Western Short Story
It was several hours past dark when I reached the herd. As always, the nighthawks rode slowly through the herd, singing low and soft. I recognized Marcellus and Marius, two laborers from the same cotton field, and the white boy John Milton Wesley, son of their overseer. I whistled over so I didn’t spook them or the cows, then sat under the stars and listened as they harmonized “Wade in the Water.”
Marcellus, onyx black, tall, and skinny as a hay rake, with an Adam’s apple you could perch a coffee cup on, sang bass. Marius, lighter skinned and slight, had the tenor. John Milton, who’d been raised just about as poor as the other two and picked cotton right beside them, held the baritone. I stayed for a while longer as they sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Amazing Grace.” The cows seemed to enjoy the fine singing and I know I did. But I knew Charlie Goodnight was waiting.
I rubbed my mustang down while savoring the aroma of the coffee bubbling over the campfire. I finished and turned him over to the remuda wrangler, then headed toward the fire. Most of the crew had finished supper and were lounging on their saddles and bedrolls.
Andy was sitting on a crate beside the wagon with a peppermint stick between his teeth, grinding the coffee beans for tomorrow. The grand smell coming off the fresh ground beans was as intoxicating as the liquor Charlie wouldn’t allow. On the shelf beside him was a small stack of the red and yellow Arbuckles' sacks with the Flying Angel pictured on the front. For twenty of us, working hard all day, we went through a good five sacks a day.
Each one-pound sack of Arbuckles contained a stick of peppermint candy, and that was the enticement Espinar used to create an endless supply of eager volunteers to man the grinder. The clamor was so great Espinar had to keep a list to properly rotate the volunteers. With the constant annoyance of cowboys asking whose turn was next, Espinar had turned the upkeep of the list over to Ulice. He’d taken on the boy as his assistant after the hooking incident had busted Ulice’s shoulder and wrist and left him useless as a cowboy. Charlie didn’t mind, saying for all Ulice’s efforts, he really wasn’t catching on and had a tendency to get himself separated from the herd. Ulice was more than capable, though, for fetching water, feeding the fire, or stirring stew pots.
Sundown had brought a welcome coolness to the air and I could smell Espinar’s pepper-heavy beef and bean supper bubbling in a kettle over one sweet smelling buffalo dung fire, and a fire-blackened five-gallon coffee pot over the other.
“I was starting to worry about you,” Charlie said, sitting down next to me after I’d filled my plate and cup. “Thought maybe the Comanche got you. They out there still?’
“They’re out there still, same ones I’ve seen for the past five days,” I said.
“A danged aggravation we don’t need,” said Charlie.
“What’s that going on yonder?” I said. “You fixin’ to bury someone?’
A hundred feet or so away was a big pile of dirt. An unrecognizable, grime-covered man was neck deep in a hole, feverishly throwing shovelfuls of dirt over his shoulder.
“Oh, that’s Clay,” said Charlie. “He was getting too squirrelly. I had to find something to work his fidgets out.”
“You don’t say,” I said.
“He ain’t cut out for the tedium of a cattle drive,” said Charlie.
“Few is,” I said. “Looks like a fine hole as holes go. Hope nobody steps in it.”
“He’ll fill it back in,” Charlie said. “That’s his fifth hole today. He was up all-night pacing, so I put him to work digging holes as soon as the sun came up. He’s been at it since.”
“Well, I’ll be,” I said.
“I wonder what the hell those Comanche are up to,” said Charlie.
“Just watching us. They never come closer, and ride off if I try to holler at them,” I said. “The band isn’t getting any larger, so I don’t expect no imminent trouble, but tell your night boys to stay alert.”
“I’ve got good ones out,” he said. “How’s the water ahead?’
“The creek’s five miles ahead and running strong,” I said. “Those late rains are a blessing. Nice, easy slope that would allow the herd to spread out and drink their fill. If it ain’t fouled by the time we get there.”
“Fouled?” Charlie said. “Buffalo?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Regular buffalo crossing, and there’s a good-sized herd coming from the northeast. They’re between the creek and us, and the lead buffalo will hit the creek midmorning.
“No other place we can get to the water?”
