Western Short Story
Joshua and the Buffalo Hunter
Rich Ritter

Western Short Story

Riding the feisty appaloosa west on the Oregon Trail, Joshua Hotah fidgeted in the wind-scoured saddle he had purchased in Lincoln, Nebraska, and considered his four years of wandering since leaving Fort Wallace. Sensing a subtle tension on the reins, the appaloosa slowed, and then feeling a slight tug to the right, she swung around to the east. Distracted by an unsettling remembrance, the better part of a minute passed before Joshua noticed that the late afternoon sun now warmed his back instead of his face. His dreamy thoughts evaporated, and he reached down and stroked the appaloosa’s short mane. “You are a fine horse—the finest I have ever known—but you should not believe everything I tell you. What if I had fallen asleep in the saddle? We might have gone the wrong direction many miles before finding out. And then we could be lost, too.” Joshua pulled on the reins. The appaloosa twirled smoothly and continued west. “But I should not forget the time when I slept so soundly I fell from the saddle. It is to your credit that you waited for me and did not run away.”

A rifle shot echoed beyond a grassy hillock some distance to the north. Joshua pulled the reins and the appaloosa stopped. After a short wait, a second shot crackled the tranquil air. Joshua listened until the echoes had faded into the flowing prairie grasses. “I know the sound of the rifle. I have heard it before. We should ride to the sound and meet the one who owns it.” The appaloosa glanced back at Joshua and snorted. “Yes, then we are in agreement.” Joshua nudged the appaloosa and she galloped off the trail to the north. The appaloosa raced a thousand feet up the southern slope of the grassy hillock and plunged over the smooth crest. Another thousand feet to the north, a magnificent herd of buffalo stretched east and west far beyond the boundary of Joshua’s vision. A third shot reverberated, and Joshua’s head snapped to the visage of a lone man sitting south of the milling herd, about 400 feet away. Joshua slowed the appaloosa to an easy walking gait. He bent down and whispered into the animal’s peaked ear, “Do not be afraid, my spirited companion. It is only a buffalo hunter. I’m sure he has no interest in horses such as you.”

Joshua and the appaloosa trotted up to the buffalo hunter until they stood ten feet behind him. The appaloosa whinnied stridently, spooking the nearest cluster of buffalos. The frightened buffalos began scattering in different directions. Panic soon rolled through the herd, and the agitated animals stampeded. The buffalo hunter hurriedly loaded another round in an effort to take one more animal, but the agitated herd erupted into a full run and veered to the northeast away from his position. The man released his finger from the double-set trigger of the Sharps. He lowered the buffalo rifle and scooted around on his butt to see who had ruined his afternoon of hunting. Then he scooted up to his knees and stood, the rifle dangling in his right hand.

“Who the hell are you, and what on God’s green earth are you doing out here?”

Joshua studied the stocky man who now confronted him. He perused the wide-brimmed-round-topped-gray-felt hat with a chunk of buffalo hide and a feather tied to the rear of the brim with a knotted length of leather. He eyed the man’s flowing brown beard, which someone had apparently trimmed with a dull knife. He examined the man’s dark-red shirt with a ragged tear near the collar. He inspected the man’s leather chaps with uneven rows of leather fringe clumped together in three places with dried mud. He scrutinized the man’s leather boots, covered in buffalo dung. “My name is Joshua Hotah. I am searching for my parents.”

The buffalo hunter noted Joshua’s gentle features, bronze complexion, and dusty black hair tied into a ponytail at the back. He also noticed the moccasins and the dark blue uniform shirt of the U.S. Cavalry with the gold buttons missing. “What the hell are you? Some kind of half-breed Indian scout, or something?”

Joshua answered flatly, “My mother is Lakota Sioux. My father is English, and a buffalo hunter like you. I was a U.S. Cavalry scout for two years. I am finished now.”

The buffalo hunter grunted. “English, huh. And an Indian squaw for a mother. And somehow they got together out here on the damn prairie and made you? Hard to believe.”

“What do you mean?”

