The dozen blocks of firewood we’d set up as targets told the tale. Every one now sported a big hole in one side and a monster blast out the back. Three of the nine pieces of pine–yeah, it rhymes, don’t make me forget where I was–three of the nine blocks had split plumb in two like they’d been whacked with an axe.
“I don’t git it,” I admitted. “From Clausson’s position on the ridge to ours beside the lake wasn’t but half the distance we set up here. And he had the elevation right.”
Cougar thought fer a moment. “One of two things. Either he was lying about aiming fer you in the first place, or he flinched when he pulled the trigger. He weren’t that big a fellow, and he surely didn’t have no history as a buffalo hunter.”
“True enough. Well, it don’t make no nevermind at this point, I reckon. The Sharps is dropping them rounds inside a six-inch pattern at 500 yards from nothing but a fork rest. You can’t beat that. Ready to go round us up some winter meat?”
“Thought you’d never ask, Dawson. Thought you’d never ask.”
It was Tam who’d spotted the little band of bison with his telescope. They’d been grazing the backside of Prince Peak at the time, the south slopes where more grass than timber grew. He figured they’d likely still be in the area, maybe jist moved down a bit to the rolling meadows sheltered between two major ridges.
“There’s springs all over that valley.” he’d noted, “No reason fer ’em to move on this early in the season.”
Worth a try, we figured. None of us had tasted buffalo hump in a coon’s age, it was getting wintry enough the meat would keep, and Coug needed to git away from the home place fer a spell. His wounds were mostly healed, though Doc Chouteau had needed to go in a second time to rework a bit of something on the arm. Weird, that the least worrisome bullet hole of the three had turned out to be the most troublesome over time.
But it seemed to be coming along fine now. A little weak, still; he’d be letting me do the shooting unless there was need fer him to take a hand. That .45-70 Government of his weren’t no child’s toy.
Tam stayed behind, clearly not wanting to miss out but unable to go gallivanting off on a meat hunt when there was money to be made. “We got three new mines opened up jist this past month,” he told us when we asked if he’d like to take a little overnight ride, “and two of ’em got company camps sprouting right along with ’em. I’ve been in contact with their meat buyers, and I think we’ve got a deal, but iffen I don’t git their John Henries on the paperwork….”
We understood. Flywheel Ranch had gotten the jump on a lot of folks, Tam slicking business right out from under the noses of existing ranchers and incoming cattle barons alike. Quite frankly, none of them had thought of acting as their own middlemen until the tale teller came up with the concept. When you had an edge, though, you needed to remember one thing: Use it or lose it.
“Enjoy yourselves,” he said. “I’ll take care of your shares of the rhubarb pie while you’re gone.”
Marie had a plumb mischievous twinkle in her midnight blue eyes when she asked, “You boys sure you ain’t running away from home? That pack string looks big enough to trek from here to Montana nonstop.”
I grinned down at her and little Sadie. Our baby weren’t such a baby any more, already walking, sucking on her thumb while she studied the situation most seriously. “Back on the mountain in Montana, Tam tells me a single elk would purty much feed the three of ’em through the winter. With this mob, it’s gonna take at least two medium sized buffs. Five pack horses ain’t none too many fer that.”
“Aw, foo.” She grinned back, hugging me up something fierce while she done it. “And here I thought we might be getting rid of you fer a month or two!”
Penny didn’t come out of the house to see Cougar off, but the kids all did. “Bring me back a set of buffalo horns, Dad,” Henry said. He was nearly five now, come to think of it. “and make sure they’re big ones!”
“Me, too!” Reggie echoed his big brother’s demand. As always.
“Boys, boys,” their father admonished them, “Size don’t matter.”
“Yes it does!”
Laughing, we picked up the reins and headed out.
The herd was right where Tam had predicted, more or less. Seated in the tall grass, elbows propped on our knees, we glassed the valley. Cougar finished his tally first. “I git fifty-three, counting every calf and that solitary bull up by the far treeline.”
I’d been about to say fifty-two, but when I recounted, I seen he was right. “Fifty-three.”
“What’s your pick?”
“There’s some nice ones down at the far end of the valley, but the elevation drop has me kind of uncertain. Be awful easy to shoot high. How about straight across, them two in between the solitary and that clump of young ones?”
He looked over my choices, adjusting the focus a bit to git the sharpest picture possible. From his share of the profits after we’d sold the first ten head of spring calves and a couple of barren cows, he’d sprung fer a pair of the best binoculars the Mercantile could provide. They were in fact a fair match fer my own.
“Both cows, old enough to have enough some poundage on ’em, young enough not to break your teeth chewing. No calves with ’em. Go for it.”
It didn’t take long to jam the forked stick into the ground and adjust the Creedmore sight fer distance. After that, it was a matter of aim, fire, reload, aim, fire, and we had near a ton of meat on the ground.
When I looked over at Coug, he was white as a sheet. “You okay, brother?” I could hear the alarm in my own voice.