“Not for miles. The banks are too steep. You’d cripple your cows,” I said.
“How big a buff herd?”
“Not that big, but several times larger than this herd. Ten thousand or so, maybe, plenty big enough to foul that creek up good for three days. Not to mention eating up all the grass.”
“Gol-dang it. Well, I can’t let the herd go three full days without water. It’ll be hard enough on them between the Concho and the Pecos,” Charlie said. “You think you can nudge the buffaloes the other way?”
“Probably so. It usually don’t take much to stampede a buffalo herd,” I said. “Hard telling which way they’ll run though.”
“Take Bose and some of the steadiest boys with you and see if you can run them off,” said Charlie. “Andy if you want, let him have some fun. He’s been busting his tail. And Clay. Take five or six.”
“Clay ain’t exactly one of the steadiest,” I said.
“I know, but he’s letting himself get worked up over something,” Charlie said. “He can get difficult if it’s let go. Maybe shooting a few buffalo will take the edge off whatever his difficulty is.”
“Shoot a few? You want meat?”
“Of course,” Charlie said. “Espinar and us old hands have been looking forward to this day for a while. Dang it, but I love me a good hump steak drizzled in honey.”’
“Fine eating. We can bring plenty of fresh meat,” I said. “He brought some honey?’
“He mentioned a bee tree nearby when we camped,” Charlie said. “He says he brought a whole honey gathering suit the bees can’t sting you through.”
“Is that right?” I said.
“Looks like we caught up with the buffs,” I said. We topped the gentle rise, and half a mile away the buffalo were spread out across the wide valley, feeding in belly-deep bluestem grass. They were drifting slowly toward the creek. Ray, Andy, Bose Ikard and Clay Allison and two other young cowboys had come with me to try to move the buffalo out of the way. The reporter came along, too. Charlie had allowed it but told him to stay the hell out the way.
The whole basin seemed to rumble with the grunts and bellows of 10,000 of the great shaggy beasts. The big, taut-muscled mature males, six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing a ton, stood guard at the edge of the herd. In the center, cows grazed and reddish-orange calves frolicked. On the rise across the valley, a pack of wolves lazed in the sun, waiting for a sick calf to fall behind or an adventurous one to wander off.
The valley was dotted with buffalo wallows, round, barren craters ten to twenty feet across, maybe three feet deep. In the wallows, bulls rolled violently. They thrashed and kicked, throwing up great clouds of dust and molted fur in their displays of virility.
“You ever have to drink from one of those, Bose?’ I said, pointing at the closest wallow.
“No, but I’ve heard men say that by the time they found one, it was sweet as heaven’s nectar,” Bose said.
“Drink from it?” Pierpont said.
“Those holes are centuries old and will fill up with water after a rain and hold it for a good long while,” I said. “Buffalo been migrating up along through here since before Jesus days. Millions of them every year. Every time one of them rolls, they pack the ground a little harder, add another layer of that thick, oily buffalo hair. Makes a sink just as waterproof as any made of porcelain.”
“I’d have to be mighty desperate,” Andy said.
“That’s why you always get fresh water out here at every chance,” I said. “It can be far between ‘em.”
“Of course, sometimes there’s a good bit of buffalo piss in there, too, as that’s how they mark their territory. Only a few thousand young hot bloods a year, is all,” Bose said. “But you get thirsty enough, you’ll drink it. Trust me. I know a couple fellers.”
“That sure don’t make it any more appealing,” Andy said.
“You just never been thirsty enough,” I said.
“Watch this,” I said, pointing down range. It was earliest days of the rut, but there were already several big, long-bearded bulls strutting around, nose in the air, shaggy heads swaying. They sniffed each female and pissed a lot.
Two big bulls had squared off, snorting, grunting at each other. Their shoulders and broad back bunched with muscle and the thick, matted hair was caked with dust and dead bugs. Working themselves into a frenzy they pawed the earth and bellowed.
