by Pat Nolan
“So you never did come up against any Indians?”
The old man emitted a grunt. He was going to peel this grape. “Matter of fact, it wasn’t too long after the incident with Nigger Horse that I did come up against Indians. Real close.” He paused to be sure that the young man had taken the bait, and continued.
“When we got back to the plains, we found good hunting in the breaks of the Salt Fork of the Brazos. A herd of close to two thousand was watering along the bottoms. They were priming toward their winter coats, shaggy and thick. In the first twenty days, we had a thousand hides. The herd was scattered across the bottomland for miles. New animals showed up in droves every day. The shooting was good and easy. We hunted the days we could. Days it rained, we stacked the drying hides under tarps and spent most of the time playing cards in the lean-to.
“Come late November, there was snow on the ground. One morning I took my skinner, Joe, with me to one flank of the herd. We took the wagon to bring back some of the hides we’d pegged out to dry. I left Joe looking for the hides under the layer of new snow and set off on foot.
“Well, I hadn’t gone more than a mile when I came up on a clump of buffalo, about twenty in all. My position was on a little rise about a hundred feet from them. I got down in the snow behind a mound and picked a cow that had started to stray.
“You see, I wanted to keep them all in the same area to make the skinning and the collecting of the hides as easy as possible.
“I aimed for the lungs. She gave a jump when she was hit and did a queer little sideways dance before she dropped, blood streaming from her nostrils. A couple of young bulls lifted their heads and began milling slowly in a circle. I brought down one that had started to wander off, and then another one that bolted from the opposite side. Now they were pawing the ground and bellowing, but I had them whichever way they turned.
“I paced my shooting so as not to overheat the barrel of my Winchester, and in no time at all I had about fourteen laid out in a neat little circle. Then the others, half a dozen or so, began moving away from me. I ran down, got behind the carcass of a big bull, and picked off all of them but one. I worked my way toward it and got close enough to bring it down when I realized that I was right on top of a closely packed herd.
“There were so many animals that their frosted breath made a wide flat cloud over the lot of them. They were more or less boxed in by the steep bank behind, and they had to pass my position to get out. I dropped a young bull, then a cow that had come up to investigate. Two old bulls tried to bolt but I brought both of them down and their bodies made a barrier that corralled the rest of the herd. I spent most of the day picking out the best hides and only stopped when I ran out of cartridges.
“Then I went back and gave the skinner a hand. He was still working on the first bunch. I’ll have to say, it wasn’t something he had the stomach for.
“I had him cut around each animal’s neck, down the belly to the root of the tail, and then down the inside of each leg. I wrapped a rope around the wooly scruff at the neck and tied the other end to the mule while Joe, he staked the animal’s snout to the ground with a wagon rod. Once that was done, I cracked the mule on the rear and he jumped a good six foot and yanked that hide right off.”
“Was that when you come up against the Indians?” The young man had been following the old man’s story patiently.
“No, not exactly,” the old man said, taking his time to answer. “That was the next day. I had Joe with me again and we took up where we’d left off skinning. The wind was particularly bad that day as I recollect, whipping the powdery top layer of snow sideways. The herd had moved on overnight and I went off by myself to scout up more buffalo but the wind had sent them out into the open and I had to go back for the wagon.
“Well, old Joe, he was blubbering about having to skin the frozen carcasses, and even though it wasn’t anything to cry over, I’ll admit that it was a hell of a chore. I stayed back and gave him a hand. That wind never did let up, and even with the cold, the butchered buffalo were beginning to stink something furious. About the time we were finishing up for the day is when I felt my backbone start to crawl up under my hat. I turned to see that we were surrounded by Indians.”
The old man paused and stared at the space between the horse’s ears. He was enjoying himself. Ash would have been proud of him. The young man’s eyes questioned him, a slackness developed in his jaw.
“I had never been face to face with a wild Indian before,” he continued. “There wasn’t a pleasant looking one in the whole dark, greasy lot. They were wrapped in buffalo hides and Army blankets astride their ponies, and there was no telling who if any was fingering a trigger.”
“What happened then?” the young man blurted. He’d been anticipating this part.
The old man knew he’d hooked him good. “Why, hell, they killed us!”
The buggy crossed the stream at the bottom of the canyon. Adams drew up the horse under the cottonwoods and got down to loosen the harness. The old man stepped down from the bench and stretched to his full six foot four height; in his younger days, the Spanish-speaking natives had given him the name of Juan Largo.