The buffalo hunter ignored Joshua and nestled his rifle down on a leather scabbard. He fingered a booger from his nose and flicked it in the general direction of the disappearing herd, then tromped up to Joshua until close enough to give the appaloosa a kiss. “Your damn horse needs to learn a few manners. I’ve been tracking that herd for three days, and when I finally get them in my sights I only bag three animals before they panicked. That’s only one buffalo a day by my reckoning. Now I’ve got to chase after the damn varmints all over again.”

Joshua refused to apologize for the appaloosa. “Speaking of manners, what is your name? I did not hear you mention of it.”

“My name? Why sure. My name’s John Runyan. And like you already observed, I’m a buffalo hunter by trade. But I don’t plan to do this my entire life. I’ve got bigger plans once I make my fortune.”

A little more relaxed, Joshua set his hands on the saddle horn and shifted in the saddle. “Bigger plans? Like what?”

John Runyan grinned, exposing teeth stained from nearly constant use of chewing tobacco. “Bigger plans! Like moving to California and finding a nice place on the ocean. I’ve been told by someone who’s seen it that the Pacific Ocean is beautiful and you can’t help but stare at it until your eyes are sore from the looking.”

“The Pacific Ocean? I do not know of it.”

John Runyan slapped his thigh. “It’s easy to find, my boy. Just head due west and you can’t help but run into it. It’s big—bigger than you’ve ever seen.”

Joshua Hotah leaned back. “I was heading west on my way to Fort Laramie before I heard the shot. I should like to see it someday.”

John Runyan pulled at his beard. “Fort Laramie? Now that you mention it, I might head there myself.”

“Then you know how far it is? I am low on cartridges for my Henry. A man in a wagon told me I could buy some at Fort Laramie.”

“Not more than 10 miles, my boy. And you can buy them bullets and anything else you might be wanting at the Sutler’s Store. We can get there before the sun sets if we hurry. Give me a hand skinning these measly three buffalo and loading the wagon and we can get there sooner. Thanks to your horse it’s turning out to be a more relaxing day than I expected.”

“You can butcher three buffalo in such a small time?”

John Runyan looked up at the cloud-speckled sky and cackled. “There’s no market for the meat worth the effort. I can get over two dollars a hide from a seller at Fort Laramie, maybe three if the hides are clear.”

“You leave the meat to rot on the ground?”

“You’ve got the idea, my boy. It’s the only way to make any decent money in this trade. Three is nothing. Why, I’ve left over 200 carcasses rotting on the ground on a good day. Now let’s get cracking. Time’s a wasting.”

“I thought you said you had to chase after the herd again?”

“I did. But when you mentioned Fort Laramie, I changed my mind. I’ve got a certain whore I want to check on before the night’s over.”

“You can find a whore at this Sutler’s Store?”

John Runyan spoke with renewed excitement as he slid the buffalo rifle into the leather scabbard. “Probably can, although I’ve never tried at that particular mercantile. No, my boy. After we buy you some bullets at Sutler’s Store, we’re heading to the Three-Mile Hog Ranch. And I’ve got a whore in mind for you too. I think she’s just the one for a half-breed like yourself.”

“A whore for me?”

“Yes, my boy. I can tell you are in desperate need of a whore by the sorry look of you.”

Joshua squirmed in the saddle and the appaloosa shivered. “I don’t know. I’ve never slept with a woman before. What is her name?”

John Runyan gathered up two bandoleers of bullets, a dented canteen, and a frayed woolen blanket before speaking with a tinge of disgust in his voice. “You don’t sleep with a whore, unless you’re willing to pay a lot of money for absolutely nothing. Her name’s Martha Canary, and she’s just the one for the likes of you.”

♦ ♦ ♦

John Runyan tugged the brim of his hat down to shade his eyes from the sun. He clicked his tongue and snapped the leather reins to encourage the pair of horses pulling his wagon—now loaded with a paltry three buffalo hides and one forlorn buffalo tongue—to a brisker pace. Joshua Hotah heel-tapped the appaloosa and accelerated until he drew even with John Runyan. One of the wheels bounced over a sun-hardened wagon rut then got all tangled up in some prairie grass before jerking a big clod out of the ground.