“It…” He took a deep, ragged breath, let it out slow-like. “Jist had me a vision. Tell you ’bout it when we’re done fer the day.”
We were done fer the day. The last rays of the setting sun were splashing across our campsite. At this time of year, that meant darkness would be coming fast, a matter of minutes.
Except fer the entrails, left where we’d gutted the buffalo a quarter mile across the valley, the carcasses were hung high off the ground, making use of a couple of stout tree limbs and tough rawhide rope. A mountain lion could manage, but we’d worry about that if it came down to it. You couldn’t have everything. We’d peed in the snow in a big circle all around there, so at least the lesser predators might think twice.
Or not. You never knew.
Our hammocks were slung between tall fir trees some sixty yards from the meat-hanging pines, the campsite location far enough from the tempting flesh to keep hungry critters from confusing dead meat with live cowboys. Secondarily, it was still in easy shooting range, and we’d timed this hunt fer the full moon. Even my rather ordinary night vision couild find the sights under one of those, especially with all that white snow on the ground lightening the area jist that much more.
The fire was more than cheerful, the combination of frying liver and heart strips enough to make our mouths water. I had a thing fer fried liver, always had, but Coug liked heart better.
“So,” I began the conversation, watching him turn the meat to brown the other side, “you said you had a vision.”
“Yep. Remember that article in the paper a while back, the one where Grant pocket-vetoed a bill that would have somewhat protected the remaining buffalo herds?”
“I do. Cattlemen or not, none of us at Flywheel liked it very much.”
“Well. The vision…the instant you touched off your first round, using that big .50 buffalo gun, firing through that forked rest like them hide hunters do…that’s when it hit.” My partner turned to face me, his features grim and his eyes haunted. “I seen it. I seen…I dunno…hundreds of shooters. Maybe thousands. All firing at once, and buffalo as far as the eye could see, getting mowed down like wheat in a hailstorm.”
“Believer used to tell us–he told Tam, he told Laughing Brook, and when I got big enough, he told me. Over and over again; he didn’t want us to forget it. Or maybe it haunted him, and he had no choice but to let it out. He knew this was coming.”
“Dawson, the white man is murdering ’em all. When this is done, the Indian nations will either starve or collapse enough to jist give up and git herded onto the Reservations like the Ute–and plenty others–already done. My mother’s people, the Cheyenne, they will suffer. More than they’ve already suffered, which is saying something. But not jist them. All of ’em. Blackfeet, Lakota, the last of the Comanche…alll of ’em will be done for. Many of ’em will die. Many who seem still alive will die inside.” He shook his head slowly. “It ain’t right, White Bear. It’s the way of the world, I guess, but it ain’t right.”
Neither of us said another word fer a time. Quite a spell of time, in fact. We ate well no matter the vision; men who live as we live ain’t easy to throw off their feed. But we didn’t joke around none. Not until the coffee was hot and we’d rolled our evening smokes did I find my voice.
“That box canyon. Not the one at Catamount Cut; the one on our land, jist over the next ridge from the knoll.”
“What about it?”
“Good grass,” I reminded him, “Sheltered from the wind. The creek running through it kept going all this last summer, never dried up.”
“How many buffs would you say that little place could run? Year-round.”
“Buffs? White Bear, you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yep. Believe so.” I got up, fetched a couple more sticks of firewood and added ’em to the blaze. The Hell with our night vision; this was our land and the moon was up. It was almost like daylight, anyway. “If your vision is true–and we know damn well it is–it’s possible the buffalo could be wiped out completely in twenty years, maybe less. Could even go extinct. Lord knows there’s enough redskin-hating politicians and Army men, enough buff-hating railroaders and ranchers and whatnot to make that happen.”
Cougar Tamson’s eyes didn’t look haunted now; they looked calculating, picturing and figuring. After a bit he gave his opinion. “Eighty adults at most, allowing fer a dry year, especially if you figure nursing calves into that. Close?”
“I’d have said a bit more,” I admitted, “but better to guess on the short side.”
“We’d have to fence the entrance. No idea what it’d take to make a fence that’d hold a herd of wild buffalo determined to git out, but it’d dang sure have to be tall, strong, and anchored to bedrock.”
“Yep. Plus, we’d have to patrol the place constantly. That box is about as smack dead center on our property as you can git, but it’d only take one poacher or starving Indian or even a government man, iffen they’ve decided the only good buff is a dead buff.”
“A seed herd, a herd fer the future, and to Hell with Uncle Sam. I like it, Dawson. I plumb like it. What was that Dad said a while back? About not having done nothing reckless fer a while, and maybe he was overdue? Plus,” he said, “I been worried about Penny, and this will likely lighten her right up.”
“Yep. She been reading that Bible of hers double-fierce ever since I went down hard in Walsenburg. Seems to feel we’re not living Godly enough, that I maybe soaked up a bit of lead fer being more of a destroyer than a doer.”
