“Why on God’s green Earth would anyone in his right mind ever want to be a cowboy?” I was serious. The palomino knew I was trying to help, mostly holding still while I plucked the last of the porcupine quills from his nose. “You git the dubious pleasure of making the acquaintance of rattlesnakes, dust storms, Indians on the warpath, and the lower sort of society, which jist happens to be other cowboys. Cows are dumb and horses plumb gotta be even dumber.”
The tale teller grinned, setting up camp single handed this one time. “Sunny ain’t stupid,” he said, referring to the horse whose tender nose I was tending to, “Jist curious.”
“He coulda taken more’n half a second to stick his curious nose down to check out that porky’s tail.” I was still grumbling and growling, but having finally gotten the last quill I could find, my mood had already begun to lighten some.
“Maybe he’s part porcupine scout. Wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the chance to have fresh meat fer supper. Your turn to cook, by the way.”
“Yeah, I know. This surely is a strange place to come across a tree pig, but I ain’t complaining.” Never mind that I was definitely bellyaching mere seconds ago. It’s like that with me. Git the burr out from under my saddle, and I quit bucking purty quick. I got the horses hobbled, then set to skinning the unfortunate guest of the evening.
With our tack arranged and the fire started, Tam’s job fer the evening was done. Except fer story time, of course, but we’d wait till we’d filled our bellies fer that. He took off his chaps, then squatted Indian style, watching out over the Oklahoma countryside–which one or both of us was always doing, especially in Indian country–yet utterly relaxed. The man could put more relaxation into a quiet moment than any other cowboy I ever seen.
Of course, there was more to this man than mere droving, a fact I’d but recently come to fully appreciate.
“You know,” I said, “I got to wondering on the trail today. Whatever did make you decide to become a drover? I mean, fer me it was purty much a matter of not knowing any better, what with growing up on my Daddy’s ranch in the first place. When he and Mom drowned trying to cross the river, I was purty well grown and able to take care of myself, but punching cows was all I ever knew.
“You, though, you’re a different case altogether. Your father was a rich banker. You run away at the tender age of twelve, starve your scrawny tail across a thousand miles of hard country, and end up wintering with an old mountain man–who’s a writer, of all things, not a trapper–and his Cheyenne child bride.”
“In fact,” I continued, on a roll and giving him no chance to answer the original question, “You were even educated. You knew how to read and write, and you could do sums, fer Pete sakes. So what,” I glared at the man as if he’d been caught in the middle of some great crime, “Made you decide to follow ugly stinky cow butts around the country, frying in the summer, freezing in the winter, and generally having such a good time?!”
When I stopped talking, I couldn’t believe what I’d jist said nor how I’d jist said it. Not that Tam couldn’t handle it; he knew how to read people better’n most, and he’d cut me a fair amount of slack more’n once. But what the Hell–?
Then I got it. I hadn’t yet told him that working for the other guy was getting to me so bad that the next Chisholm Trail drive the two of us rode together would be our last. I’d be splitting up what had been a solid partnership fer nigh on four years. I needed to ‘fess up, git it off my chest. I was growing to dislike this dust country more than a bit, but I disliked holding information back a lot more. He deserved to know what I was thinking.
“That’s a fair question,” he said quietly, making me even more ashamed of my outburst, “And I reckon it deserves a fair answer. Might as well tell you a tale of a Life Decision.”
Things finally settled down a bit. Snows fell almost daily, eventually adding up to drifts ten or more feet deep and an average of five feet on the flats. This was the high country where the glaciers are at home and the Blackfeet roam, but during a mid-December like this one, nobody was doing much roaming.
At the cabin in the aspen grove, we knew peace fer a time. There was a deep love between the three of us, the old mountain man, the young Cheyenne beauty, and thirteen-year-old me. True, much of that love had to remain unspoken and not too openly expressed. Believer knew his wife and his winter guest had been intimate in his absence, but none of us spoke of it and thereby avoided all sorts of unpleasant possibilities.
Once, before the snows had gotten too deep, I’d hiked up the north ridge on foot, returning with the carcass of a downright delectable young mule deer buck sledding along behind me. So we had plenty of tender venison to add to the stock of elk meat and homegrown vegetables in the root cellar, and life was good.
I’d deliberately waited to gut the animal till getting back home, so’s I could give everything but the heart and liver to Medicine Coyote. He and his family were tunneled in somewhere out of sight, but despite the snow depth, he still managed to show up almost daily at the little clearing where we left his food. That was a good thing. His warnings had saved us more than once; we’d not have cared to see him go hungry.
Believer wrote the memoirs that made him a living, Laughing Brook cooked and cleaned and sewed new clothing fer all of us and I–well, mostly I thought a lot, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
It wasn’t easy.
Most assuredly, I couldn’t go back where I come from, nor did I have the slightest desire to do so. I’d run from the banker father who’d expected, demanded that I follow him into the business. My sainted mother was saintly enough, but she jist didn’t influence my thinking any. Never had.
As fer Father, I’d been a scrawny twelve-year-old when I’d left. Now, less than a year later, I was still only thirteen, but I sure as Hell couldn’t be called scrawny no more. I’d had a vertical growth spurt, but more than that, I’d added what had to be twenty pounds of solid-rock muscle, not to mention honing what turned out to be a purty decent set of reflexes. I’d learned to ride a horse, shoot straight most of the time, and love a woman.
And I’d killed two men, one by a wild richochet bullet and one with my feet.
I’d not be contacting my family till I turned twenty-one, iffen I lived that long. You could never trust the law when it came to such things. I wasn’t about to let the law git involved in telling me how or where I lived my life.