Joshua Hotah yelled above the noise of the trudging horses and grinding wagon wheels. “How much more to Fort Laramie?”

John Runyan clicked his tongue again. “Just over the gentle rise up ahead. Nestled in a big loop of the Laramie River. Can’t miss it…unless you’re a damn fool.”

Joshua cupped his hand around his ear. “Who is a damn fool?”

John Runyan shook the reins and grunted. “Never mind, ya damn fool.”

The wagon shuddered up the trail to the top of the gentle rise, then momentarily slowed before pitching to the other side. The horses broke into an exuberant trot; the wagon rattled violently and John Runyan bounced comically on the wood seat. Without prompting, the nimble appaloosa jumped to a gallop and raced ahead of the wagon. Less than a mile away, the buildings and tents and roads of Fort Laramie spread from bank to bank of a looping bend in the Laramie River. In the center, a large parade ground rimmed with buildings and punctuated with two flagpoles. And in the distance, two long files of cavalry returning from patrol. The last flare of the sun settled below the smooth hills beyond the encampment and the sky turned pale red.

♦ ♦ ♦

John Runyan, the Sharps buffalo rifle clamped in one hand and the forlorn buffalo tongue dangling from the other, threw open the heavy whitewashed-wood-door and stomped into Sutler’s Store with practiced bravado. Joshua Hotah trailed closely behind, momentarily concealed by John Runyan’s ample shadow. Two kerosene lamps suspended from the ceiling, one with a spherical frosted glass shade and one with a conical brass shade, flickered when the door slammed against the wall. Three soldiers drinking and playing cards at a small table in the narrow barroom ignored the commotion. A large buffalo head mounted on the wall at the far end of the barroom gawked into the somber distance. John Runyan glanced around the store, then strolled across the dusty wood-planked floor up to the long brown-stained wood counter stretched out in front of rows of wall-mounted shelves—festooned with cans, wash bowls and pitchers, china plates and cups, coffee pots, cast iron skillets, glass bottles filled with colorful liquids, brass buckets, empty glass jars, dark brown wood boxes with gold letters emblazoned on the sides, ceramic jugs, and all manner of unusual merchandise—and smacked the bloody tongue down next to a set of scales with brass weighing pans. He glared at the slender, bespectacled man standing behind the counter and shook the heavy buffalo rifle. “How much for this tongue? I’ve got three buffalo hides out in the wagon too. How much?”

The bespectacled man winced in horror at the monstrous tongue and the trade counter now splattered with glossy blobs of coagulated buffalo blood. “I just cleaned this counter, sir. No more than ten minutes ago. And now look at it.”

John Runyan spat on the floor. “Damn nice counter. How much?”

The bespectacled man tilted his spectacles and sneered. “Give you two dollars each for the hides, and 25 cents for the tongue.”

John Runyan recoiled at the offer. “25 cents? Why, I could get at least three dollars for this tongue at one of those restaurants where people dress up to eat.”

The bespectacled man sneered a second time. “Then you should take it to one of those restaurants right now and sell it to them. I’ll give you no more than 25 cents.”

John Runyan pushed the tongue across the counter until it nearly touched the white sleeve of the bespectacled man. “Alright you good-for-nothing cheapskate of a scoundrel. I’ll take the 25 cents, and the six dollars for the hides,” then he nodded at Joshua, “and my friend here needs some rounds for his rifle. Got any?” Joshua peeked around John Runyan’s shoulder.

The bespectacled man leaned to the right until he could see Joshua clearly in the light of one of the kerosene lamps. “We’ve got all kinds of ammunition here, but we don’t sell to Indians.”

John Runyan slammed his palms on the bloody counter and laughed. “He ain’t no damn Indian. He’s a damn half-breed. Can’t ya tell by looking at him?”

“Don’t matter what kind of breed he is. Still not going to sell him any ammunition.”

John Runyan pulled at his beard. “Fine. Can you sell the ammunition to me?”

“I can sell it to you.”

John Runyan barked at Joshua, “Get around here boy, and stand up here at this gentleman’s fine counter, the one he just cleaned ten minutes ago.” Joshua stepped up to the counter. “What kind of ammo you need, and how many rounds?”