“Huh. And you figure this’ll bring her around?”
“I do. She been pounding them Scriptures into us so hard, I done went and memorized a batch of ’em whether I wanted to or not.” My friend laughed aloud, a music to lift the heart. “And I know exactly which ones to use on her to git her all excited about this little buff-saving project.
“There’s one in Genesis about Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. I can make her certain sure that one means replenish the earth with buffalo, not jist people. Stir that in with a few remarks about good stewardship, remind her that her husband and her kids come from a people that have long depended on the buffalo fer sustenance, and–what’re you laughing at, cowboy?”
“You!” I spluttered helplessly. “You been hiding your light under a rock ever since you hooked up with us in Waco, but danged if you ain’t your father’s son. If you got somebody you can’t or won’t outshoot–you know, like that redheaded wife of yours–you’ll jist talk ’em down!”
He give me a sheepish grin. We sat there in the cold and the quiet, enjoying the fire and our second pot of coffee, listening to the night.
I’ll not tell you all the trade secrets we had to invent to persuade twenty-one wild buffalo cows, twelve hefty spring calves, and three bulls across four major mountain ridges, through two passes, down one brushy draw, and through a sixty-foot opening into the Box…but it weren’t no picnic; I’ll say that much. We lost two good horses, one of ’em gored by a buff and one in a fall that broke her up so bad she had to be shot.
On the human side, the only serious injury was Jack Prosser’s busted leg, which meant asking Doc Chouteau to drop on out to see iffen we’d set it right and to make sure there wouldn’t be no infection. We bribed him into making the house call with the chance to see Laughing Brook–on whom I’d realized he had a serious crush, no matter how prim and proper his manner. Either that, or it was her cooking he favored.
He said he couldn’t have done the setting better himself, which fer some reason made Laughing Brook blush like I didn’t know a fullblood Cheyenne woman could blush. She’d been treating hurt men fer most of her life; you’d think she could take a compliment by now.
Thirty-six of the fifty-one critters we’d tried for. Enough to grow some more. We were plumb wore out but also inordinately proud of ourselves, especially Penny. The redhead had insisted on riding in our buffalo roundup despite the obvious extreme danger. Marie and Laughing Brook had been quite content to handle the babysitting, keep the home fires going.
The Indians had of course been herding buffalo since time immemorial, but that was mostly on the open plains, pushing ’em over a buffalo jump. There was no way to prove it, but we figured Flywheel Ranch had jist come up with the first set of Mountain Buffalo Drovers in the entire world.
“Okay,” Dawson said, grinning like a fool, “now we got the easy part done, where we gonna come up with Box Watchers?”
“Pass them spuds over here,” I told him, “and I’ll tell you. Been thinking about that, and I believe I know jist where to find a few Watch Boys that’ll do a fine job on long term sentry duty. Bet I can git ’em to work fer cheap, too.”
Nobody quit eating, but every eye was turned toward me, waiting. Expectant.
“On the Rez,” I pointed out, ladling a second helping of buffalo stew into my bowl to go with the potatoes, “there jist happen to be a few Ute boys–three of ’em–who made the serious mistake of offending the mighty Medicine Bull last summer. I strongly suspect Chief Squirrel Talker will be more’n happy to have them young bucks out of his hair fer a time. Wouldn’t take us more’n a day or two to put up a little line cabin fer ’em, maybe one more to cut and stack a rick of firewood.”
They all thought about that. Dawson come up with the first question. “You’d trust them three little wannabe warriors out there alone with all them interesting critters cooped up where they make perfect targets?”
“Trust? Who said anything about trust? No, I figure it this way. Put two on duty in the cabin, bring the third one in to sleep in the bunkhouse with Jack.”
“Oh, thanks, boss,” Prosser said drily, wincing as he adjusted his busted leg under the table.
“Hey, Jack, mades sense. You need an Indian boy to keep the fire going through the night, make sure you don’t hurt yourself or nothing while you’re healing.”
“Plus, the one that’s here at the ranch will be learning English and white man ways despite himself. Can’t hurt when he goes back to the Rez. We rotate ’em out every day–”
“Cost us a couple hours fer one man every day?” Coug asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Not necessarily. The women wouldn’t mind that ride.”
“I know I wouldn’t.” Marie’s eyes lit up. She had been getting the short end of the stick, come to think of it, stuck inside more often than anybody else.
“Them boys won’t cotton to a woman being in charge.”
“Exactly. Time they learned. Every now and then, Marie can show off her lightning draw, maybe hipshoot a squirrel or a cottontail, jist to git the point across. The point is, we’ll keep them little buggers utterly convinced that iffen they mess up even a tiny bit, their friend we’ve got hold of will suffer considerably.”
Laughing Brook smiled at me from the end of the table, approval written all over her face. “My warrior,” she began, finishing with a compliment that left me blushing, “Believer himself could not have schemed it out better.”