FREE STORY! A Shot In The Dark

 Here is a delightful sample story from one of my TRUE pioneer story books for you to enjoy. Let yourself slip back in time with A SHOT IN THE DARK from "Isn't That Odd? Strange and Unusual Pioneer Stories"

          “Chris!” Sophie roughly shook my shoulder with her hand as we continued to whirl. I was beginning to feel annoyed. If she didn’t want to dance with me, there were plenty of other young ladies who would love to dance with a suave young man of 15.
          Yet something was wrong. Sophie never called me Chris. She always called me Christian.
           I opened my eyes in order to check the face of the girl I thought was Sophie. Instead of round blue eyes and rosy cheeks, I found myself looking into small brown eyes narrowed against the lamp light and cheeks bristling with stubble. I was face to face with Hector Keyes, and he didn’t smell like Sophie, either. The dance floor, the music, and all the pretty girls waiting in line to dance with me were gone in the blink of an eye. My heart sank clear down to the soles of my feet when I recognized the sheep camp. I was somewhere in the middle of a soggy summer night, and I was looking at Hector instead of Sophie. It might as well have been a nightmare.
          “I heard something,” Hector said.
          “Was it waltz music?” I asked sourly.
          Hector looked at me quizzically. Although he was older than me by a few years, I had decided he was certainly no wiser. “No,” he said, shaking his head slowly as though seriously considering the possibility of dance music. “It was an animal noise.”
          I groaned. My first man-sized job was not turning out as I expected. The thought of herding sheep for the summer had seemed idyllic. I could picture myself following the flock, shouldering my new gun as I stood on a craggy outcropping of rock, stoically guarding and protecting my charges as I earned my princely wage.
          Reality was grimmer than my daydream. The sheep were stupid. If one walked into a mud bog, they all walked into the mud. They bunched, then ran if a flurry of leaves blew across their path. They tried to crowd each other off cliffs in their hurry to see what was up ahead, even if it killed them.
          There didn’t seem to be such a thing as sleeping through the night any more. Bears and coyotes would invite themselves to the sheep supper table whenever they felt like it. Eagles would dive out of the sky and snatch a newborn lamb in the daylight. Big cats would skulk up in the darkness. You never knew just what you would find when you stumbled outside in your skivvies. If the moon was bright, you had to keep to the shadows and strain your eyes for a disturbance in the flock. Getting a clear shot at a bobcat or coyote was near impossible as they were small enough to blend in with the sheep.
          It made me wonder whose side the sheep were on, the way they milled about between the predator and the rifle, getting in the way of the bullet that could kill the enemy and save their woolly hides.
          If it was a cougar or a bear, you could spot them right off. One day only last week, I’d gotten a good shot off at a cougar, even drew blood, but I never found the cat. Might’ve been that it wasn’t bad enough wounded to drop it. At least with the sting of a bullet in it’s hide, it would think twice before making an easy meal of my sheep again.
          After being initiated into the very real hazards and dangers of herding those wooly idiots that some people thought were soft and fluffy enough to count themselves to sleep by, I was dubious when we met up with Dave, a young man whom Hector introduced to me as an exceptionally good sheep herder. I didn’t believe Hector. Dave was deaf. I could grant him the possibility that he was a sharp lookout in the daytime, but how could he protect the sheep in the dark of night if he wasn’t able to hear a predator as it slunk it’s way toward the flock?
          It was late in the evening when our flocks joined up. We decided to eat together that night and trade news. For the most part, Dave followed the conversation so well that I almost forgot he was deaf. When I turned my head to talk to Hector, Dave put his hand on my arm and said, “Face me when you speak, even if you’re talking to Hector.” He smirked, “I’m better looking than him anyway.” Dave was quite skilled at reading our lips.
          When we finally turned in, Dave’s camp wagon was parked next to ours. That night, I heard the dogs barking, and then the chilling sound of a coyote howl. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my rifle, hurrying outside to save our flock. I was ready to defend Dave’s too. I knew he would need some help.
          To my surprise, Dave was already outside of his camp wagon, rifle at the ready. He saw me and gave me a little salute before he faded into the night to circle around his flock and deal with the danger.
          I didn’t figure the moonlight was bright enough to carry on a lip-reading conversation with Dave, so I confronted him the next morning at breakfast. “How did you know there was a coyote out there?” I demanded as soon as I saw him face to face.
          Dave smiled smugly. “I felt the vibration when the dogs barked,” he said, “And I could feel the answering vibration of the coyote howl.” It didn’t seem possible, but it had to be, because I couldn’t think of any other explanation.
          We had parted our flocks, and now Dave was off somewhere with his sheep, probably sleeping soundly through a still night, while I was stuck with Hector and his keen hearing.
           “Time to go, Chris,” Hector said, “You check around west and I’ll circle around to the east. Meet you back here,” and he was gone.
          I pulled on my shoes and shrugged into my jacket. I grabbed my rifle and stepped outside. The ground sucked at my shoes like a giant leech. The air was damp from the earlier rain, and the wind blew cool, sending shivers down my uncovered neck. I had discovered that mountain summers could be downright cold, and tonight was no exception.
          I turned up my collar and decided I would make a quick circle, then get back to my bed before it could cool off completely. After all, I hadn’t heard any noise. It was Hector who’d heard it. Let him get the varmint, if there was one.