The younger bull charged, sprinting with racehorse speed toward his rival. He launched himself and their skulls crashed together like a cannon shot. Both bulls were knocked to their knees. They stood up, shaking their giant black woolly heads, bloody froth dripping down their beards, discombobulated. They backed up, gathered their senses, and charged again. And again. They crashed their skulls together, driving and pushing, their short, powerful legs digging. The dust erupted up around them as they locked up, bloodshot eyes wild, straining and thrusting, going for the hook. They bellowed and battled until the older one stumbled. The young challenger got his horn into the flank of the old-timer and ripped his belly open. The wolves on the ridge perked up at the smell of blood as the victor stomped all over his gashed foe.
“Might as well have a little fun,” I said. “Ready, Bose?”
“Ready,” he said.
“Boys,” I said. “We need to ride around them, stay downwind, to the south. When we run them keep ‘em headed north, away from that creek. Me and Bose will go down and get them started, and on our signal come whooping and hollering and shooting. But shoot them pistols in the air and don’t get too close. Me and Bose will do the hunting. You just do the noise making.”
“Well, then, I’m hunting too,” said Clay. “I’d like to ride down on one of them big bulls and take those horns.”
“You ever shot buffalo on the run before?” I said.
“The ones to avoid are the big bulls,” I said. “These rifles we got ain’t powerful enough for long distance buffalo kills. That’s why we have to ride up close, and don’t shoot until they’re all running one direction. Killing a running buff means galloping up close and shooting them right in the heart or lungs. A moving target the size of a frying pan on a ton of muscle running full out. You make one wrong move down there, you’ll get yourself killed. Or us.”
“You ain’t no better horseman than me, nor hand with a rifle,” Clay said. “I never heard Charlie nor Mr. Loving say you was in charge of me. Ain’t no colored man, freedman or no, ever gonna be in charge of me.”
“Then your ears need cleaned. You go down there wounding a bunch of buffalo with wild shooting and get somebody hurt, you won’t have to worry about who’s in a charge of who,” I said. “Just know where you’re shooting. The heart and lungs. Anything else ain’t much more than fly swatting. Shoot the young cows.”
“I know how to kill game,” he said.
“Maybe, maybe not. You’re likely to just make them mad,” I said. “Follow me but stay well back. The buffs can’t see worth a nickel, but those big ugly noses of theirs work just fine.”
“You don’t need to concern yourself with me,” said Clay.
“Andy, you boys, I hope you’re listening to me, if you’re wanting to shoot, too. Getting gored and stomped ain’t no way to end your trail, you hear me?” I said. “Shoot the young cows, not the bulls, especially not the big ones. Their hide is tough as an ironclad, and the meat ain’t much better. Stay shy of the bulls, and away from the front of the herd in general.”
We rode slowly into the downwind side of the valley, single file. At a hundred yards away a few of the buffalo paused to sniff the breeze. A cow snorted noisily, followed by some anxious bawling. A bull at the edge of the herd bellowed, and suddenly every animal in the herd was on high alert.
“Woooo hooooo,” Clay shouted at the top of his lungs and spurred his horse into a gallop.
“Dang it, Clay,” I shouted, but it was too late, and we had no choice but to get running ourselves. We took off at a sprint and I yelled, “Come on boys. Turn ‘em.”
Bose was right behind Clay, then surged past him, toward the front of the herd, firing his pistol in the air as we whooped and shouted and waved our hats. The outer wall of buffs started jogging away, bumping each other, bawling, and then breaking into an awkward lope. In a few seconds they found their stride and were thundering across the prairie.
I felt the old excitement and so did my little palomino, mustang-blooded horse. We flew across the prairie and the horse’s mane whipped my face as I leaned into his neck, rifle at the ready.
I chose a target and the little mustang seemed to know exactly what I needed. I rode in close, ten yards from the thundering herd. I pulled the reins and then my pony took over, surging in close enough to the buffalo to touch. I fired and my pony danced away as the buffalo crashed, flopped, and rolled. My palomino took me in close again and I landed another good shot. The buffalo coughed and stumbled. A squirt of bright red blood shot from its nose as it crashed to its knees and rolled over dead.