After a cursory glance around him, shotgun cradled over his right arm, he walked slowly to where he scuffed a spot in the sand with the toe of his well-worn half boot. A question mark of smoke curled up from the smoldering coals.
“Cooked myself a little coffee this morning before I made the trip up to the ranch house,” Adams called out over the horse’s back.
The old man had already moved over to a spot under a clump of trees where it appeared from the trampled ground that several horses had time to paw and dig. There were boot prints in the still damp morning earth.
“I had Helpy from over at Swanson’s guide me this far, otherwise I’d have got lost in the dark.” Adams was now leaning on the buggy, anticipating the old man’s findings.
The old man nodded absently as he stepped out a set of prints. What the ground told him was there had been two men on this side of the stream. One set of boot prints belonged to the kid’s pointy toed riding boots, but the other set were definitely not Helpy’s, the Swanson’s hired hand. Helpy had one pair of footwear and those were the big leather galoshes he’d inherited from old man Swanson. The toe on the left boot had about an inch wedge taken out of it when Helpy almost severed his foot chopping firewood. Helpy was not a horseman either, and the horse that had accompanied the buggy this far, judging from the impressions it had made in the sand, was far too much horse for the hired man to handle. The man who had made the other set of prints was also a good five inches taller than Helpy if the length of the stride was any indication.
A breeze came down the canyon and rattled the leaves. The horse rippled the muscles of its back and snorted. “I’m for getting out of the shade and into the sun, ain’t you?” Adams said rubbing his hands together. He climbed back up into the buggy and held the reins.
The old man proceeded slowly from where he had been staring at the mauled earth, patting his pocket to assure himself that he had remembered to bring along some extra shotgun shells.
The buggy rolled over a large exposed root and then settled with a jolt into the wagon rut that led away from the stream.
Back on the Staked Plains, the animals were rutting, and hunters counted on this time of year to double their bloody harvest. The herds were also beginning to move north in anticipation of their spring migration.
“We used to call bagging buffalo in the act, getting a hump.” That was an obvious stretcher, one that would have caused Ash to roll his eyes, the sign of an amateur storyteller.
The young man, still smarting at being taken in by the last tall tale, gave what had to pass for a wry, patient smile. His eyes, an unsettled blue-green, glinted hard with the hurt look of someone who did not like to have what little intelligence they had insulted. That he had fallen that hard for one of the oldest yarns in the West had wounded his estimation of his own savvy.
He forced out a question, straining to keep the resentment from being noticed. “How much of a fortune did you pull in from that slaughter?”
“Next to nothing was the final accounting, I’d say. I had to leave the range on short notice and any claim I had in the partnership. I’d say it was over a thousand dollars.”
“No chance to collect? A thousand dollars is a tidy sum to leave behind.”
The old man nodded grimly. It was a sum that he could use right at the moment, a sum that would extricate him from his present unfavorable circumstances, that’s what the thousand represented to him. But that was thirty years ago. What was done was done, he reflected bitterly.
“I killed a man,” he said finally.
The young man urged the horse along with a slap of the reins and gave the old man, whose demeanor had suddenly become grave, a wary glance.
“You don’t say? Killed a man? That’s almost as bad as horse stealin,’ ain’t it?” The young man’s tone was unmistakable.
“I won’t be mocked, boy,” the old man spoke evenly. “You don’t know me otherwise you would think twice before you talk to me that way. The man I shot and killed was barely that, your age or younger. Don’t go taking it into your head that you’re too young to die.”
Ash would have said, “You’re never too young or too old, too fast or too slow, too good or too bad that death doesn’t have the habit of catching up with you.” And Joe Bristol, rest his soul, was one of the ones who had died young. For a moment the image of Joe’s skinny, pinched cheeks and Ash’s deathbed pallor became one and it unsettled him, twisting his gut with a clenched fist.
Joe, the tag-along from Fort Worth, did not have the stomach for skinning or slaughter. His ineptness at practically everything was a constant source of amusement for the camp, and an endless irritation to Shelton who counted every blunder, every botched hide as money out of his pocket.
