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Sam Holthaus

Grade: 12

University High School

Instructor: Lee Fallon

Bald Butte

Short Story

Bald Butte

"Bald Butte, Bald Butte so lofty and so high

Carry me to Bald Butte

Where the plains wrap round the sky.

You can dig a hole on Bald Butte when I die."

Henry was born on Bald Butte and had heard those words all his life. His mother sang them each morning as the sun steadied itself over the snow-capped mountains. He never understood their meaning, but his mother's song mesmerized him. The growling tone of her voice. The way the words cut through the cruel morning air. The way she paused and held on to each word. It was dark, yet somewhere Henry found comfort in it.

As he grew older, Henry could no longer hold in his curiosity. One night he asked, "Mama, why do you always sing that song? Why would we have to carry you back to Bald Butte when you die? We live here. This is our home."

Henry's mother paused at the sink where she'd been washing dishes. She grabbed a towel hanging from the pantry door and began to dry her callused hands. She turned to Henry with a smile – a sight seldom seen, as Henry's mother was a rather stern ranch woman who rarely displayed anything past contentedness. "It's just something your father always sang," she said.

Henry looked down at his feet, a bit ashamed for bringing up the topic. He pictured that cross in the backyard under the Poplar tree, his father's name etched in its cold stone. Henry had never met his father when he was alive. The only time he had ever seen him was when he was a young boy. His father's body had been shipped to Henry's mother in a box made of sturdy white oak. His arms were folded, and his eyes were closed. Without shedding a tear, Henry's mother called to dig him a hole. Since that day, Henry's father remained six feet in the ground.

From what Henry's mother had told him, his father was a drifter. He had grown up in Bald Butte and had a gift for breaking horses. He met Henry's mother working as a wrangler up near Richville. He stayed long enough to see Henry's birth but took up drinking and gambling again and left. According to the sheriff that brought his body home, he drank himself to death somewhere near El Paso.

Henry's mother stood and began to walk towards the door. "C'mon," she said. "Let's go up to your grandpa's house, he's got something you're ready to see."

Not questioning his mother's word, Henry grabbed a coat and headed out behind her. The two walked up the road about two miles until they came to his grandfather's house. It was an old log cabin, hidden back in the sticks. Three windows and a door looked out on its crippled porch. As the two began up the drive, Henry could see the light stream of smoke cascade from the stone chimney on its side. Before they could even touch the porch, Henry's grandfather came out from the house holding his old musket.

"Who's dat on my land?" he shouted. Henry didn't blame the old man for not recognizing the two. He was blind in one eye and the other one was going the same.

"It's just us," Henry's mother called back. "Caroline and your grandson Henry."

Henry's grandfather lowered the gun and a smiled crept onto his face. "Well, I'll be damned. What a surprise. What brings y'all up here?"

Henry's mother walked up to the porch and gave the old man a hug. He grumbled and blushed behind his thick grey beard at her touch. "Well, I think it's time you show your grandson where he's come from. He's startin' to ask about him."

The old man looked up at her with his one good eye. He simply nodded in understanding. "Alright, let's go then," he gestured towards Henry. "We'll be back in a fortnight or two."

"Okay," Henry's mother smiled at him and began to walk back home. She waved at the two as she disappeared down the drive.

As Henry followed his grandfather back into the woods to his barn, he asked, "Where are we going grandpa?"

"I've got somethin' to show you near 'Berta. Somethin' your father woulda liked you to see."

Without another word, Henry walked out to the stable. The two mounted mighty steeds and made out west. They rode along the River Columbia until they came to a fork. Henry's grandfather slowly dismounted with a grumble and began fumbling through his worn saddle bag. He pulled out a folded map and began to study it.

"The Columbia goes on up north from here," he said. "Then it should come back 'round towards Snake River where we're at. Should be our best bet to get up towards Castle Mountain."

"What's there on Castle Mountain?" Henry asked.

"You'll see," his grandfather replied as he mounted his horse again.

