Smoke Smell Going Stale
Picture of Dick
Here's a short story I submitted a few years ago to a contest. Didn't win. Fits the percussion era. See what you think.


Smoke Smell Going Stale

The fire crackled as the skinny one stirred the glowing aspen logs with a stick, and sparks shot up into the sky now made darker by the clouds looming up over the high peaks to the west.
The fire brought welcome warmth to ward off the chill of the mountain darkness. The men’s faces were illumined clearly for a moment, and the newcomers did their best to place them accurately in their minds.
“What’s the news where you’re from, Stranger?” the oldest one drawled, spattering a brown stream of tobacco spit off a rock by the fire. He addressed Shaw, ignoring the Indian, and smiled to show that his curiosity was of the friendly sort. “Saunders is my name,” he said. “I been out here some while, and these fellers, too, so if you been near any settlement recent, even St. Vrain’s,” he grunted a laugh, “Fill us in.”
The Indian was called Johnson Begay. The son of a Delaware trapper and a Navajo woman, he rode partners with Shaw. He had worked in the fur trade and as a scout with the dragoons, and was a known man all over the west. He had been ignored before, and paid it no mind, his eyes roving curiously around the camp. Crouching before the flames playing the stoic Indian part well, he wiped his bloody knife on his buckskin britches and finished chewing the piece of stringy meat shared from the hind-quarter that hung nearby.
Behind him, Shaw heard his horse whickering tentatively over on the picket line in the dark. His mind was racing as he sought a way to proceed. He finished loading his clay pipe and cleared his throat as he held a stick to the brightly burning coals.
Then as often happened, a way seemed open to him, and he grew calm. He knew Begay would do his part. Leaning back against his saddle while he got the pipe going smoothly, he rubbed his hand gently over the comb of the Hawken half-stock rifle he’d leaned there. The breeze stirred the faded red cloth strip he’d tied to the end of the wiping stick that protruded from the heavy barrel.
“Well, the natives are restless, down Taos way,” he said. “William Bent’s fixin’ to sell out to the army if he can, down on the Arkansas.” Sucking repeatedly on the pipe until the burning twig did its job, he allowed the inflection of his voice to imply there was more. “Funny thing, though, you-all bein’ here so near. I ‘spect you already ran across that burned out wagon, a few miles south?”
He scanned the three men with a raised eyebrow and a pacific demeanor. The reason for their presence out here, seemingly unconnected to one another, was unclear. On the ground in the outer darkness, a few pitiful bales of furs and a couple of pack saddles suggested that at least one of them was trapping-- squeezing the last income from a disappearing fur-bearing population. The others might be trappers or entrepreneurial wanderers of the sort who sometimes poked along what was called the Cherokee Trail in tracks long followed by Cheyenne and Arapaho.
The one who called himself Saunders wore a greasy buckskin jacket and a battered felt hat. His gray stubbled chin churned continually as his remaining teeth worked on a fresh cut of tobacco. He leaned over to spit again, and his eyes gleamed with a sudden light before they slid away to settle briefly on the man who sat in the dirt next to him.
“Whereabouts you mean, ‘a few miles south’?” This was the burly, barrel-chested one. His eyes were small and sly, his mouth nearly hidden by his black beard as he raised his head to look directly at Shaw from across the fire. He chuckled, and looked over at the skinny one to his left, who was skewering a chunk of raw meat on an iron rod. “They’s lots of stuff ‘twixt here and Bents’, ain’t they, Cooper?”
“I mean that spot in the trail where there’s two giant boulders, one on each side, and then it opens out into a little meadow that’s a good spot to pitch camp. You recollect? Wagon there looks like it burned just yesterday.”
“Is that right? Well, I never been there, never seen no smoke,” the burly one shook his head, grinning. “’Course, this child didn’t see much of anything, yesterday. Too much Taos Lightnin’ night before, I reckon.”
No one spoke for a long minute, so Shaw cleared his throat again. “Gov’ment wagon, looked like. Two dead mules in the harness, and two missing.” He paused and looked up. “Three charred bodies in the wreck, had to been soldiers.”
“Huh! What’s soldiers doin’ out here? Soldiers always mean trouble,” the big man grumbled and took a sip from his tin cup. Shaw knew it wasn’t coffee.
Only the fire crackled in the dead silence, that and the horses stirring nervously back in the dark. Eyes turned that way, attuned to unnatural things. Johnson Begay rose, drawing the big knife from his belt and holding it low. He stepped out of the flickering light, his shadow rearing against the boulder behind him as he moved off to feel out the night.