Ahead of me Clay rode up close to a buffalo, a bull, one of the biggest. He raised his rifle and fired, worked the lever on his Henry, fired again, and then again. He shot the buffalo four times, twice harmlessly in its huge hump, one that skimmed off its thick skull, and one that blew off the tip of its jaw. The buffalo didn’t fall, or even flinch, and Clay forced his horse even closer. The wounded bull lurched to the left, the big head swinging out and up, trying to hook Clay’s horse. The pony skipped easily out of the way, then flipped over in a cartwheel, snapping his leg in half in a prairie dog hole. Clay flew another 15 feet and landed hard on his back.
I spun my horse in that direction as Clay’s crippled horse struggled to rise, its hindquarters in the air. The wounded buffalo swiveled his two thousand pounds of muscle around in an explosion of dust. He snorted and shook his big boulder of a head, flinging big red slobbers ten feet from his shattered jaw. The bull charged, caught the struggling horse and flipped it again. The horse crashed to earth almost on top of Clay and knocked him rolling. Clay struggled to a knee as the bloody-faced bull spun around for another charge.
“Heeeyaaaah,” I screamed and spurred my hardworking little mustang at that charging bull. I raised my rifle to my shoulder with one arm as my pony raced over that ground. I squeezed the trigger and my first shot was a clear miss. The next shot also landed harmlessly, high in the hump, as the bull rumbled toward Clay. I swung the rifle down and up and fired again. The bullet missed the lungs by a mile, but did hit the bull square in the ankle bone just as that foot hit the ground. The leg exploded in a thick mist of red as the bull crashed to the ground, roaring in outrage and pain as it tried to rise. I took a steady shot and killed him clean.
“Thanks for saving my life I guess,” said Clay, bloodied and torn, sitting on the ground in a slouch.
“You should have listened,” I said. I started to mention the dark wet stain on the crotch of Clay’s trousers but didn’t. “Now do something useful. Shoot that poor suffering horse and then take that big knife of yours and get to butchering.”
For once Clay said nothing and seemed fairly well cowed. He walked over to the quivering horse on the ground and put a .44 in its head, then went to the closest buffalo and began cutting. Andy collected the pack mules while Bose and I started our butchering. We found a young cow and removed the warm liver, sliced off chunks and dipped them in green bile. It was an Indian delicacy which had taken a little getting used to, years ago. Bose and I ate with gusto as the others looked on a little squeamishly.
After a short rest we all went to work and within a couple hours we had the canvas full of hump roast, rib steaks, tongues, and several huge livers. With hand axes we had chopped up the thick leg bones so Espinar could use the rich marrow in his cooking.
“Seems like a waste, killing all those buffalo,” said Andy.
“Everybody’s gotta eat. Nothing goes to waste out here,” I said, pointing at the wolves and coyotes gathered eagerly around the far edges of the scene. A lazy swirl of buzzards was already taking form in the sky above us.
“The wolves fill up on these here dead ones, they’re less likely to snatch one of those purty little orange calves. Or one of ourn,” said Bose. “That’s one way to see it.”
“Don’t care so much for buzzards and scavengers,” Andy said.
“Why not?” Bose said. “They’s all God’s creatures. They’re only doing what comes natural. The wolves and coyotes and buzzards will grow fat and thankful. Just cause they’s ugly and have bad table manners, don’t mean they shouldn’t have a spot at the table. I mean, it’s a good thing the gals in my life never thought that way.”
“Who wants to double me back?” said Clay after we’d about finished the dirty, bloody butchering job.
“Ain’t no doubling unless we’re being chased by hostiles, Clay,” I said. “You kilt your horse your own self. A man that decisive should be able to figure his way back to the herd.”
“How about you, John Milton, will you double me back?” Clay said.
“Nobody’s putting extra strain on another horse because of your poor stewardship of your own,” I said. “Best get walking.”
“That’s five miles back,” he said.
“Closer to three,” I said. “It’ll give you time to mourn your horse.”
“We can move some of that meat to the other mules, and I can ride one of them dumb critters,” said Clay.
“I won’t stop you, but them mules ain’t never had a man on them,” I said. “Your feet might hurt worse for walking, but in the long run, your bottom end would probably end up in better shape. I expect you’ll land on it a time or two.”
“I’ve broke plenty of broncs in my day,” said Clay. “It’s a mighty hard-headed horse that I can’t get to see things my way in a fairly short time.”