Ash too, now that he thought about it, was downright squeamish when it came to butchery. He recalled that when he had gone into the hog business with Tip McKinney, Ash had been their resident expert, extolling the virtues of one breed over the other, whether a red hog produced better bacon than a white, or the all-around utility of a Jersey over a Berkshire. Ash was a veritable encyclopedia of hog statistics, and his opinions, asked for or not, flowed freely and copiously. Tip was certain that Ash contributed as much to the ankle deep muck of the pens as did the hogs themselves. But it was well known that come time for butchering, Ash would make himself scarce, and the pens would be minus the sonorous drone of his scholarly appraisals.
Ash was not particularly good at doing much except writing or bragging or telling stories. Any work he’d ever taken to had been an occupation in which he could engage in at least one of those pursuits. He made a good Postmaster and Justice of the Peace, and he’d even clerked at Lea’s dry goods store in Lincoln where he could indulge in his loud raucous tales and scandalize the ladies who always seemed to be hovering within earshot.
It baffled him that he was confusing the two memories, that of a sullen boy and a garrulous old man. Ash had never stopped talking long enough for folks to figure out what an odd old coot he was. If he had, they would have seen a strange, profane, blasphemous old man, full of bluster, who loved to tell lies and test his wits against those of his listeners. He hardly, if ever, lost. He had been educated in Connecticut, and had come out West as a correspondent to cover the Indian wars. He had wandered down to Santa Fe, and being particularly affected by the sociability of the natives and their shared enthusiasm for a drop of the creature, he decided to stay put. He’d scuttled around the Pecos Valley like vagabond sagebrush doing any work that required little or no elbow grease and a high likelihood of chin wagging. There was no comparison with the desperate young man he had killed.
“It was one of them him or me situations. It was the last thing that I ever thought would happen. And it happened so fast, it was over before I knew it.”
The old man licked his dry lips. Remembering that day made him uneasy. Ash intruding into his thoughts added to his turmoil.
It had been a damp, foggy, bone-chilling morning in buffalo camp. The herds were getting scarce and the hunters’ humor, because of the lack of action, had begun to fray. He had been squatting by the feeble flames of a buffalo chip fire, trying with no great success to warm his stiff cold hands. Joe had come out of the nearby arroyo wringing a lump of soaking, gray cloth. He had watched with scornful amusement as Joe approached the fire and dangled the dingy, blotchy handkerchief over the fuming coals, splashing him with muddy water in the process. Annoyed, and with the viciousness of a cur, he had spoken harshly, cursing his skinner. As he remembered, he had called him a goddamn, good for nothing, Irish son of a whore without sense enough to know not to wash his laundry in a mud puddle.
That was all it had taken. Joe had lunged across the fire pit, blinded by anger and mad frenzy, swinging wildly. He had been caught off guard but recovered, and with barely an effort, he had knocked the boy down, expecting that to be the end of it. But Joe had leaped back to his feet with demon energy.
He’d packed more determination into his punch the second time and knocked him down again. Joe, possessed, eyes bulging from their sockets, veins at his temples and neck on the verge of bursting, had staggered back to his feet only to be knocked to the ground again.
The other hunters, struck dumb at first, had awakened to the blood thirst of Joe’s attacks and were hooting their derision, fanning the boy’s hysteria so that he’d kept getting back to his feet.
He still burned with his original embarrassment. He had punished the boy enough. The fight had been far from fair. He outreached Joe by a mile. Yet, the boy kept coming back for more. Finally, he had walked away, saying enough was enough, and that a man ought to know when he’d been whipped.
He’d glanced back just in time to see Joe swing the axe at his head. It had come close enough to scare him. Just that quickly, the shoe had been put on the other foot. He had ducked behind the wagon, calling out Joe’s name in the hopes of bringing him back to his senses. Joe kept charging after him, blood and madness in his eyes. He’d pulled his Winchester out from under the tarp on the wagon and brandished it with the warning that he’d shoot. But Joe continued to advance with the axe held over his head. He had no choice but to fire.
The impact had caught the boy square in the chest and lifted him off his feet, propelling him backward into the fire pit. The look on his face resembled that of someone surprised by painful indigestion. Joe’s clothing, smoking, had begun to burn, and the hunters, in almost comic confusion, had rushed to beat out the flames. Then the life had just bubbled out of him as if it were gas.
That agonized expression, it was like Ash’s the morning he’d found him. He had died in his sleep, looking like he’d protested every inch of the way.
“How did it happen?”
“Bad words passed between us.”
“You mean you just killed someone in cold blood over a few disagreeable words?”
“Men have been killed over less, more times than not. I was protecting myself. He was about to cleave me in two with an axe. I’d be dead today if I hadn’t.”