Joshua scanned the shelves. “A hundred-and-twenty rounds. For my Henry.”

John Runyan shouted at the bespectacled man, “I need a hundred-and-twenty rounds for my Henry. You got ‘em handy?”

The bespectacled man sneered a third time. “I don’t like this. You’re just going to give it to him. Same thing as selling it to him directly.”

John Runyan slammed his fist on the counter and smeared some of the tongue blood. The card-playing soldiers ignored him again. “You have no idea what I’m going to do with it. Now, you going to sell me the damn ammunition or not?”

The bespectacled man squirmed and rubbed the thinning hair on top of his head, but then relented. “It comes in boxes of fifty cartridges each. I’d have to break a box to sell you a hundred-and-twenty.”

John Runyan spoke to Joshua without looking at him. “A hundred rounds enough?”

Joshua did not look at John Runyan either. “Yes, a hundred rounds will do.”

John Runyan continued his pretense with the bespectacled man. “I’ll take a hundred rounds so you don’t have to go to all the damn trouble of breaking open a damn box.”

The bespectacled man disappeared below the counter. When he reappeared, he dropped two boxes of .44 rimfire cartridges on the counter. “You owe two dollars and fifty cents.”

John Runyan turned to Joshua. “You got two dollars and fifty cents?”

Joshua examined the boxes on the counter. “Pretty expensive, but I need the ammo.”

John Runyan turned back to the bespectacled man. “Two dollars and fifty cents! That’s highway robbery you worthless piece of crap. I can get a hundred rounds of this ammunition for less than two dollars in North Platte.”

The bespectacled man sneered one last time. “Then I suggest you ride there to buy the ammunition. Shouldn’t take you more than a week.”


“Take it or leave it.”

Joshua slid two dollars and fifty cents across the counter. John Runyan snatched the money and shook it in an angry fist inches from the bespectacled man’s nose. “Here’s your damn money for this overpriced ammunition.” He threw it down on the counter. He stacked the boxes then handed them to Joshua. “Let’s get the hell out of this den of thieves, my boy. Time to head over to the Three-Mile Hog Ranch where they know how to treat a customer with hospitality.” John Runyan stomped to the entry door, threw it open with a defiant slam, and stormed out. Joshua Hotah trailed closely behind, and nearly failed to avoid the slamming door. The card playing soldiers paid no attention.

♦ ♦ ♦

True to his assertion of superior hospitality, three brightly-dressed ladies greeted John Runyan and Joshua Hotah when they burst through the front door of the one-story, U-shaped, lime-grout building that housed the saloon at the Three-Mile Hog Ranch. And in stark counterpoint to the relatively sedate atmosphere of Sutler’s Store, dozens of off-duty soldiers and men who likely were not soldiers and other prostitutes and a woman who did not much look like a whore filled the saloon with a muddled roar of incomprehensible conversation and laughter.

John Runyan swept his arm around the nearest woman and squeezed her against his side. “Daphne, my gal. Just the one I was looking for. Are you available? I just made a big haul with three buffalo hides and a tongue, and I’m celebrating.”

Daphne, not unattractive but well into her thirties, pushed away from John Runyan. “Three hides? Why, it’ll cost your entire take to spend the night with me.”

John Runyan roared with laughter. “What can I get for a dollar? I have to save some for a little boozing and some cards.”

“Is that all you think of me, John Runyan? One dollar? Why, I’m worth at least two.”

Temporarily distracted, John Runyan did not hear Daphne’s question. “Where the hell is Martha? I want her to meet a friend of mine.” Joshua Hotah peeked out from behind John Runyan’s ample form.

Daphne ogled Joshua Hotah. “You brought an Indian in here?”

John Runyan boomed, “How many times do I have to explain this? He’s not a damn Indian. He’s a damn half-breed. Now where’s Martha? I want her to meet my half-breed friend here.”

Daphne waved her hand. “She’s standing over there, by the bar.”

