--maybe she’d gone down to the creek or something-- but as long as I laid there she never came. Finally, after figuring every excuse I could for why I wasn’t down there with those kids, and just as quick figuring how lame the excuses were, I gave in. I started a walk the likes of which no one could be happy about making.
Laura and Jimmy had sat down in the grass at the edge of the camp, and each of them had their heads bowed into their laps. My brain, what there is of it, almost burst with how much I wanted to be able to help them, to make things okay again, which I knew I couldn’t do. I wanted so much just to be able to be a help to them, but in reality I would probably be more of a headache to them than a help. I didn’t know how to do anything that would help anything, except to dig a hole, I guess, for the killt ones. I still wished to see Mrs. Cullop.
There was a shovel on the back of each wagon, of course, but the chances of the handle surviving the fire was mighty little. I went to the Stinson’s wagon first since it was closest, and was surprised a little that my thinking had been right, but disappointed that the shovel was useless. I walked over to the Cullop’s wagon, and found their shovel a few feet away. Mr. Cullop had probably used it to dig the fire pit, and then not had the chance to put it back. That was always the first thing he did every night, dig a fire pit. Mr. Stinson cared for the horses, and Mr. Cullop dug the fire pit. They never said anything about it I remembered, but just did it.
I picked up the shovel, and when I turned to walk back by the wagon I looked into it for the first time. There was Mrs. Cullop in the wagon, dead and mostly burned. It was horrible. The shock of it made me turn around and gag enough like I was going to throw up enough that Jimmy heard it, and seeing me turn and run a few steps away made him know something was wrong. He walked over to the wagon and looked in.
“What is it?” Laura asked.
“It’s mom, but don’t you come over here and look. You remember her as last you saw her, and not like this. Moot and I will bury all of them, and you we’ll come get you when it’s time to say some Bible over them.” He turned to me and said, “Let’s get to it.”
By the time I started digging the hole, it was the darkest I ever remember a night being. Me, I was going to dig at my own pace, which was my regular speed of doing anything whether it was work or play, but Jimmy tore into that sod something fierce. He was using just the steel part of the Stinson’s shovel, no handle to it, down on his knees. He’d raise the blade above his head with both hands and then as hard as he could bring his whole body down toward the ground saying ughhh! with the effort every swing. I kept digging at my pace, but could feel the hurt and whatever else emotions he was letting out just like they were my own. They weren’t my own, of course, mine being more used to being hid down inside somewhere, but I felt them strong. I noticed I was still crying some, and didn’t know for sure if it would ever stop.
A Man in the West is everything you want in a western, except instead of the characters being the biggest, baddest, strongest, and smartest, here they are kids.
Orphaned in Colorado while on the way to Idaho with their families, Moot, Laura, and Jimmy eventually make it there. Moot, who tells the story, can not talk. He has been treated, for most of his life, "like a dog, but that's okay because it's all I know." His journey is not just the physical journey from Colorado to Idaho, but the personal journey from non-person to A Man in the West.