After about five hours of riding, the pair came to a stop. Henry's grandfather knelt before the slopes of Castle Mountain and slid his finger across the frosted ground. Henry knelt down by his side and the two scanned the area.

"I tracked a team up here a few miles when I was younger," said Henry's grandfather. "We should be gettin' close." The old man pointed eastward, "Over yonder, Henry." The two began to traverse down the mountainside. As they came to a break in the dense Pine, their horses began to prick up their ears and stir uneasily. The two departed the forest and came upon a wide-open valley, its green fields reflecting off the stone-bound river. At the water's edge, a group of wild horses drank. Their shimmering fur gleamed as they swayed in the sunlight.

"Wow," Henry exclaimed, stunned at the sight.

Smiling, Henry's grandfather turned to him and put a hand on his grandson's shoulder. "These all used to belong to your father. He had 'em all up at my stables, but never got around to breakin' 'em. Before he left, he let 'em loose up here. Said there's no use in keepin' 'em locked up. He told me you should get one of 'em when you're old 'nough."

"Are you serious?" Henry asked in amazement.

"As a heart attack. Go on and go pick you one out."

As the two rode down to the river, Henry surveyed the group until he saw the one he wanted.

"That's my paint right there," Henry said quietly to himself. He pointed out to his grandfather a mighty horse with white patches running down its sides and face. Its back and legs gleamed with dark black fur. Its muscles danced with each movement.

"That one," Henry's grandfather said as he pointed towards the horse. Henry nodded his head in approval. "Alright, you just do like I show you, ya hear."

"I will, grandpa."

That night, with the help of his grandfather, Henry roped the horse. That stud put up a fight. It took every ounce of energy in Henry's body to keep himself from losing hold on it. For the next few days going back home, Henry broke the horse on the Montana line. As the old Blackfoot used to do, Henry ran the paint up and down the river and loped it through the hills. It bucked and snorted until the starch wore out of it. Together, they tore a trail through the northwest countryside headed back to Bald Butte.

As Henry got off the horse after a long ride home, his grandfather came up behind him in the barn holding a long object wrapped in leather.

"Henry, I think you're ready to have this," Henry's grandfather said as he handed the leather-wrapped item to the boy. Pulling back the leather, Henry found a gun. It was a .44 caliber rimfire Henry Repeater Rifle. "You're 'bound to explore, grandson. I know this because you're just like your pa was. This gun shares your name so you must treat it like a piece of yourself. If you do this, it'll keep you safe on your travels, long as you stay out of trouble."

***

As Henry grew older, he could not bring himself to work for any man. Like those horses he'd seen on Castle Mountain, all he wanted was to be free. He began to drift with the wind and found steady profit stealing on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. For months he tracked and robbed baron wagons carrying from the CP Rail. To him, there wasn't anything to fear or feel sorry about. He reckoned that no one across southern Alberta knew his name. Therefore, no one would find him.

One day, as Henry made his way south across the Montana border, he stopped at a saloon to fetch himself some whiskey. As he scaled its wooden steps, he was stopped by a poster hanging on one of the swinging doors. It read: "WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE" underneath a picture of himself. Shocked, Henry immediately stumbled away from the saloon and mounted his paint. Not knowing where else to go, he took off riding back to Bald Butte. He made it home faster than he had ever done before. When he got there, he ran to the graves of his mother, now deceased, and his father and collapsed before them.

"Mama, Pa, I've got somethin' worth confessin'," Henry said as he hung his head and began to cry. He told the gravestones what he had done. "I think I'm done in this time." Henry sat there feeling sorry for himself until the sun set and he fell asleep underneath the barren poplar tree. As the darkness fell, so did a soft snow that blanketed the ground. In a dream, Henry's parents came to him.

"You've got the devil on your shoulders," they said to him. "And the lawman on your tail. So, you better ride, Henry ride. You ain't got no friends to go your bail."

