“The Short Route” is one of the first stories I ever had published; it appeared in Vampire Dan’s Story Emporium in Spring of 1998. Of all my short stories, this is still the one that inspires the largest number of “this should be a movie” comments.
It was the third night out from the ranch, and Charlie still couldn’t get over the stars. There were so many up there, he’d have sworn he saw every star there could possibly be. He tried to count them every night, but never got very far before he couldn’t remember if he had counted that particular one or this particular one; and tonight was no different.
Charlie gave up counting and concentrated on relieving himself and then headed back to camp, still staring into the sky. As he got closer to the fire, the stars began to fade, until all he could see were the brightest ones, just like back in the city.
Chase’s sharp voice interrupted Charlie’s mooning. “Watch your feet, New York!” He looked down and saw he was about to put his foot into a frying pan full of grease. As he stepped over it, Chase—it wasn’t his real name, but he liked you to call him that and got ornery if you didn’t—added, with real concern in his voice: “Don’t go slipping and breaking your neck, New York. Gonna need every man we got tomorrow.”
Charlie sat on the ground next to Chase and picked up a tin cup. The old guy grunted and filled it with evil-looking black stuff that glistened in the firelight. Charlie took a sip, made a face. Tasted like Chase had started with a barrel full of coffee and boiled it down to this. Chase saw his expression and chuckled. “Too strong for your New York tongue, tenderfoot?”
Charlie knew better than to let Chase think anything of the sort. “Not strong enough,” he said. Then: “Is something gonna happen tomorrow?”
“Not if we’re lucky,” Chase said.
Chase lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “Tomorrow we’ll be coming up alongside the Red Cliffs.”
“Yeah?” Charlie said. “So what?”
“So,” Chase said, “why do you think they’re called the Red Cliffs?”
“Because they got red rocks in them?” Charlie said.
Chase laughed a you-don’t-know-shit laugh. “Sure,” he said. “Sure, that’s why. Forget I said anything.” He lifted up the coffeepot and held it over the fire for a few minutes.
“Chase?” Charlie said.
Chase pulled the pot back, poured himself a cup. One of the other hands came by and got some, too. When the other man had gone, Charlie said again: “Chase?”
“Why’re they called the Red Cliffs, if it ain’t the rocks?”
“Well,” Chase said, “when first I started this run, twenty-five years ago, there was a split in the cliff, a canyon, just barely big enough for a couple a men to walk side-by-side. All twisty and curvy. Now, I was barely older’n you, back in them days, and just like you I knew everything. ‘Stay away from that canyon,’ old Georgie—he used to be Clinton’s top wrangler—told me. ‘There’s nothing in there but trouble.’ Mind you, telling a young hothead to stay away from someplace is the surest way to make him go running off to explore it, and that’s what I did, that very night. Me and my partner Willie.”
“Willie? You mean—”
Chase nodded. “Lame Willie, the cook back at the ranch. That’s right. Course, back then he wasn’t no Lame Willie yet, he was just Willie. See, that was before the thing took his leg off, right at the knee.” He stopped and took a drink of coffee and looked contentedly into the night.
After a moment, Charlie said: “What thing?”
“Well, I never did see it clear,” Chase said. “Lemme start at the beginning. See, Willie and me, we rode out to the canyon a little while after dark. We left our horses outside the opening and we took our lanterns and walked up it side by side. Walked for a good fifteen minutes, but the canyon folds back over on itself so much we probably weren’t more’n a hundred feet in as the crow flies, when all of a sudden we hear this noise from up ahead.”
“What kind of noise?” Charlie said.
“Like this.” Chase inhaled deeply and noisily, snorted, and then smacked his lips.
Charlie laughed. “Sounds like me at dinnertime,” he said.
“Yeah,” Chase said. “Don’t it?”
“Oh,” Charlie said after a moment. “Oh, I get it.”
“So did we, New York,” Chase said. “So did we. We just kinda looked at each other, and we looked up ahead, but the canyon was so curvy we couldn’t see what it might be. So Lame Willie—he was just Willie then, mind you—he says, ‘Let’s get outta here, Chase.’ And I says, ‘It’s just a coyote, Willie.’ Cause I knew everything back then.
“We turned our lanterns up so’s we could see farther, and we kept going, and we didn’t hear no more sounds. Well, before too much longer we come to the end of the canyon, and it ends in a cave, right? Tall as a barn door and nearly as wide, but not very deep. Almost like something hollowed out the rock there, you know? And Willie says, ‘Okay, we done it, we come all the way to the end. Let’s go.’ But me, I take a closer look, and isn’t there gold in the walls? A vein of it like you never seen, thick as my head. I pried a little piece of it out with my knife.”
“Yeah. Want a see?” Chase reached into his shirt and pulled out a misshapen golden lump with a leather string threaded through it. He held it up in the firelight so Charlie could get a good look, then let it drop. It thumped against his chest. “I know it looks awful big, but it was just a little piece,” Chase said. “There was lots more.”
“So why ain’t you rich?” Charlie said.
“Cause no sooner do I take my piece than we hear that noise again,” Chase said. “Coming from right above our heads, it is. And this smell comes down on us like you wouldn’t believe. You know how a dead cow smells after it’s been lying in the sun a spell?”