John Runyan’s eyes flitted along the bar until they found Martha Canary. “Pretty as usual. C’mon Joshua. We’ve got some introducing to do.” He grabbed a wad of Joshua’s sleeve and pulled him across the crowded room bumping against the backs of chairs until they arrived at Martha’s side. Without releasing Joshua’s sleeve, John Runyan removed his feathered hat and bowed. “Martha Canary, I’d like you to meet Joshua Hotah, half-breed and former scout with the damn U.S. Cavalry, but now he’s looking for his parents and he don’t work for them no more.”

Martha Canary plucked a small cigar from her unpainted lips. She studied Joshua Hotah’s black hair and bronze complexion, then scanned down to his moccasins. “Why’s he looking for his parents?”

“How the hell do you expect me to know? We just met today. His damn horse spooked an entire herd of buffalos and left me nearly penniless. Why don’t you ask him yourself?”

Martha Canary simpered, picked up a shot glass of whisky from the beer-glistened bar, and tossed the burning liquid back into her throat. She rattled the glass down and wiped her mouth. “Tell me, my dear…why are you looking for your parents?”

A quizzical expression flowed across Joshua’s face. “I suppose…because…they are lost?”

Spewing spittle across the bar, John Runyan erupted into laughter and slapped Joshua hard on the back. “Now there’s a hell of an answer, my boy. A hell of an answer.”

Martha Canary sniggered, then reached up and brushed Joshua’s hair. “Are you sure you’re not the one who’s lost?”

Joshua answered more forcibly this time. “I am not lost. I know where I am. I just do not know where I am going.”

A young soldier with his shirt unbuttoned and sleeves rolled up jumped to his feet and threw a handful of cards down on a nearby table before screaming at the civilian sitting across the table from him, “Full house, jacks over eights. Beat that asshole!”

The commotion did not distract Martha Canary, and as she stared compassionately into Joshua’s eyes and continued the conversation with soothing words, Joshua imagined an empty room with only the two of them standing alone at the bar. “Not exactly what I meant, my dear, but if it’s how you see things, who am I to disagree with you. Who are your parents?”

Joshua relaxed a little. “They were lost when I was very young. But my mother is Lakota Sioux, and my father is a buffalo hunter from England.”

Martha Canary stiffened. “A buffalo hunter from England with a Sioux wife?”

John Runyan shattered Joshua’s reverie. “That’s what he said, Martha. Ain’t you listening?”

Martha Canary snapped at John Runyan. “Quiet, John. I’m trying to carry on a conversation with Joshua here, and I don’t need any help from you to do it.”

Joshua broke in. “Yes, a buffalo hunter from England with a Sioux wife.”

Martha Canary touched Joshua’s shoulder. “Joshua, I met them. I’d say less than two years ago, here at Fort Laramie.”

Joshua sucked in a quick breath. “Do you know where they were going?”

Martha Canary tapped her head. “They did say where they were going, but I don’t remember. Let me think. Think. Think….”

John Runyan slurped a large mug of beer, which had suddenly appeared, then wiped his sleeve across his face. “C’mon, Martha, think.”

She snapped at John Runyan again. “I am thinking John. Can’t you see me tapping my head?”

“I can, but I don’t know why tapping your head would help anyone think.”

Martha Canary clutched the front of Joshua’s blue cavalry shirt with both hands. “Oregon City. I remember now. English accent. Sioux wife. They were on their way to Oregon City. I’m sure of it.”

Joshua pulled away. “Thank you, Miss Martha, but I have to leave now.”

John Runyan slapped Joshua on the back again. “What are you talking about, my boy? You just got here, and the fun’s about to start. I think Martha Canary likes you, and she looks to be available to boot!”

Joshua backed away. “Thank you, but I have to leave. Where is Oregon City?”

Martha Canary grinned. “Head west until you get to the end of the Oregon Trail. You can’t miss it.” She kissed her fingertips and touched Joshua’s cheek.

John Runyan objected. “But it’s night. You can’t travel at night. You might run into some Indians or thieves.”

“I have travelled many times at night. I do not mind it.” John Runyan and Martha Canary did not offer another word as Joshua Hotah hurried out of the Three-Mile Hog Ranch saloon into the pellucid moonlight of a clearing sky.