“Horses are horses, mules are mules,” I said. “You ain’t seen hardheaded until you’ve tried to mount a balky mule. But, by all means, by my guest. We can carry some of the meat behind us.”
Bose held the mule steady while Clay bridled and saddled him. The mule fought the unfamiliar bit some, but didn’t seem to mind the saddle, at least not until Clay sat down on it. The mule stiffened up, refusing to budge as Clay slapped at its haunches. Then the ugly creature laid his ears back and whipped its head around, sinking his enormous yellow teeth into Clay’s shin and trying to yank him out of the saddle. The mule crow-hopped about five lengths then sprang high off the ground and jack-knifed open. He came back down to earth, bucking and kicking and twisting.
“Grab the apple, Clay!” Bose hollered through laughter, and Clay clawed for the saddle horn. The mule snap-kicked at the clouds and Clay went flying. He landed hard on his side on a pile of fresh buffalo dung.
“Gad-blast,” Clay croaked, one hand holding the busted ribs he’d landed on. With the other he was unsteadily aiming his Colt at the mule which had loped off, showing a mouth full of yellow teeth and braying that sounded a lot like laughing.
“Why you cussing the mule? He seen what happened to your horse,” said Bose. “I wouldn’t trust you neither.”
“I’ll shoot that mule,” Clay said and cussed.
“You ain’t shooting nothing, Clay. Can’t you get it through your thick head God didn’t plan for you having your way today?” I said. “Take the loss and be still before you shoot your toe off.”
“Aw, hell,” Clay said, looking down at the wide swath of fresh buffalo mess on his shirt. Then he started laughing, and kept laughing until tears came down his face. He laughed harder than any downtrodden man I’d seen, and we all laughed right along with him. Finally he got up, holding his ribs, his hip, and favoring one leg. Bose had collected the mule and brought him back.
“Here’s that mule you tamed, Clay,” said Bose.
“You’re all funny,” said Clay, now rubbing the back of his head. “I get it. Lesson learned.”
He took off hobbling in the direction of the cattle herd, limping. We watched him walk for fifty yards and then rode up next to him.
“Hold up, Clay,” I said. “We’ll get you horsed.”
“No, I’ll not take your charity now,” he said.
“Have it your way,” I said.
We rode on but after a mile I looked back and Clay was really struggling on his lame leg. It looked like a couple of the wolves weren’t satisfied with the buffalo buffet and were trailing him.
“I’m not going to try to explain to Charlie how I got one of his cowboys killed with blood poisoning from blistered feet when I had five perfectly good horses,” I said, after riding back to him. “Get up behind Andy.”
“Behind him? I ain’t riding behind him. Why, he’s…” said Clay.
“On a horse and you ain’t,” I said. “Make up your mind Clay. Letting you blister your feet all up and die from blood poisoning probably won’t make Charlie too happy. You dying because of notions in your head likely won’t bother him at all. Other than the horse.”
Andy stuck his arm out and Clay swung up. We continued on with no further words on the subject.
We had a feast that night. With the help of Ulice and some hungry volunteers, Espinar quick fried the tongue with onions and peppers. He seared the hump roast over a hot fire, then sliced it up and threw it in a pan with honey and tallow and hot red pepper. He added biscuits and roast sweet potatoes and boggy top peach pie. I couldn’t imagine there was any better eating in the world.
“Sure you don’t want some of this tongue, Andy?” asked Bose. “It is fine dining.”
“No, sir. I seen what them horny old buffaloes was doing with them tongues, all wiggle waggle up in them cow’s heifer parts,” Andy said, shaking his head. “No, sir, it don’t sound appealing. No thankee.”
“It only tickles about halfway down,” said Bose. “It can be quite pleasing if it’s been peeled all the way.”
“That boy’s going to be plumb sour mouthed when he finds out what was in that prairie giblet sop I made,” said Espinar.
Maybe Clay was humbled some, but whatever the reason, his mood improved. He was funny around the campfire, even at his own expense. Clay got excited and told us some tear squeezers about the hardships of serving in Forrest’s cavalry in the last year of the war, and some side-busters of his times sneaking into the bawdy houses of Union-occupied Nashville’s Smokey Row.