“Course I do,” Charlie lied.
“Compared to this, that’s two-dollar French perfume,” Chase said. “Anyway, we done light on out of there. We can hear the thing behind us, snorting and stomping and claws all a-clicking, but we don’t look back, no sir. We get all the way to the end of the canyon, where we left the horses—they’re getting nervous, a couple more seconds and they might a bolted—and we jump right onto their backs, and—”
“I thought you said it took Willie’s leg.”
“Later,” Chase said, staring at the fire. “Not quite yet. So we gallop off across the valley, me in front, Willie behind. But we ain’t got far before I hear him holler—scream, more like—and I look back and I see his horse go down and him tumble through the dirt. I turn around and find him on the ground, moaning and rocking, bleeding a river from where his leg used to be, and he’s saying, ‘The beast took my horse. The beast took my horse.’ And not far off I hear something snarling around, something big, having itself a snack.
“Well, I got Willie onto my horse and rode like hell outta there, and when we got back to the camp I took him to Clinton—you met Clinton?”
“I’ve seen him around,” Charlie said. Clinton owned the ranch and all the cattle that were out there in the darkness, snorting and huddling.
“Well, Clinton, he knows some medicine, so he burns poor Willie’s leg to stop the blood, and he bandages Willie up and puts him against that big rock over there to keep him comfortable, which saved his life when the stampede come through later; and—”
“Patience, New York. Patience,” Chase said. “After he patches Willie up some, Clinton says to me, ‘Where you two been off to, Chase?’ So I told Clinton where we gone, and I told him what we heard and what we smelled.”
“Did Clinton believe you?”
“Well, he wasn’t none too sure,” Chase said. “But he figures something musta taken Willie’s leg off, so he decides to go back to the canyon come daylight and dynamite the thing out. But while we was making plans—him and me, Georgie, and five or six of the others—we hear this roar from out’n the valley, and don’t the cattle up and stampede? They make right for us, cause the damn thing—the beast—he’s tearing into them from the other side. Well, the bunch of us ain’t got no chance to get out of the way; we scarcely got time to climb up a tree. That tree right over there.” Chase pointed at a dead and scraggly-looking juniper off the other side of camp, a pale, spindly phantom at the edge of the firelight.
“So the cattle are running by below us, and the tree is shaking fit to throw us all out. Poor Charlie Washington—hey, he got the same name as you, how about that?—the tree shakes so much the branch he’s hanging onto breaks, and down he goes into the stampede and gets trampled all to death. We could hear them cattle stepping all over him.
“Well, the stampede finally goes on by and those of us that’re left climb out a the tree. Charlie’s body ain’t nowhere to be found. Some a the other wranglers—the ones who were on their horses, or who got on them before the stampede come through—ride off to try and bring the cattle back, but the five of us—I think it was five—are left there around the tree, no horses, no nothing, just our long-johns. Cattle stampeded the fire right out. Only me, Clinton, and Georgie have our guns; God knows where the rest of our stuff is.
“So there we was, under that tree, and before too awful long we hear these sounds out in the dark, something big moving around. It comes in close and then it starts howling. Freezes the sap in the tree to my back, that howl does. And I just start shooting at it, and that sets Georgie off, and the two of us are unloading in the direction it come from. Clinton is hollering at us to stop, but it don’t do no good. So we both run out of bullets, and it’s quiet for a second or two, and then this thing comes flying out of the dark.” Chase swirled the coffee around in the pot. “I didn’t get a good look at it, like I said. Just claws, each one the size of a man’s head, eyes yellow and big as the sun, and my God, a smell like you wouldn’t believe. The beast ripped poor Georgie right open, all his insides come spilling out right at the foot of that tree.” Chase nodded toward the juniper. “It pulled him away, and then Clinton done stuck his shotgun right out in the dark and pulled the trigger, and boom! There was this howl that I swear killed that juniper dead as it is now. After that, the thing didn’t come back; but we never did find Georgie’s body. Just his guts and a few little pieces. We put them in a box the next day and gave them a proper burial.”
“What about the beast?” Charlie said.
“Well, we go to its canyon the next day, Clinton and me and three that are able. Along the way we find four dead cattle, all ripped open like poor Georgie, and half-eaten to boot. And right outside the canyon, we find what’s left of Willie’s horse. Well, Clinton and the guys take one look at the canyon and don’t want no part of it. Can’t say as I blame ‘em. All we done is dynamite the opening, seal up the canyon as best we could.” Chase scowled into the night. “Thing could still be there, for all I know, but I ain’t seen it since that night and I hope never to see it again.”
Charlie said, “Why we come this way if there’s a beast in the canyon?”
“Cause if we don’t come through the valley, we got to go all the way around the hills and that takes at least another week,” Chase said. “This is the short route. We just keep extra wranglers on their horses, extra bullets in the guns, and extra strong coffee in the pot.” He poured out the remains of the coffee at the fringes of the fire, making the flames pop and hiss.
Charlie sat by the fire as Chase lumbered off and settled in to sleep in the lee of a great red rock; and it was some time before he realized Chase still hadn’t told him why they were called the Red Cliffs.