They listened to the night-sounds for a spell. The Indian returned, his knife sheathed. “Cougar out there, in them quakies up the slope.” He remained back from the fire a little, his attention half tuned to the crisp darkness.
Shaw felt his nerves jangling, knowing how much danger simmered in the emerging moments. He kept his actions casual as he reached out with his left hand and gently tapped out his pipe. His right hand he kept near the Paterson Colt he kept on his left side for a cross-draw.
“These boys was just settin’ up camp when I got here, night before last,” the one called Cooper finally answered. “Wagon might’ve burned afore that, hey, Blackie?”
“Reckon so,” the burly one affirmed. “Funny, though, none of us seein’ no smoke.” He thought a moment. “Wind out of the north, though, warn’t it?” For a long moment they listened to the fire crackle.
Finally the old-timer spat another brown stream of juice between his hunkered knees. Shaw saw the dust jump when it hit. “Look like Injuns? ‘Rapaho or Cheyenne been out and around.”
“No-o-o, I don’t think it was Arapaho or Cheyenne,” Shaw responded rather quickly.
“Why don’t you just tell us about it, Stranger?” Blackie reared back, as if taking umbrage.
Wanting to ease the tension a little, Shaw lifted the tin cup from the rock in front of him. “Any joe left in that pot over there? This’ll take some tellin’, and my throat’s plumb dry.”
Blackie leaned forward as if rising to the bait, took up the pot, and poured the steaming black liquid into the newcomer’s cup. His beady eyes aggressively pierced Shaw’s face.
“Obliged,” Shaw nodded. He shifted his legs a little and settled back, the coffee now in his right hand. Saunders knelt in the dust to Shaw’s left, his hands resting on his knees. Blackie sat on a rock directly across the fire from him. The skinny, wild-eyed one called Cooper was to his right, fidgeting as he leaned against a bale of fur, his knees sticking up like two scraggly tree-stumps. The meat he’d skewered was beginning to sizzle over the coals.
Begay circled the fire, bent in to strategically place two more pieces of dry aspen in the flames. He sniffed loudly both times, and Shaw knew he was up to something. He stooped down to the fire once more, this time over between Blackie and the old-timer, and found a burning twig. With it he lit a Stogy and straightened back up, leaning against a boulder. He was now directly across the fire from Shaw, puffing happily on the cigar. Cooper ran his fingers through his straggly hair, and rubbed both hands up and down on his shiny blue trousers. Shaw marked them all in his mind very carefully. He thought he knew who he was looking for, but he wasn’t sure.
“We come up from the south,” he began, leaving out the part where he and Begay had only turned into the north-south trail about a mile south of the wagon. “Weren’t many tracks on the trail; little bit o’ rain the night before took out whatever was there, I reckon.”
“That’s so, it rained here, too,” Cooper affirmed. “Makes it hard to read sign, that’s sure.” He nodded his head with an odd little giggle.
“We smelled it before we got too near,” Shaw continued, remembering. “Smoke smell goin’ stale, ‘long with another kind o’ smell makes you think of something worse. We pulled our wiping sticks and saw to our priming.” His mind conjured up that same odd mix of smells in his nostrils, the same greasy bile taste in his mouth.
“Found the wagon there, like I said, pulled just off the road; the grass right around it had burned, too. Mules lyin’ dead in their leathers, one with a rear quarter butchered off. Thought it was Indians myself, at first.” Shaw kept his movements casual as he shifted the hot tin cup to his left hand.
“Not much in the way of tracks. We scouted around real careful before we rode in. Them three soldiers, they was piled up in the bed of the wagon, burned up pretty bad. Canvas was burned off the hoops, an’ the rest of the wagon was pretty charred. But I knew they was soldiers because you could see some scraps of their uniforms, and their leather belts and such.”
He slurped some of the thick, inky coffee.
“Find any sign at all, after that rain shower?” prompted the old-timer.
“These here mountain rain squalls,” Shaw began, “they’re hit and miss.” He took another sip and shifted slightly. Across from him, Blackie shifted also, very subtly. Next to Blackie, the old-timer had a fierce snarl of a grin set on his face, and his eyes glinted in the flicker of the crackling fire. “The rain put out that fire before it burned complete,” Shaw continued. “That’s how I knew for certain they was soldiers. But it didn’t rain much north of there.”
He let that sink in. The old-timer sent another brown stream of juice arcing down into the dirt, his eyes darting around the circle of men at the fire. Blackie’s tight grin didn’t reach his piggy little eyes. Cooper’s hands were twirling the skewer he’d used for the meat, and his eyes were twitching as he chewed with a nervous avidity.