The next morning, Henry drew himself up from his icy bed. He shook the cold from his bones and mounted his horse once again. This time he rode and didn't look back. He only began to slow down as he left the U.S. and rode across a wolfer camp up in Cypress Hill. That night, Henry stopped to rest. He was about to fall asleep when a group of men in Confederate fatigues passed by on horseback. They turned around and he prayed they wouldn't recognize that he was a fugitive. As the men surrounded his camp, Henry's grip on his repeater grew stronger.

"Can I help y'all with something?" he asked the group. From what he could see in the dim light of his campfire, there were only three of them.

"Looks to me you're not from around here, are ya?" said a man with a sunken face and graying beard.

"No, sir. Just traveling up north to get away from the war. I'm not fixing to catch a bullet for either side. Seems to me like you're out of your neck of the woods too."

The men chuckled to themselves. "We've been out on the trail a mighty long time ourselves doing the same thing. Say, you mind if we camp here the night with you, partner."

Henry shook his head. "Not at all. It'd be my pleasure."

The men began to unload their saddlebags and set up camp. They joined Henry and sat around the fire. Before long, one of the men exclaimed to Henry, "Say, we got us a pretty good hand at makin' moonshine. For lettin' us stay the night we'll get ya some if you want it."

Henry nodded. The men whistled Dixie and set him up a still.

As they all drank together, the Johnny Rebs told Henry of the fall of Richmond a few days before. "They called it 'Evacuation Sunday'" one of the men said. "Them Yankees burned everything they could find. General Lee knew it was high time to get out of there. From what I've heard, the Confederacy surrendered today. The war's over. I reckon we did our best."

Henry sat there astounded. "Is that why y'all are headed up north?"

"You got that right," the bearded man said. "We ain't in a good way down south."

The men raised their shine in a solemn toast to the end of the war.

***

Henry woke the next morning like a corpse from the grave. The moonshine left him half blind and twice as haggard as he'd been the other day. Just as he was about to steady himself and begin packing up his camp, he felt a sharp pain as one of the soldiers took a cast iron skillet to his brain. Henry lay unconscious for a long while. He awakened with a striking headache and blood caked to the back of his skull. He looked around, but the men had stolen his horse and the rifle that shared his name.

With clenched hands, Henry swore to himself that he would find the men that had taken the only memories of his home. For years he had hunted animals back in Saskatchewan. These animals were no different. So, he tracked those former Johnny Rebs through the forest and the trees, up old castle mountain, and across the river Wapiti. As Henry came across a small hill, he knew he was getting close. He could hear the soft whickering of horses in the distance and the sharp laughter of men off the rocks. He crept slowly to the crest before stopping. Looking out, he could see the three men, still in their uniforms, watering their horses. They were all drinking and joking with each other. To their right, Henry could see his paint with his rifle still mounted in its holster.

"There's the men that done me wrong," Henry said to himself. "Lord, I'm gonna do them just the same."

Scaling the hill, Henry tore for the unsuspecting men and grabbed his repeater off his paint. He kissed the ever-loving barrel and lowered it to aim. With each shot, a man hit the dirt. When it was over, Henry reveled in the sound echoing off the hills and the silence that followed. He watched for any signs of life among the men but saw none. Content, Henry mounted his horse once again and was back up on the top. He began to ride away when he heard a loud crack from behind. Looking down, he could see where that southern slug chewed a hole right through his gut. He looked back in time to see that bearded reb's pistol drop from his hand. Then that paint took off running through the water and the mud. No matter how hard Henry tried, no force could stop that Alberta stud. Finally, Henry let go of the reins and fell hard to the ground. He propped himself up on an old Live Oak in time to watch his horse disappear into the tree line.

Henry just sat there laughing up his blood, and he was singing:

"Bald Butte, Bald Butte so lofty and so high

Carry me to Bald Butte

Where the plains wrap round the sky.

You can dig a hole on Bald Butte when I die."

Wall, Colter. "Bald Butte." Colter Wall. La Honda Records, 2017, track 11. https://music.apple.com/us/album/colter-wall/1207497393