The next day, Charlie was on the right of the herd, last one on that side. Chase had put him there yesterday. Said Charlie was a natural, he had; and Chase handed out compliments like they were hundred-dollar bills or his sister’s children, so Charlie knew he must mean it.
He was distracted today, though. They had drawn up near the cliffs, and Charlie was scanning them for signs of the landslide Chase said they’d set off to seal in the beast. In the daylight, Chase’s story sounded like so much horseshit, but damn, he told it like he believed it.
Then again, Chase told everything like he believed it.
Five, maybe six miles from where they’d camped, Charlie spotted it, a jagged crack in the cliff wall. It was surrounded by rubble, but the opening itself was clear, like something had dug itself out. He looked around. The closest other wrangler was way far ahead of him. Charlie hollered to him that he was gonna stop for a second, but the guy didn’t even turn around.
Hell, Charlie thought, he’d only be gone for a minute anyway.
He spurred the horse over to the cliffside, dismounted, walked up to the crack. The opening was plenty wide, but it quickly narrowed to only a couple of yards across, just like Chase had said. He sniffed the air, but all he smelled was dust.
“You’re full of shit, Chase,” Charlie said.
He thought about the old man’s necklace, and wondered if it had really come from here. Maybe that was why Chase told his beast story—to keep curious people like him out of the canyon, away from the gold.
Maybe he’d just take a quick look.
He patted his horse’s flank and started up the crack. Like Chase had said, it twisted and turned like a carelessly-dropped ribbon. He looked up. The walls were smooth and nearly vertical, leaving a string of brilliant blue sky overhead. The ground sloped slightly upward, strewn with little rocks and the occasional parched scrub plant somehow growing despite the shadows.
After he put several turns between him and the outside, it became dead silent. No more cattle snorts. No more distant shouts and whoops. Nothing but his own footsteps and his own breath, and even those sounded deadened and flat. He didn’t think he’d ever heard it so quiet before. He stopped a minute just to hear the lack of sound, tilted his head and looked at the sky and wondered how many stars you could see from here.
That was when he noticed something gleaming in the wall a couple yards above his head.
He moved to the other side of the canyon to get a better look, and damned if it wasn’t a whip-thin line of gold snaking down at an angle from above. The son-of-a-bitch had been telling the truth, Charlie thought. There really was gold in here.
He took off up the canyon, keeping an eye on the vein of gold. It appeared and disappeared with the gully’s curves, but it kept on a downward angle, and by the time Charlie rounded the last corner and came to the cave Chase had described, it had reached a level where he could get at it and had gotten as wide as his head. There was a walnut-sized chunk missing from it. Maybe from the nugget Chase had pried out, nigh on thirty years ago.
Charlie drew his own knife, jabbed it into the glittering rock, worked it back and forth, trying to get his own piece of Chase’s treasure. And just as a nugget popped loose, a sudden gust of hot, moist, foul air puffed his hat down onto his head.
He slowly looked up.
He saw something clinging to the rock maybe ten feet above his head, something broad and squat and shining in the dimness. Its head was enormous, half as big as Charlie’s horse maybe, with eyes the size of sauce pans and a wide, grimacing mouth filled with row upon row of sharp golden teeth. This vast maw opened as Charlie stared at it, revealing a long deep throat and a pebbly black tongue flopping back and forth. The beast made a hungry, slurpy smacking sound.
Charlie let go of the knife and fumbled for his gun.
The beast released its grip on the stone and fell upon him, barbed claws flashing like golden lightning.
Chase trotted toward the rear of the herd. Charlie-boy had gone missing and a couple of the cattle he was supposed to be watching had wandered off, distracted by a patch of greenery that grew where a small creek flowed out of the cliffs. He sent a couple of the wranglers over to retrieve the strays, then looked back the way they’d come. He had an idea he knew where Charlie had gone. Sure enough, when he rode back to the canyon, Charlie’s horse was standing there patiently waiting for him to come back, chewing on some weeds that grew up out of the tumbled boulders.
Chase yelled, “Charlie-boy!”
He dismounted and went to Charlie’s horse and took its reins. It followed him back to his own animal, waited as he climbed back into the saddle. Chase stayed there a minute or two, looking at the wreckage of their attempt to cage the beast. They should’ve known better, he thought. Thinking they could lock up something like that with a puny little rockslide. Even if it had held, the thing could climb like a son-of-a-bitch. He’d seen it go right up the side of the cliff like a God damn squirrel scooting up a tree. That’s how it got the drop on them when he and Clinton and thirteen other men come out to kill it, all them years ago. Gone out with fifteen, come back with seven, and nothing to show for it but empty guns and horses half dead with fright.
Charlie-boy wasn’t coming out, he decided. He gave his horse a little kick and trotted away from the canyon, leading the other horse alongside.
It was a bad business, it really was, Chase thought, feeding this damn thing every time they did a cattle drive; but horses and cattle were expensive, and this seemed to be the only way to keep it away from them. Hardest part was finding young hotheads, and keeping the story from getting out.
But that was the price of driving cattle on the short route past the Red Cliffs.