          I started out with my customary long strides. I could keep my bearings for a few yards beyond the camp, but once I was well out into the open, I realized what my haste had prevented me from noticing before. With the tired out rain clouds resting in the sky, covering the moon and stars like a thick comforter, there was no heavenly light.
          I slowed, and then stopped. I briefly thought about turning back, but I wasn’t going to let Hector needle me about getting lost in the dark. He sometimes thought he was superior because he was a seasoned herder and this was my first year. I didn’t plan to give him reason to harass me tonight.
          I grasped the rifle in both hands and extended it before me, feeling my way with my feet, using the rifle as a sort of barrier between me and whatever was out there. I slipped my finger into the trigger guard and gripped the stock firmly with my other hand. The world was strangely silent, as though the clouds muffled out sound as well as light. The cold breeze stirred my hair, making me shiver and regret not pulling on my hat. Even the sheep were silent, and I found myself wishing to hear a small bleat or the hollow clopping of a sheep’s bell. But there was nothing. Nothing except the disembodied whisper of leaves as the invisible breeze stirred them to momentary life. The sound seemed unnatural in this total darkness. It should have been quiet, like a cave. Or a tomb.
          The thought flashed through my mind that maybe I was dead. But dead men didn’t carry rifles, did they? A shiver tickled my spine as I took another careful step.
          Suddenly, my feet slipped in the traitorous mud, forcing me down to one knee as my hands flew out to catch my balance. Somehow I managed to keep my grip on my gun. In a desperate effort to save myself from falling forward, my arm brought the weapon back toward my body. The wooden stock slammed into my knee, making what I knew would be a large, colorful bruise. The impact on my leg caused my finger to squeeze off a shot.
          The blast tipped my precarious balance and I ended up on my seat in the mud. I didn’t care. I’d had enough. Hector could say whatever he wanted to, I was returning to camp.
          I turned and blundered back the way I had come. I worried that in the darkness I would miss the wagon, but like a homing pigeon, I found it with only a few stumbles over low brush and one bruised shin.
          I stood my rifle it its corner and crawled into bed, jacket and all. I trembled and shivered like a pup kicked out in the snow.
          “Hector?” I whispered hoarsely through my chattering teeth, although I didn’t think he was there. I got no reply. That was odd, since he had left before me and he was a young man with long legs. He could easily have finished his circle and returned by now. Unless he had trouble finding his way in the dark, too. But he’d never admit that.
          I began to warm up and to relax, letting my body sink into the straw tick and my muscles turn to mush. My mind was drifting pleasantly back toward my dreams when suddenly the awful thought struck me that maybe Hector wasn’t back because he couldn’t get back. Maybe I had gotten disoriented out there in the impossible darkness of this eerie night and had crossed over into the path of Hector’s circuit. It could be that when I slipped and fell he could have been standing right in front of me and I wouldn’t have seen him. He could have been standing right in the path of the bullet.
          I sat up and started shivering again, but not from cold. Had I killed a man? I had to find out. But how would I ever find him in the dark? I desperately groped toward the table, searching for the lantern or a candle or any source of light so that I could find Hector. Maybe he was just wounded. Maybe I could help him, save him from bleeding to death.
          My hands stopped their scrabbling search when I heard a scraping sound outside. Was it a branch? Or an animal claw? I strained my ears. Nothing but a low moan from the wind sounded outside.
          The wagon shifted, and I yelped in surprise. Something was coming in.
           “Chris! What did you get?” Hector said as he clumped inside.
           “Are you all right?” I blurted.
           “Kind of cold, but nothing ate me while I was out there. Where were you? Not doing your job? Out shooting just for fun?”
          “I had an accident.”
          The banter left Hector’s voice. “You hurt?” he asked.
          “No.”
          “What did you shoot at?”
          “I just fell and my gun went off,” I said, with more edge to my voice than I meant it to have.
          I thought Hector would say more, get in a few more digs, but he just rolled himself into his blankets and said, “Sweet dreams.”
          In the morning, Hector was shaking my shoulder again. “Chris!” he said.
          I swatted at him. “Go away!” I said. I was still tired and anxious from the night before, and had no desire to get out of my bunk yet.
          “Chris, you’ve got to come see!” Hector persisted. He was almost squeaking, he was so excited.
          “What?” I said, flinging back the covers and staring him hard in the face.
          “Outside,” Hector said, leading the way.
          I stuck my feet in my boots and made my way outside. The sky was clearing of clouds, a few ragged tatters moving reluctantly toward the horizon. The sheep were trading their morning news with muffled “Baa’s.” It seemed that the events of the night before had been more of a dream than waltzing with Sophie.
          Hector was following the dents my feet had made in the wet soil the night before. Becoming curious now that I was up, I looked around to get my bearings on the path I had taken. I was off by a few yards from where I thought I was, but all in all, I was pretty close, and proud of it.
          “This is where you were standing,” Hector said.
          I turned my attention back to my fellow herder and stopped dead in my tracks. Lying about four paces beyond Hector was a mountain of black fur.
          “A couple more paces and you would have been bear bait,” Hector laughed shrilly. “Instead, you got him right between the eyes!”
          When my legs would move again, I examined the bullet wound, then circled the huge black bear, measuring the scant distance that had been between him and me and counting my blessings with every step I took. 


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