Father, iffen he seen me now, and tried getting out the razor strap fer discipline like he used to…him, I could go through like sh*t through a tin horn.
But I didn’t know what to do.
One day I finally gave up and asked fer help.
“Believer, I got a question.”
He looked up from his writing. “Fire away.”
“What do you think I should do with my life?”
He put down his pen and stretched, getting out the kinks. As I understood it, at his age you had to deal with a lot of those.
“Tam,” he said, “You can do purty much whatever you want.”
I’d been swabbing out fhe bore of my .52 caliber Hall carbine, but that made me jist throw my hands up in sheer frustration. “That’s jist it!” I burst out, “I don’t know what I want to do!”
Laughing Brook hadn’t been invited to comment, but she put in her two cents worth anyway. “In your heart of hearts, my warrior, you most likely do know.”
Much as I loved her voice, loved everything about the girl, that hurt. What I really wanted was her. I knew that, she knew that, and dollar to a doughnut hole, Believer knew that as well. But I couldn’t have her, not in the way I wanted, and especially not after we hit Fort Benton in the spring. I’d be moving on then, leaving these two most important people in my life. They’d saved my life, brought me in under their roof.
But I was going to lose them. There wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
So I needed to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. It wasn’t easy.
Believer said, “Cattle and land.”
“It ain’t jist you that’s got to look to the future and figure things out, Tam. Things are changing. They’re always changing, iffen a man’s got the eyes to see it.”
I looked at him, frozen. Somehow, I didn’t think I was going to like what he had to say. “Changing?”
“Changing. Some folks say change is good, some say it’s bad. They’re both wrong. Change is neither good nor bad. Change jist is. And here’s what I see coming at us.”
He fished his pipe out of the hand-carved ashtray, knocked the dottle loose, and began refilling the bowl with fresh tobacco. “The day of the mountain man is nearly gone already. We had us a mighty short run. A good one, but mighty short. The last mountain man rendezvous was held seven years ago, in 1840, and I’d be some surprised to see another.”
“Them buffalo that cover the plains? They’ll disappear one day.”
Laughing Brook drew in her breath shaply at that, and I knew he’d not shared this insight with her, either, before this moment.
“What do you mean, they’ll disappear?” I asked fer me and the girl both. “There’s millions of ’em. How could they disappear?”
“Don’t know exactly,” the big man admitted, “But they will. Back in school, did you ever study about the passenger pigeon?”
“Yeah…their flocks used to darken the skies. They’re extinct now.”
“Well,” he went on, “The herds of buffalo darken the plains as we speak, but one day they’ll be extinct, too, or close enough to it as to make no nevermind. People are already flooding westward. There’s talk of railroads being built sooner or later. Settlers will build fences. The buffs will be shot fer meat, or their hides, or jist because they’re in the way of Aunt Sadie’s garden. Towns will block their migration.
“I don’t pretend to know the half of it,” he admitted, “But they’ll be gone.”
“Our people will starve.” His wife’s voice was quiet…and horrified.
“Yes, honey, that they will. The white man has brought some hard times to the red, and we still ain’t seen nothing yet.”
My petty concerns with my own pitiful career path seemed purty pathetic all of a sudden, but I still had to ask, “So…you said cattle and land?”
“I did.” He got his pipe going, drew in a great lungful of fragrant smoke, and exhaled with a contented sigh. “Tam, you’re a natural fer life in the wild country, but the wild is fast disappearing. That being the case, what’s the best way to git yourself the closest thing to it in a way that’s somewhat under your own personal control?”
“No clue, Believer. That’s why I’m listening to you.”
“As well you should. What I been beating around the bush trying to say is, the only critter on the continent who can guarantee his own ability to git up in the morning and step outside to take a leak without neighbors close enough to complain about it…is the cattle rancher. Me, I’m old enough I got hopes of being able to finish out my life right here, though even that is no sure thing. But were I you, at your age with your skills and your potential…I’d turn myself into a rancher.”
I thought about that. “Cows ain’t elk. I’d rather not go back to eating beef, had I the choice.”
“Wouldn’t have to. Git yourself a ranch in elk country, hunt your game, and save the cows fer selling.”
“A lot of places, Indians raid ranches day in, day out.”
“If there’s one thing you understand already, Tam, it’s Indian raids. And rustlers, too, fer that matter.”
“I don’t know a freaking thing about handling cows.”
“You didn’t know a freaking thing about killing cougars, neither, but you made a purty fair job of it jist the same.”
“It would take forever on a drover’s pay before a fellow could buy enough land to count.”
“Then, once we hit Fort Benton, you’d best git started right off. You’ll have a horse to go with your roan colt by then, or I miss my guess. You’ve already got a natural seat in the saddle and a mighty fine rifle. Tarnation, kid, yer halfway there. Although,” he turned thoughtful, “You might not want to mention being the famed white Blackfoot warrior, Crazy Rifle. Some cattlemen tend to be a mite narrow-minded about Indians.”
And that, partner, is how I decided to learn to punch cows. I asked an old mountain man who’d never followed a cow’s butt in his life what I should do with my life, and he told me. Only one problem. Here it is some twenty-one years later, and I’m still working fer the man. The country’s closing up faster and faster, filling up with folks, folks, and more folks. I know this was jist supposed to be one of my tales, but it kinda cuts a mite too close to the bone. Matter of fact, the very idea of doing this much longer is plumb depressing.
So I’m thinking this is it. One more Chisholm Trail drive, and I’m done. Pull my pay at trail’s end in Abilene, and I’m outa here.
This dust country is starting to wear on me something fierce.