“Well, stranger, I can read the tracks you’re layin’, plain as the rest of ‘em can,” Blackie placed both hands firmly on his knees. “So I’ll just say I rode in day before yesterday, runnin’ back to my outfit a day’s ride west o’ here all the way from Council Grove; trip both ways took me sixteen days. I’m plumb tuckered out, and I saw no wagon ner soldiers ner smoke. But if them soldiers was murdered, someone ought to be brought to account.”
“I seen a passel o’ ‘Rapahoes up Box Elder crick, headin’ north, day I got here,” Saunders threw in, spitting again.
“Funny thing,” Shaw cleared his throat. “Them soldiers was pretty badly burnt, but one of ‘em had a nice little round bullet hole in his skull, right above the bridge of his nose. Another had most of the left side of his head blown clean off. Couldn’t tell about the other.”
Shaw let the silence build for a while as he set down his tin cup and picked up his pipe once more. “Here’s what I think. I think someone rode right up to them, maybe even stopped to talk a bit, offered a chaw of tobacco, then pulled one or two of Colt’s Paterson models and give it to ‘em point blank. Then it was easy enough to load the valuable truck out o’ that wagon, load it on the mules he wanted and kill the other two to make it look like Indians, and set ‘er afire. Took nerve, I’ll say that. Cold-blooded nerve.” He coughed gently. “’Course, I can’t be sure.”
The tension whirled among the five men now. The old-timer’s eyes were sliding from one man to the other, Cooper’s hands were frozen on his sateen pants, and Blackie’s expression was as dark as the night’s shadows. Behind them, Begay puffed with seeming contentment, but his body was rigid.
“Once we found them tracks, a ways north, we follered ‘em mighty nigh to this place here. One horse,” he looked up, “and two mules. I figure that’s muley elk we’ve been eatin’, too.”
Things happened quickly then. Cooper brought up his hands as if to ward off a blow. Blackie turned to his right and started to bellow something. The old-timer’s hands flashed.
But the big shiny knife that Begay now held to Saunders’ throat inhibited his desire to do anything more with the two revolvers he now clutched in upraised hands.
Begay chuckled. “I knew it was him. He spits tobacco everywhere, and he stinks like what we smelled the other day, stinks like he been to a hog-roast.” Blackie and Shaw both reached out and took the pistols away from Saunders.
“You can’t pin it on me,” Saunders rasped. “’Sides, it’s no skin off your nose, is it? Take some o’ that plunder for yourself!”
“Don’t waste your breath, old man,” Blackie sneered. “Them mules you rode up with is Army mules, and I think I know what elk tastes like, and looks like, too.”
“Not only that,” Shaw began tying the old man up with some strips of buffalo rawhide. “We rode up to meet that wagon and escort it; one of the men you murdered was a cousin of mine, and I work for the Army. Your goose is plumb cooked.”
“You got no proof!” the old man sputtered.
“Four witnesses here,” Shaw responded. “Your tobacco gave you away first. No one else at this fire chews and spits, and we found your sign all around the wagon of those poor souls you murdered for a load of treaty gifts. Then there’s the mules, and we’ll find that plunder, too. No, you’re ridin’ with us down to Bents’, where the Dragoons are waiting for their friends to show up.”
After the culprit was securely tied with buffalo tugs and staked to a rope, Blackie shook the hands of both Shaw and Begay. “You’re quite a story-teller, Mister. You build a fine yarn, that’s for sure.”
“That’s what they tell me, sometimes,” Shaw replied. He clapped Begay on the back and said, “I’ll take the midnight watch, old Son, since you’re so clever with your nose.”

"Est Deus in Nobis"
Posts: 2902 | Location: Helena, Montana | Registered: 10 December 2004Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Good story, thanks for sharing.


"Better fare hard with good men than feast it with bad."
Thomas Paine
Posts: 649 | Location: Oregon | Registered: 27 June 2011Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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Very good story. Thanks for sharing. Now, how about the rest of the novel?... RH
Posts: 1128 | Location: Iowa | Registered: 15 December 2007Reply With QuoteReport This Post
Picture of Dick
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It does lend itself to some back-story and further development. But it's only a short story.


"Est Deus in Nobis"
Posts: 2902 | Location: Helena, Montana | Registered: 10 December 2004Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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But it's only a short story.

Yes, but it has potential to be a longer one. Good work. RH
Posts: 1128 | Location: Iowa | Registered: 15 December 2007Reply With QuoteReport This Post
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